What is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the study of language. It's often misunderstood as meaning "learning to speak lots of world languages," but in fact, linguistics studies the structure of language, looking at the structures and patterns seen in languages across the world.

The field of linguistics breaks down into many sub-fields; each deals with a different feature of natural language.

  • Articulatory phonetics explores how sounds are articulated by our physical vocal apparatus, such as our lips and larynx.
  • Phonology looks at the sounds different languages contain, how native speakers think about sounds, and how those sounds interact with each other in real speech.
  • Morphology concerns itself with morphemes, the minimal units of meaning, some of which are whole words, and others of which are prefixes, suffixes, or even infixes.
  • Syntax examines how sentences are composed and how speakers go about putting words in order.
  • Semantics deals with word meanings, and all their nuances and complexities
  • Pragmatics involves manners and actions executed by means of words as well as meanings that are conveyed by a word's context.
  • Sociolinguistics investigates at how we convey our social identity by means of words, including dialects.
  • Discourse analysis studies at how meanings are created beyond the sentence level, including looking at how people refer to previous works and how people construct political ideologies.

Don't worry too much about these definitions; we'll explore them in greater depth later.

If you're coming to linguistics through the genres of science fiction and fantasy, you may think immediately of conlanging, the creation of new languages. Some examples of conlangs are Tolkien’s elvish, Dothraki from Game of Thrones, Klingon from Star Trek, etc. Creating new languages for genre fiction is certainly easier if you have a background in linguistics, and I will touch on it during this lesson. However, it's really a special in-depth application of the larger concepts and principles that linguists study, and certainly not the only thing in writing that linguistics can help you with.

If you're a writer, language is already your tool. You know a lot about it, and are using aspects of it deliberately. You may have spoken with teachers or critique partners about style, and voice, and metaphor, and a great many language-related concepts.

One thing that linguists learn early on, however, is that our own use of language is largely unconscious. By examining the structural features of language on different levels, you can become more aware of what you are doing - both on the worldbuilding level and on the prose level.

Complete and Continue