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Introducing Linguistics

abstract:Product image for ASIN: 1840466359While researching a book project this summer at the British Library I came upon a concise little primer on linguistics, Introducing Linguistics (Introducing... S.) in the souvenir shop. If you have ever wondered about the science of language and the various disciplines that study it, this little gem will suffice.


February 25, 2007
— For 3,000 years mankind has been studying language: what is the purpose, how has it evolved, how are languages similar and how do they differ, who were the pioneer thinkers and what systems did they develop to help us understand this living, breathing communication tool?

From Pänini to Chomsky

The Indian linguist Pänini is recorded to have studied phonology and grammar as early as the 5th century BC.

The great Greek scholar Aristotle (384-322BC) founded what would be known as the European tradition. He divided the sentence into two parts: the subject and the predicate—a fundamental division still recognized today.

From here each part of speech was seen to fall into 8 categories or classes: nouns, verbs, articles, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and participles.

"The central fact of language is that speakers can make infinite use of the finite resources provided by their language. Though the capacity for language is universal, the individuality of each language is a property of the people who speak it... Every language has its internal structure, which determines its outer form and which is the reflection of its speakers' minds. The language and thought of a people are thus inseparable." pg 12

What a brilliant conclusion, and one that I myself had pondered some while ago when examining French language and French literature—the preponderance toward philisophical thought, existentialism, surrealism and theatre absurd as respectively with Balzac, Sartre, Camus and Beckett. Then consider how language is linked not only to art, but also to power as witnessed in the rise and fall of French as the lingua franca of 18th -20th century politics.

Historical Linguistics

Toward the end of the 18th century European linguists begain to realize that certain languages exhibited striking systemic resemblances that must be derived from a common ancestor. Scholars like Franz Bopp (1791-1867) and Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) et al., were able to show that all European and many Asian languages were related.

Examine this word list.

        English                       Latin                    Greek

fish                             piscis              (ikhtyys)      

father                           pater                       pater

foot                             pied                        pod-

for                               pro                         para

six                               sex                         hexa

seven                           septa                      hepta

sweet                           suavais                    hedys

salt                               sal                          hal

new                              novus                     neos

night                             noct-                      nykt-

nine                              novem                (en)nea

Ferdinand de Sussure (1857-1913)

The influential linguist from Geneva working on irregularities found in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) explained that most PIE roots have irregularities that were all regular until certain consonants called laryngeals began to disappear from these languages.

He also brought the concept that a language is the link between a thing and a name--- and that name (written word) is just a sound pattern that represents the hearer's psychological impression of an article of speech. 

He further posed that the order in which different languages put these words (remember the 8 classes...) is quite unique and indicative of other aspects of origin.

In English the word order is:

Mike (subject)    washed (verb)    the car (object)

In Irish the order would be: VSO

         Washed               Mike                    the car

In Japanese the order would be: SOV

            Mike                 the car                      washed

In Malagasy (Madagascar) we see: VOS

          Washed                the car                      Mike

In Hixharyana (Brazil) the order would be: OVS

            The car                   washed                  Mike

Gender Issues

Another fascinating point brought up in the book is the way in which men and women differ in their patterns of speech.

In all-male conversation, men engage in "floor-holding" (picture a board meeting) where there is a single speaker and all agree or discent silently or in turn.

In all-women conversations, the women constantly pitch-in with supporting contributions in a sort of cooperative enterprise (picture a koffee klatch) the single discourse becomes the work of them all.

This leads to astounding mixed-gender communication truisms that explain why psychologists and marriage councillors have a field day explaining why men become very annoyed at the idea that they are continually being "interupted", while in fact close observation has shown that in mixed-sex conversation it is the men who are doing the most interrupting.


In post modern language investigation an interesting division was born when surgeon Paul Brocca (late 1860's) examined people who had damaged a part of the brain that dealt with speech (hereto unknown.)

Aphasia, dysphagia are speech patterns that underlie brain damage resulting in slow, painful, laborious speech patterns in which the speech is somewhat slurred. Think of stroke or any number of syndromes: Wernicke's Syndrome, William's Syndrom, and so on.

All are lumped under a broad heading of Specific Language Impairments. (SLI's) Some of these are highly specific, there are people who can read but not speak, speak but not read, write but not read (even what they've just written!) One man lost his ability to remember the words for any fruits or vegetables, but nothing else. Another lost the ability to match words with verbs, so they could understand that milk was in the glass, but not that you can milk a cow.

Clearly there is a lot of aspects to language to consider in the science of linguistics.

Further Reading

Product image for ASIN: 0415340195R.L.Trask. 1999 Language: The Basics (Basics (Routledge Paperback), 2nd Edition, London

Product image for ASIN: 3125396611David Crystal. 1997. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language., 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Jay Ingram. 1992. TALK TALK TALK. London. Penguin.









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