The study of the structures of language is called descriptive linguistics. Descriptive linguists discover and describe the phonemes of a language, research called phonology. They study the lexicon (the vocabulary) of a language and how the morphemes are used to create new words, or morphology. They analyze the rules by which speakers create phrases and sentences, or the study of syntax. And they look at how these features all combine to convey meaning in certain social contexts, fields of study called semantics and pragmatics.
The Sounds of Language: Phonemes
A phoneme is defined as the minimal unit of sound that can make a difference in meaning if substituted for another sound in a word that is otherwise identical. The phoneme itself does not carry meaning. For example, in English if the sound we associate with the letter “p” is substituted for the sound of the letter “b” in the word bit, the word’s meaning is changed because now it is pit, a different word with an entirely different meaning. The human articulatory anatomy is capable of producing many hundreds of sounds, but no language has more than about 100 phonemes. English has about 36 or 37 phonemes, including about eleven vowels, depending on dialect. Hawaiian has only five vowels and about eight consonants. No two languages have the same exact set of phonemes.
Linguists use a written system called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the sounds of a language. Unlike the letters of our alphabet that spell English words, each IPA symbol always represents only one sound no matter the language. For example, the letter “a” in English can represent the different vowel sounds in such words as cat, make, papa, law, etc., but the IPA symbol /a/ always and only represents the vowel sound of papa or pop.
The Units That Carry Meaning: Morphemes
A morpheme is a minimal unit of meaning in a language; a morpheme cannot be broken down into any smaller units that still relate to the original meaning. It may be a word that can stand alone, called an unbound morpheme (dog, happy, go, educate). Or it could be any part of a word that carries meaning that cannot stand alone but must be attached to another morpheme, bound morphemes. They may be placed at the beginning of the root word, such as un- (“not,” as in unhappy), or re- (“again,” as in rearrange). Or, they may follow the root, as in -ly (makes an adjective into an adverb: quickly from quick), -s (for plural, possessive, or a verb ending) in English. Some languages, like Chinese, have very few if any bound morphemes. Others, like Swahili have so many that nouns and verbs cannot stand alone as separate words; they must have one or more other bound morphemes attached to them.
The Structure of Phrases and Sentences: Syntax
Rules of syntax tell the speaker how to put morphemes together grammatically and meaningfully. There are two main types of syntactic rules: rules that govern word order, and rules that direct the use of certain morphemes that perform a grammatical function. For example, the order of words in the English sentence “The cat chased the dog” cannot be changed around or its meaning would change: “The dog chased the cat” (something entirely different) or “Dog cat the chased the” (something meaningless). English relies on word order much more than many other languages do because it has so few morphemes that can do the same type of work.
For example, in our sentence above, the phrase “the cat” must go first in the sentence, because that is how English indicates the subject of the sentence, the one that does the action of the verb. The phrase “the dog” must go after the verb, indicating that it is the dog that received the action of the verb, or is its object. Other syntactic rules tell us that we must put “the” before its noun, and “–ed” at the end of the verb to indicate past tense. In Russian, the same sentence has fewer restrictions on word order because it has bound morphemes that are attached to the nouns to indicate which one is the subject and which is the object of the verb. So the sentence koshka [chased] sobaku, which means “the cat chased the dog,” has the same meaning no matter how we order the words, because the –a on the end of koshka means the cat is the subject, and the –u on the end of sobaku means the dog is the object. If we switched the endings and said koshku [chased] sobaka, now it means the dog did the chasing, even though we haven’t changed the order of the words. Notice, too, that Russian does not have a word for “the.”
Conveying Meaning in Language: Semantics and Pragmatics
The whole purpose of language is to communicate meaning about the world around us so the study of meaning is of great interest to linguists and anthropologists alike. The field of semantics focuses on the study of the meanings of words and other morphemes as well as how the meanings of phrases and sentences derive from them. Recently linguists have been enjoying examining the multitude of meanings and uses of the word “like” among American youth, made famous through the film Valley Girl in 1983. Although it started as a feature of California English, it has spread all across the country, and even to many young second-language speakers of English. It’s, like, totally awesome dude!
The study of pragmatics looks at the social and cultural aspects of meaning and how the context of an interaction affects it. One aspect of pragmatics is the speech act. Any time we speak we are performing an act, but what we are actually trying to accomplish with that utterance may not be interpretable through the dictionary meanings of the words themselves. For example, if you are at the dinner table and say, “Can you pass the salt?” you are probably not asking if the other person is capable of giving you the salt. Often the more polite an utterance, the less direct it will be syntactically. For example, rather than using the imperative syntactic form and saying “Give me a cup of coffee,” it is considered more polite to use the question form and say “Would you please give me a cup of coffee?”