The Many Subfields of Modern Linguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Linguistics is the systematic study of the nature, structure, and variation of language.

The founder of modern structural linguistics was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), whose most influential work, Course in General Linguistics, was edited by his students and published in 1916.

  • Pronunciation: LING-gwiss-TIKS
  • Etymology: From the Latin, "tongue, language"


  • "Linguistics will have to recognize laws operating universally in language, and in a strictly rational manner, separating general phenomena from those restricted to one branch of languages or another."
    (Ferdinand de Saussure, Troisième Cours de Linguistique Générale, 1910-1911)
  • Aims of Linguistics: "[Linguistics] has a twofold aim: to uncover general principles underlying human language, and to provide reliable descriptions of individual languages."
    (Jean Atchison, in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. Tom McArthur, 1992)
  • Description, Not Prescription: "Linguists today understand their job as that of description, their purpose being to describe how people use language, not to prescribe how they should use it. Linguists don't invent rules; they discover them."
    (Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, Understanding English Grammar, 5th edition, 1998)
  • Language Is Rule-Governed: "Linguists believe that their field is a science because they share the goals of scientific inquiry, which is objective (or more properly intersubjectively accessible) understanding. . . .
    "Language . . . contrasts with other aspects of human behavior precisely in its regularity, what has been called its rule-governed nature. It is precisely this property of language and language-related behavior that has allowed for great progress in our understanding of this delimited area of human behavior."
    (Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller, Introduction, The Handbook of Linguistics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003)

    Language Myths

    Each of these statements is probably familiar to you, but none of them happens to be true. What such statements, or language myths, really tell us is that ideas about language are deeply woven into culture. . ...A thorough understanding of language equips us to answer our many questions about this uniquely human phenomenon and to separate linguistic fact from linguistic fiction." (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2010)

    Language Similarities

    "[L]inguists assume that it is possible to study human language in general and that the study of particular languages will reveal features of language that are universal. . . .

    "Although it is obvious that specific languages differ from each other on the surface, if we look closer we find that human languages are surprisingly similar. For instance, all known languages are at a similar level of complexity and detail—there is no such thing as a primitive human language. All languages provide a means for asking questions, making requests, making assertions, and so on. And there is nothing that can be expressed in one language that cannot be expressed in any other. Obviously, one language may have terms not found in another language, but it is always possible to invent new terms to express what we mean: anything we can imagine or think, we can express in any human language. . . .

    "When linguists use the term language, or natural human language, they are revealing their belief that at the abstract level, beneath the surface variation, languages are remarkably similar in form and function and conform to certain universal principles."
    (Adrian Akmajian, et al., Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication, 2nd ed.

    MIT Press, 2001)

    The Lighter Side of Linguistics: Akbal, the Genie

    "While my main occupation is genie, one of my hobbies is studying linguistics, and I can tell you that I pay very close attention to words and what they mean. If you say, for example, 'I wish I could think of something really good to wish for,' then that is exactly what you will be granted--the ability to think of something really good to wish for. And that will count as your wish. Period. Sorry, but that's how it works."
    (Demetri Marti, "Genie." This Is a Book. Grand Central, 2011)