What is Linguistics?

RiverLinguistics is the study of all aspects of human language. There are over 6,000 languages in the world. Most of them have never been properly described or even written down, and many of them will disappear from the earth in the next fifty years. Documenting these languages is important for many reasons, including our desire to answer the fundamental questions 'Why and in what ways are all languages similar?' and 'Why and in what ways do they differ?'

Linguists study how languages make it possible to express our ideas and feelings to each other, how different styles and dialects develop, and how they are used in both everyday communication (‘Hey, y’wan’grabba pizza?’) and formal settings (‘I don’t suppose you would care to have dinner with me this evening?’). People have an immense amount of very organized but almost entirely unconscious knowledge about language. This knowledge is what we use when we organize our thoughts for expression and when we understand what people are saying to us. We do these things so rapidly that we rarely pay attention to these remarkable processes—until we try to learn a new language, or until we encounter young children just learning to talk, or people with language disorders.

Linguists try to figure out what this unconscious knowledge is, how people use it when they are skilled language users, and how they acquired it as children. Some of us do this by observing and describing the structure of languages (their grammars). Others study how children learn language, slips of the tongue, and language disorders of children and the elderly.

Some linguists study the social nature of language by observing and describing face-to-face and telephone conversations, storytelling, doctor-patient interviews, and other ways that language is used for cultural interaction; we also try to understand how people integrate language and actions (glances, gestures) to communicate. We study the influence of language categories on our everyday thinking and behavior, and the question of whether speakers of different languages have significantly different ways of thinking. We also study the acoustics of sound waves and the way people’s brains react when they read or hear speech; we use this knowledge about how people process speech to help build better computer programs for automatic speech recognition. In addition, we use semantic analysis to build programs that perform web searches, automate translation, information extraction and question and answering.

We create alphabets and dictionaries for languages that have never been written down before, and figure out the unconscious grammar that their speakers are using so that textbooks can be created. We try to understand the effects of literacy on different kinds of communities, what it might mean in different communities to not be literate, and what remedies (if any) a particular community might adopt for members who are not literate. We even reconstruct information about prehistoric languages that have been dead for many hundreds of years, and try to infer the principles behind their evolution into the thousands of languages of the world today.

Languages whose grammars are studied by faculty members and current or recent students in our department include: Arabic, Basque, Malaysian, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Latin, Mandarin, Polish, Spanish, Vietnamese; the Native American languages Apache, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Iowa-Oto, Jemez, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Lakhota, Omaha, Wichita; and the African languages Awutu, Gidar, Hona, Lele, Mandara, Mina, Mupun, Pero, Sakun and Xdi.

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