Snackable linguistics: Let's start with some basics

This is the beginning of a larger journey in which we learn what linguistics actually deals with. We start with the basics and then delve a little deeper into individual (sub-)areas or work in an interdisciplinary way. You are welcome to help decide where our individual stops can be.

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Since I've been doing a bit of content on the blog at alugha, I've also been writing about topics from linguistics from time to time and trying to look beyond the individual languages. But what is linguistics actually?

Language as an area of research in linguistics

When linguistics speaks of language, it is understood to refer exclusively to human language. Programming languages and communication between animals are excluded. Wilhelm von Humboldt already characterised human linguistic ability as a special uniqueness. But what makes human language so unique? There are several components to it: 

  • Behind human language there is a conscious intention to communicate.

  • With the help of human language, it is also possible to talk about temporal things that are not taking place in the here and now. 

  • Human language can be used creatively. Unique sentences can be formed, or it is possible to create new words.

  • Human language can be used meta-linguistically, which means that it is possible to talk about language with the help of language.

Concrete access to the phenomenon of language, however, only comes in the form of concrete utterances in individual languages. 

We all have an unconscious knowledge of language. The acquisition of our mother tongue took place unconsciously and intuitively and seemingly effortlessly in childhood. Later, when we learned a foreign language, we had much more trouble. Through our mother tongue, we also intuitively know which utterances are well-formed or grammatical and which are not. Here is an example:

  • Ich esse einen Apfel ('I eat an apple') is a grammatical German sentence. *Esse einen Apfel ich, on the other hand, is not. Ungrammatical sentences are marked with *. 

A major task of linguistics is thus to make implicit knowledge about language explicit. 

The phenomenon of language itself can be studied in many different ways. There are numerous theories about it and even more perspectives from which to look at it. To present each of these theories and further developments of them in detail would go beyond the scope of an article, but also of the whole series. If you want to know more about individual approaches, feel free to comment and I can pick out something and we can go deeper into the matter. 


One of the best-known theories on language, linguistic structuralism, goes back to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). According to this theory, language consists of a repertoire of meaning-bearing units (mental lexicon) and a set of rules (mental grammar). All this is implicit. When language is used to communicate, it refers to things that are not always available to the speaker and listener. Language is thus a sign that does not stand for itself, but refers to something. 

To illustrate: The painter René Margritte is considered the philosopher among painters. One of his most famous works is La trahison des images (The Betrayal of Images). It depicts a pipe with the inscription "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe") underneath. This is not a pipe because it is not a real pipe that can be stuffed with tobacco and smoked, but merely an image of one. 

According to Saussure, a linguistic sign consists of the components expression and content, which are directly connected with each other. The special feature of the linguistic sign is that its expressive side has nothing directly to do with what it stands for. This is also referred to as arbitrariness, arbitrariness. Immanuel Kant would say in his "Critique of Pure Reason": "Concepts without content are empty, views without concepts are blind." For example, terms like "libro", "livre", "sefer", "kniga" have nothing directly to do with a book. If you don't speak the respective languages, you can do very little with them. "Terms without content are empty" would be Kant's words on this. However, the content, or the concept or signifié/significant, is not the object itself, but only the meaning of the concept, the signifiant/significant. However, the relationship between signifiant and signifié exists on social agreement. So we have decided as a language community that we say "book" to book, or just "livre" as a French-speaking community. 

What Saussure leaves out, however, is the relationship between the linguistic sign to the real world and to the sign user. Odgen & Richards (1923/1966) have further developed the semiotic triangle for this reason. This semiotic triangle illustrates the relationship between the sign, the thing signified and the sign user. In addition to signifiant and signifié, this triangle also contains the component of the referent, the extra-linguistic reality and the sign user who establishes the relationship between the two.

Language as a cognitive faculty -- A brief introduction to generative linguistics

Noam Chomsky, the founder of generative linguistics (This is one of the common theories used in linguistics. However, all of this is not without controversy, nor is Universal Grammar, which we will also look at briefly. Nevertheless, his ideas are and have been further developed.), sees the phenomenon of language, just as some minds did before him, not as a static phenomenon but as a dynamic one. Chomsky was particularly interested in how language is generated in the brains of speakers and how they can access their mental representations. Language thus became not only a social object of study, but a cognitive one, which thus also and above all relates to the individual. 

Finally, if we consider language as part of cognition, it is obvious to also research the development of language ability. This brings us back to the beginning. Our first language acquisition takes place seemingly effortlessly and much faster than the acquisition of a foreign language. Without any special guidance on grammatical rules, even small children can form more or less complex sentences without errors. It is therefore assumed that humans have a certain innate linguistic ability. Thus, children can already generalise, e.g. walk-walked. However, it also happens that small children overgeneralise and form forms such as go-goed (quasi analogous to walked). What is also indisputable, however, is that a child is dependent on a certain linguistic input, i.e. the child receives linguistic utterances through its linguistic environment. However, children who receive correct utterances in the input still produce incorrect utterances. Furthermore, children also hear incorrect input, whereas the output is nevertheless correct. 

In addition, Chomsky (1981, 1986) assumes that humans have an innate universal grammar (this is not uncontroversial, but would go beyond the scope here). This universal grammar can be thought of as a set of principles that are valid for all languages in the world. For example, consider a phrase like "einen Apfel essen" ('eat an apple'). One principle that also applies across languages is that this is a verbal phrase (VP) that is constructed according to a certain scheme. If you look at this phrase in another language, for example French, it is "manger une pomme". The verb is in a different place than in German. The verb is the head of the phrase and is placed before the object in French and after it in German. Chomsky now assumes that certain parameters are set by the input into the universal grammar, which show, for example, where the verb stands. 

This was a highly simplified overview of Chomsky's principles and parameters model. 

Core areas of linguistics

Linguistics can be subdivided into various disciplines, some of which can in turn be split up even more or expanded. I will only list the most important core areas here.

  • Phonetics deals with the production, transmission and perception of linguistic sounds.

  • Phonology examines the sound structure and the systemic nature of the sounds.

  • Morphology deals with the structure of words and word forms.

  • Syntax examines the structure of sentences and phrases.

  • Semantics examines the meaning of linguistic utterances

  • Lexicology examines vocabulary

  • Pragmatics deals with the appropriateness of linguistic utterances in a certain context.

That was a bit of "snackable linguistics". We will take a closer look at the core areas mentioned above in the following articles.






Sources and further reading:

Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

Chomsky, Noam. 1986. Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use. New York: Praeger

Gabriel, Christoph & Trudel Meisenburg. 2007. Romanische Sprachwissenschaft. Paderborn: Fink

Odgen, Charles K & Ivor A. Richards. 1923/1966. The Meaning of Meaning. 10th edition. London: Routledge, 1966

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1916/1982. Cours de linguistique générale. Publié par Bally, Charles & Sechehaye, Albert. Edition critique par Tullio de Mauro. Paris: Payot (03.09.2021, 09:09) (03.09.2021, 09:10)


Photo: Waldemar Brandt via Unsplash

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