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1.1: What is linguistics?

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    111808
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    1.1.1: What is a language? from Sarah Harmon

     

    Video Script

    So, what exactly is a language, and that is what we're going to work on with this section of the text, well, you can see here in the Oxford English dictionary. Their definition of a language is a pretty straightforward concept: A system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country people community, etc., typically, consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure. Then you notice that it also includes information about animal communication, facial expression and body language, as well as computer language. It has a number of definitions. Even if we go to what is considered the American dictionary, the Merriam Webster, again their standard first definition is pretty similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, that it's the words, the pronunciation and the methods of combining them, used and understood by a community. Pretty interesting, but it also includes other information about other vocal emissions, shall we say, methods of communication, involving gestures and body language. It also includes animal communication; it includes computer language, and includes a number of things. But neither of these definitions quite tracts on to what a linguist considers a language to be.

     

    For a linguist a language is a human form of communication, which includes the phonetics, the phonology, the morphology, the syntax, the semantics, and the discourse context, as presented by a given speech community. It is a living form of communication, which changes across speech communities and over time. That is our definition of a language. It may not be your first definition of a language, and perhaps your first definition of a language is going to include a lot of other things, but as we go through this chapter, as well as the course as a whole, you will start to understand what a linguist views as a language. And remember, our job as linguists, as social scientists, is to observe to describe and to analyze.

     

    From 1.2 Mental Grammar of Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics

     

    Video Script

    We know now that Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It’s also important to know that linguistics is one member of the broad field that is known as cognitive science.

    The cognitive sciences are interested in what goes in the mind. And in linguistics, we’re specifically interested in how our language knowledge is represented and organized in the human mind.

    Think about this: you and I both speak English. I’m speaking English right here on this video and you’re listening and understanding me. Right now I’ve got some idea in my mind that I want to express. I’m squeezing the air out of my lungs; I’m vibrating my vocal folds, and I’m manipulating parts of my mouth to produce sounds. Those sounds are captured by a microphone and now they’re playing on your computer. In response to the sound coming from your computer speaker or your headphones, your eardrums are vibrating and sending signals to your brain, with the result that the idea in your mind is something similar to the idea that was in my head when I made this video.

    There must be something that your mind and my mind have in common to allow that to happen: some shared system that allows us to understand each other’s ideas when we speak. In linguistics, we call that system the mental grammar and our primary goal is to find out what that shared system is like.

    All speakers of all languages have a mental grammar: the shared system that lets speakers of a language understand each other. In Essentials of Linguistics we devote most of our attention to the mental grammar of English, but we’ll also use our scientific tools and techniques to examine some parts of the grammars of other languages.

    We’ll start by looking at sound systems: how speakers make particular sounds and how listeners hear these sounds. If you’ve ever tried to learn a second language you know that the sounds in the second language are not always the same as in your first language. Linguists call the study of speech sounds phonetics.

    Then we’ll look at how the mental grammar of each language organizes sounds in the mind; this is called phonology.

    We will examine the strategies that languages use to form meaningful words; this is called morphology.

    Then we take a close look at the different ways that languages combine words to form phrases and sentences. The term for that is syntax.

    We also look at how the meanings of words and sentences are organized in the mind, which linguists call semantics.

    These five things are the core pieces of the mental grammar of any language: they’re the things all speakers know about a language. All languages have phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics in their grammars.

    These five areas are also the core subfields of theoretical linguistics. Just as there are other kinds of language knowledge we have, there are other branches of the field of linguistics, and we’ll take a peek at some of those other branches along the way.

    Check Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Newspaper headlines occasionally have unexpectedly funny interpretations. One example is: Two cars were reported stolen by the police yesterday. Which part of your mental grammar leads to the possibility that the police could have done the stealing or the reporting in this headline?

    • Phonetics.
    • Phonology.
    • Morphology.
    • Syntax.
    • Semantics.
    Answer

    "Syntax

    The reason: There are multiple interpretations because of the prepositional phrase 'by the police'--it could describe a couple of different elements. That leads it to be a structurally ambiguity--therefore, it's syntax-related.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Newfoundland English has some characteristic differences to standard Canadian English. The following sentences are grammatical in Newfoundland English: I eats toast for breakfast every day. You knows the answer to that question. What part of the mental grammar of Newfoundland English is different to Canadian English in these examples?

    • Phonetics.
    • Phonology.
    • Morphology.
    • Syntax.
    • Semantics.
    Answer

    "Morphology"

    The reason: The difference is the -s that is attached to the verb. That is a suffix, and so this is a morphologically-related issue.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Speakers of American English often notice that Canadians' pronunciation of the words about and house has a vowel produced higher in the mouth than the American English versions of these words.

    What part of the mental grammar of American English is different to Canadian English in these examples?

    • Phonetics.
    • Phonology.
    • Morphology.
    • Syntax.
    • Semantics.
    Answer

    "Phonetics"

    The reason: Those different sounds refer to different vowels in the phonemic inventory of the two dialects--in other words, there is a different inventory of sounds. That's a phonetic-based issue.


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