Theory, Model, Method

Why study Linguistics

The study of linguistics implies scientific answers to questions like “What do all human languages have in common?” or “What is a natural language?”. These questions are the main focus of linguists, whose concern therefore is to examine the different facets of language – in contrast to the system of communication in different areas and used by different beings.

Linguistics is not simply the study of a language or of a set of languages. It is the science of human language (See What is human language), where the notion of a science is necessarily connected to the standards of a science (See Scientific standards) including systematicity, data coverage, objectivity, etc. The modern linguistic view toward a human language is that a human language is regulated by very abstract and general principles of a universal status, which can be accounted for in a general theory of language (See Linguistic Theories and Models) (or sometimes of grammar). A particular language is expected to be described by explicit and precise rules according to the specific linguistic instances (data) of that language and in accordance with the general theory of language. This set of particular and precise rules are called descriptive grammar. It describes the language as it is used and thus defines what a grammatical (or more generally: well-formed) linguistic form is. It does not prescribe the “correct” use of words – implying that “grammatical” is connected with the (socially or situationally, sometimes even historically) appropriate use of a given linguistic form. Such prescriptive or normative ideas can of course be part of the application of linguistics.

Studying language from a scientific point of view also means implementing academic standards and constructing theories with the help of scientific methods (observation, description and explanation of data). Attempts to create a prescriptive set of norms and rules for proper language use in accordance with these standards have never been achieved, because language is changing constantly – in pronunciation, vocabulary, even grammar and social norms of verbal use.

Nevertheless, the study of linguistics covers a wide variety of different and often competitive perspectives on language and its study. Leaving aside these differences, any theory of language should define “human language” as the scientific answer to “What is a language” including “What does a speaker of a given language “know” about his/her language?” This knowledge is considered unconscious and represented in a language system. A linguistic theory tries to make explicit this kind of knowledge (know what) by describing it by precise rules and systematic principles. And it is such a set of linguistic universal and systematic principles that constitute the “human language”. One well-known example is the universal principle of structure –dependency, which shows that all languages are hierarchically organised in so-called constituents. Linear order as a kind of verbal chains does not suffice to explain certain linguistic phenomena. Thus, linguists argue that all grammatical operations are structure-dependent (meaning hierarchical constituent structure). Differences between languages result from gradual refinements of the inner structure of a language: from so-called flat structures (mostly languages with free word order) to highly configurational structures (English). But even in languages with flat structures (and free word order) the re-ordering of grammatical elements is necessarily dependent on the constituent structures inside a sentence, for example.

Although there are many languages in the world, they all behave according to principles like this. Obviously, some languages make distinctions — in sounds, in words, in grammar — that others don't. And people learning a second language often have trouble making the distinctions that aren't part of their first language. Speakers of a particular language naturally (and often unconsciously) notice, what is "missing" in other languages and what kinds of mistakes second-language learners make in trying to speak their language. And what is more significant: They “know” that the other languages are human languages although there seems to be missing something: They are able to realize what a human language is and which sounds or sound combinations do not belong to a human or natural language. This knowledge of what a human language is is general, unconscious and implicit and it extends to the insight in which respects all human languages resemble each other. Linguists have to work out this “knowledge” and formulate it as a theory of language (of what counts as a human language) in order to account for this recognition phenomenon.

Because human languages are the same in their core, people may learn and thus know many human languages (individual multilingualism). The set of languages in the world are – besides all their complexity - just variations on a single theme, i.e. they exhibit a set of universal principles. The on-going debate between linguists and psycholinguists refers to the question of whether such principles are innate, that is genetic material of a linguistic predisposition (language faculty or language acquisition device), and if this is correct, which mental form such principles might have. This illustrates the nearness of linguistics to psychology.

Exercises on Why Study Linguistics