What is Linguistics?
Linguistics 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
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,
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