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1.2: Linguistic definitions

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    1.2.1 Linguistic Definitions, by Sarah Harmon


    Video Script

    Let's talk about linguistic definitions, certain definitions that we use in linguistics which may be new to you or just a little bit different than what you knew before. You already read in Catherine Anderson's text certain definitions that I’m not going to go through too much; she covered already the exact definitions of morphology, syntax, semantics, phonetics, and phonology, and certainly she went into a little bit more about the other areas of linguistics. That is something I’m not going to cover too much here. What I would like to cover more is certain basic terms that we use in linguistics and perhaps they're very different than what you knew prior to this course.

    To start with, let's talk about the word ‘word’. We actually don't use that term very much in linguistics; we use lexicon or we use term or terminology, but we certainly do not use the term ‘word’. The reason is because it doesn't actually describe what happens in a given language. For example, we will see in morphology, and then again in semantics, a lot of talk about arbitrariness, how you can say a term like 're(a)d' and depending on the context that could be a verb in the past tense, like 'I read the book', or it can mean a noun or an adjective that's a color. Either way, you don't know, that so that's why the term ‘word’ is a little confusing.

    It's also confusing because in many languages throughout both North and South America, and may Australian languages, and in a number of languages around the world, a ‘word’ technically has so many different components to it. It could be a full verb phrase, and it could be a full sentence even, but because it is a whole concept unit as a ‘word’. That term doesn't exactly do it for us; we need something a little more specific. When we get back to morphology we'll come back to that term.

    The other really important definition has to do with the concept of the language versus a dialect. These are two totally different things, and they are not at all similar to what the colloquial or every day definition is. A language in linguistics does not refer to anything that has to do with a political boundary; it has to do with a concept called mutual intelligibility, meaning Language A and Language B maybe related, but speakers of Language A cannot easily understand speakers of Language B. A great example is Spanish, Italian and French; these are all Romance languages. They are very similar in so many ways, but they certainly have differences in sound and they definitely have differences in how they construct aspects of their lexicon and in their phrases.

    The other one, the one that probably frustrates most linguists, the most is when a political entity, like a government, decides that one of the languages spoken in its country is the language of the country and then calls it that. For example, in China, they only talk about the ‘Chinese language’, which is highly inaccurate. There is no one Chinese language; there are 200 or so Chinese languages. The standard language of the government happens to be Mandarin, but if you speak Cantonese, Hunanese, Shanghainese and so many of the others, you cannot understand Mandarin alone. You need instruction in it. Therefore, there is no ‘Chinese language’ For those students who say, “Oh, I speak Chinese,” I will be correcting you every time; you speak Mandarin, you do not speak Cantonese or anything else necessarily. Also, if you go to like eastern Africa, specifically Kenya, there's Kikuyu, there's Swahili, there's a number of other languages. Those are all languages; they are related, but they're different languages.

    Dialects, however, are mutually intelligible. A great example is, if you take somebody from California and you have them go to London, or Ontario, Canada, or go to Sydney, Australia, or Johannesburg, South Africa, or Christchurch, New Zealand. That same Californian is going to be able to understand English at all of those places. Now it may be difficult at times and there might be terms used that are not familiar, maybe pronunciations that are not familiar. But those are all different dialects of English in those regions and that's what we call mutual intelligibility.

    For example, Norwegian and Swedish are technically to dialects of the same language. Even though we might now still even in linguistics call it Norwegian or Swedish, what we're really saying is: that dialect of that Northern Germanic language. There are times this gets a little hairy so, for example in the Balkans, technically speaking Serbian and Croatian are the same language; they're just two different dialects spoken by two different ethnic groups. Certainly, given the history of those two ethnic groups, along with the others in the Balkan Peninsula, it gets a little dicey sometimes for these folks to be to hear that they speak the same language. It should be noted that particularly with those two dialects, they are closer or more distant depending on the relations between those two ethnic groups; when relations are good and they're intermingling, there's a lot more similarity between those two dialects. If there's much more tension, like there has been for the last couple generations, then there are more differences between those two. To this point right now, they are still dialects of the same language.

    It is really important to recognize that sometimes a person's history or geopolitics might play a factor in what they consider a different language or different dialect. But linguistically, from a social science perspective, what we observe and what we take note of and catalog is that languages are not mutually intelligible, versus dialects are.

    A couple other definitions to talk about, and one has to do with grammar. What is grammar? In truth, there are three different types of grammar that we can talk about. We can talk about descriptive grammar, which is what we use in linguistics. Again, we describe what people do with a given language or dialect. We do not associate any values with it, meaning, we do not say that Language A or Dialect A is better than B; we don't do that. That is something that you do in prescriptive grammar and when I think prescriptive grammar I always think of that English teacher or language arts teacher who always told you, “You can't say this; you must say that.” Prescriptive grammar is how one should talk in a given situation, especially pushing you towards a standard and even a prestige dialect or language. Therefore, it is a prescribed value to a given dialect. Again, that is not what we do in linguistics, so my challenge to you through this course is when I asked you to talk about what you hear and what you see, is to be descriptive, to just observe and analyze and not say that one is better than another, or that you should do something, or should not do something.

    Now, this is a little different than what we do when we teach a language. When we teach a language, we use what is called a teaching grammar. Think of any foreign language class that you may have been in. That's really a combination of a descriptive grammar and a prescriptive grammar. When we teach you a language, we want you to produce good, solid dialogue or sentences, etc, and there are certain norms that must be followed at all times. But we also describe what frequently happens, and especially in a case like an English class, a Spanish class, a French class, an Arabic class, where you have multiple dialects. Even in the case of Arabic, with multiple forms and multiple languages. When we teach you a language, we also teach you a little bit about the culture and we talk about the differences between Dialect A, Dialect B and so on and so forth.

    This is the basis of a few definitions, as we go through the rest of the course, we're going to expand on what is a grammar. We're going to expand on that ‘word’ versus ‘lexicon’ element. And we're going to expand on what is a language versus a dialect and all about mutual intelligibility.


    1.2: Linguistic definitions is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.