Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.1: Linguistics as a social science

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Video Script

    Okay, so what is linguistics what is a social science up to this point you have read and or watched Catherine Anderson's explanation. And she says that linguistics is a science and I think that's a great place to start, but it is important to note that linguistics is really a social science. Now for some of you, this might be your very first social science course so let's talk about what makes social sciences and specifically linguistics different from let's say chemistry, physics, biology, those sciences.

    Now for some of you, this might be your very first social science course so let's talk about what makes social sciences and specifically linguistics different from let's say chemistry, physics, biology, those sciences. So, what is a social science well to start off let's look at what a standard definition for a social science is and I’m going to go and use the Wikipedia definition. It's a fairly straightforward definition; in most every dictionary you'll see something very similar: Social science is a branch of science devoted to the study of societies and the relationships among individuals within those societies.

    There are a number of disciplines that fall under social science; linguistics is one, anthropology, sociology, some of psychology certainly falls under social science. History frequently is put into social sciences, as well as economics part of geography, certainly cultural geography. Definitely when we talk about rhetoric and communication, it frequently falls under social science. Philosophy can be considered a social science at times; it's also a humanity. Same thing with history, but they kind of border. Linguistics is solidly in the social science category because we devote our studies to aspects of the human condition, right?

    Well let's take that and kind of understand it a little bit more, because there's something that makes social science a little unique compared to the physical and biological sciences. Social sciences use scientific approaches to observe and catalog human behavior. I think that's a better, more tangible definition for a social science.

    So, what does it mean to have a social science mindset, and that means, what does it take to be a social scientist? Any flavor, it doesn't matter. Well, the first thing you have to do is think about descriptivism. Descriptivism is that you describe what you observe; you observe something, and you describe it objectively. You do not want to import any biases that you may have or that your discipline may have with respect to that observation or analysis; you really want to keep it straightforward. You want to think critically about what you are analyzing, and you want to use those tools that we have to analyze the aspects of humanity that interests you. It doesn't matter if we're talking language, or societies and how they form, or the history of these groups or how they work their fun, financial or monetary areas. What is really important, though, is that this critical analysis is not just linear. It is creative; you think outside the box. Of course, you have to know what is inside the box first before you can think outside the box and that's what it means to approach things with a scientific mindset in general, but especially with respect to human or social settings.

    The last thing that's really important, and I would say is the main thing that separates social sciences from the behavioral as well as the physical and biological sciences, is that in the social sciences, we use inductive reasoning. This means that we use the data to analyze the behavior or phenomena we look at a to analyze be and then we look at be to analyze see. This is the opposite of the physical biological and behavioral sciences, they tend to use deductive reasoning, they go from the general to the specific we tend to go, specific and then pull out to the general. Now that doesn't make one approach better or worse than the other, it just is a difference.

    So, now that we know what a social science is let's think about what is linguistics. If you look it up in a dictionary or anywhere, you'll basically get a definition that says, linguistics is the scientific study of language. Certainly, that is true, but what does that mean? To unpack it a little bit I would argue, and I would think most of my fellow linguists would also agree, that really what we're trying to say is that linguistics is the analysis of language and all of its components. And when we say that we're not just talking about the words or even the sounds or even meaning. We're looking at how they all combined together, because we do not use just a single lexicon by itself a single word by itself; we use it in combination with something else a larger phrase within a larger context. That means that we are analyzing how human beings use the tool of language, as well as the actual language itself. It's like if you were describing how a carpenter uses a hammer. You don't just describe the hammer you describe how the carpenter uses it as well.

