What is linguistics?

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, but that doesn’t begin to convey why it is that so many of us are so passionate about it or why we see so many professional applications.

My answer to “what is linguistics?” is a poem:

Every linguistic choice carries meaning precisely because to say anything at all means NOT saying a variety of other things. Thus, when a linguist listens, she hears:

what was said
what wasn’t
what you could have said but didn’t

Linguists are always paying attention to all of the above simultaneously.  What is said carries social meaning precisely because it was said instead of everything that wasn’t (or couldn’t or shouldn’t be) said. The implication here is in what the choice reveals about the speaker, the hearer, their relationship, the context, etc. etc. etc.

Let’s say for example I want to refer to “Canada.”  There are many ways that I might refer to “the great white north” for example:”our closest neighbor” or “”our ally in trading” or as “my homeland” because I was born in Toronto.  Each of these choices reveals something slightly different about things that I care about, and also where I am, where I have been, and how this shapes my engagement with and understanding of the world and the people in it.

I can playfully refer to Canada as “Canadia,” or I can say the “home of Tim Hortons” or even “the land of Justin Trudeau” to take an opportunity to express my knowledge or or convey affinity for things Canadian, including recent events such as the election of a new prime minister.

The point here being that we are all constantly making choices when we speak.  Some of them are conscious, many of them are not, but these choices are an important way that we construct and convey our identities, and how we relate to others.   We know for example that we change our language developing on the occaision, we might need to “dress up” our language if we are trying to speak with a VIP or that that we might need to provide much more background about an inside joke if there is someone new to the group.   Thus, when linguists provide an analysis, it is helping to reveal what IS by paying attention to what ISN’T.

Reflecting on all of these WHATs (what could have been said) as a point of entry into thinking about language is only the beginning – there is often WHO WHEN WHERE WHY (and of course more of the HOW) to be considered in fully understanding  language as a tool.  Certainly it is about communication, but language is also about constructing meaning (power, influence etc. etc. etc.), and it is this “way of seeing” that informs everything that that linguists do.

Thus, I would say linguistics is a way of understanding language as a tool.

Here at Career Linguist, I am particularly interested in how it is that linguists can apply our “ways of seeing”in professional contexts, in other words, to bring this tool to work, which I why I love this definition of linguistics from the UC Santa Cruz department of Lx homepage:

The main purpose of the study of Linguistics in an academic environment is the advancement of knowledge. However, because of the centrality of language in human interaction and behavior, the knowledge gained through the study of linguistics has many practical consequences and uses. Graduates of undergraduate and graduate programs in Linguistics apply their training in many diverse areas, including language pedagogy, speech pathology, speech synthesis, natural language interfaces, search engines, machine translation, forensics, naming, and of course all forms of writing, editing, and publishing. Perhaps the most widely appreciated application was contributed by UCSC Linguistics alumnus Marc Okrand, who invented the Klingon language for Star Trek.


To learn more about linguistics, see:

The University of Arizona’s (Bear Down) Resource Page: What is linguistics and why study it?

The Linguistics Society of America’s What is Linguistics? page has a wealth of resources.

also see the drop-down menu here for resources about Linguistics that I have assembled over the years.  Have more to share? Please pass them on!!!!