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Getting Smarter through Language

Misconceptions about Linguistics

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Note. This content is also covered in the video listed further in the lesson.


Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure. It includes the study of distinct areas such as phonetics (the sounds of a language), morphology (how sounds are put together to form words and meaning), syntax (the principles that determine the structure of sentences), semantics (how a speakers of particular language create meaning), and so on.

Branches of Linguistics

Linguistics is also divided into branches, each adopting a different approach to understanding language.

For example, historical linguistics is the study of how language changes over time (see Etymology and surprising origins of words). Sociolinguistics is the study of how social factors influence language use (e.g., differences in language use by different social groups). Syntax is the study of the rules speakers use. There are several other branches such as lexicology, computational linguistics, philosophy of language, descriptive linguistics, and so on.

Linguists typically specialize in one of the many branches of linguistics. As a result, you will find linguists working not only in universities but also "in the field" and even in places as varied as companies, the film industry, or governmental agencies.

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

Many people associate linguistics with grammar, believing that the linguist’s only concern is with “correct grammar.” You may find many linguistics who are interested in grammar, but standard grammar is only one of the focuses of concern for linguists.

Prescriptivism consists of determining “correct” spelling, pronunciation, and syntax. In that sense, prescriptivists determine what language “should be like” or how people should use the language.

Descriptivism, on the other hand, focuses on how people use the language regardless of what grammarians establish as “proper grammar.” For a descriptive linguist, instead of determining whether or not a double negative construction (such as "You ain't seen nothing yet") is "correct" or "incorrect," the interest lies in documenting that both forms occur in spoken language; the interest is then in understanding who produces such forms and when.

Are Linguists Polyglots?

Because linguists busy themselves studying language—not languages but language—many people think that they are polyglots (or people who speak multiple languages). However, not all linguists are polyglots, nor does being a polyglot make you a linguist. Imagine an American linguist studying aspects of the English language as it is spoken in the United States. Such a linguist would have no need to learn other languages. In some cases, depending on the branch of linguistics in which you are working, you may end up learning another language; after all, if you are a linguist, you are probably fascinated by language in general.

The point is that it is not a requirement to learn other languages to be a linguist. For some linguists, speaking other languages may give them insight into whatever aspect of linguistics they are investigating. Language enthusiasts and polyglots may gravitate toward linguistics, which leads to the misconception that being a linguist and being a polyglot is one of the same.


Activity 2 (Extension): Complete the Extension excercises (Part 4) in the Supplemental Material you printed on the first page.