    So if that's what linguistics is what isn't linguistics and what frequently gets conflated with linguistics and it's important to note that these are things these concepts that I’m bringing up or studies. They have tangible routes to linguistics, but they are not exclusively linguistics. The first one that people often conflate with linguistics is etymology or the history or derivation of a given term or lexicon or word. We're going to use this terminology interchangeably later down the road. As linguists, we do not solely study the history of a word and how it got formed in a language. It certainly uses some of what we use in linguistics, and when we get to morphology in particular will really kind of unpack that. And even for somebody like myself, I am an historical linguist. I am going to look at the etymology of a word, but that's not all that I’m doing. I’m looking at the context; I’m looking at how it changes or doesn't change over time. Etymology is just a very small sliver of what some people might do, but not all. The other thing is linguistics is not a study of dictionaries or study of grammar, although certainly the folks who work on dictionaries and grammars are frequently linguists. But that is only a small part of what they are doing. Dictionaries and grammars are a type of catalog as to what a language does. But not entirely; it's a fixed document as it were, it's not a living language, which is what linguistics is all about.

    As we go through any social science course, but especially in linguistics course, there are certain things that all students must keep in mind. They must actively do these throughout the course in order to succeed. In this case, success is not just getting an A; success is understanding the material and applying it to a future use. The most crucial thing I would argue, is that you have to keep an open mind. That's a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit, but in the social sciences, it is imperative to do that, you must be objective. You must be descriptive, and that means you have to keep an open mind. You must observe what it is that you see and think about all of the possibilities that could be connected with that not just one or two possibilities. The last piece is to see patterns, that is what we human beings do very well, we see patterns, we find patterns and behaviors in colors in anything and then that is how we remember them. Well, language is no different; language has patterns and it's really important to find the pattern whenever you're analyzing language.

    Finally, let's talk about some of the resources that we're going to use now to start off, probably the primary and most important resource here. The textbook that we're going to be using is Essentials of Linguistics by Catherine Anderson. It originally was published through eCampus Ontario on Pressbooks, but it has also been imported into LibreTexts. It is an open educational resource, meaning that it is free to use, and it is online, that means anyone can use it, and anyone can view it. You don't have to pay anything for it; don't worry, Catherine Anderson most probably got some compensation for her work, that could have come via sabbatical or grant, or it could have come through a number of arenas. Catherine Anderson is a linguist and a professor at McMaster University, which is in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Her main specialties are language acquisition: Child language acquisition, but even second language acquisition. She also has a keen interest in how bilingualism comes into play. She does a number of courses at McMaster University and then developed this OER, open educational resource, as a way to have a proper textbook based off of her lectures. Her work is absolutely outstanding and I would not use it if I didn't think it was up to par.

    But there are supporting traditional textbooks that I have used over the years that others have used over the years and I can't say that any of my lectures would be complete without mentioning that these textbooks have been used at some point in my career. The main one is introduction to language by Robert Rodman, Victoria Fromkin and Nina Hyams; it is the gold standard with respect to textbooks. It is also very expensive, just like gold is, which is why I don't use it so much. Language Files is something I do use. Language Files is a collection of some lecture material, but most importantly exercises and in fact the exercises that we're going to use in this class for homework do come from Language Files. You do not need to purchase it. Language Files is produced by the Linguistics Department at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. And then, of course, the other one that is frequently used the other textbook is How Languages Work: An Introduction to Language and Linguistics and it is an edited volume by Carol Genetti. A very good collection and, in some cases when I needed to get a better definition for something I would use one of these three textbooks.

    That being said, we are not using those textbooks. The information that is in those textbooks, as far as the general information, is something that is widely used but also general knowledge. I find in a lot of cases Catherine Anderson's explanations are superior; they are broken down in a way that I think are more tangible. The other reason that I want to bring these traditional textbooks up is because, if you take a linguistics course elsewhere, you might run across those and certainly in my previous courses, I used book two, if not all three of those. Throughout each chapter or module, you will see that there are a number of resources that I’m going to pull from. Some of these are resources that I have used and some of them are common across well all of these textbooks. It's important to use those resources to show you them in case you have any lingering questions or you want to find out more information about the topic, then I will have those resources available for you.

    With that this is your introduction to the introduction, you are now ready to go forward and really start studying linguistics.

    1.1: Linguistics as a social science is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.