Linguistics: A Short Introduction to the Beating Heart of Human Communications

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Everyday conversation may convey different meanings to you and your friends. Image by Jusben

Everyday conversation may convey different meanings to you and your friends. Image by Jusben

The study of linguistics incorporates a number of aspects which are very closely related, yet distinctive from one another. Some of the aspects we explore most often include phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics:

  • Phonetics is the science concerned with the study of speech processes, including the production, perception and the analysis of sounds.  It is closely connected to phonology.
  • Phonology is the study of the sound system of a language or languages.
  • Morphology is a branch of biology which concerns the form and structure or organisms; this definition includes the form and structure of words within a language, and their modification.
  • Syntax is the branch of linguistics that covers the grammatical arrangements of words within sentences, and how we use speech in communication.
  • Semantics deals with the study of meaning; how we combine words to create meaningful discourse.  It studies the relationship between signs and symbols and what they represent. It is also used in logic as the principles that determine truth-values of formulas within a logical system.
  • Pragmatics (as applied to linguistics) is about how we actually use speech in communication, and how context aids the transmission of meaning in utterances.

These aspects of linguistics are listed in their hierarchical order, with phonetics and phonology being the most basic, and rising to pragmatics at the top. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between these sub-fields as they are so closely related to one another.

Phonetics and Phonology – The Subtleties of Nuance

Phonetics deals with human production of speech sounds. Individual sounds are phonemes, of which there are hundreds, although in English we manage with around forty.  The distinctions between the sounds indicate regional differences or subtle nuances of speech.

Phonology is about patterns of sounds, especially different patterns of sounds in different languages, or within each language, and with different patterns of sounds in different positions in words etc.

Morphology – Let’s Make a Mockumentary!

Morphology is the study of how words are formed. We can understand words by focusing on the smallest unit of functionality within language; the part that stands alone. For example, you may be sitting at your desk right now. The word “desk” is a morpheme.

If you speak of “desks” then you have changed the word into a plural. Therefore, it comprises two morphemes, the object itself and the plural “s.”  So does the word “desktop.”

In her article, “Morphology, How are Words Formed?” Catherine McCarthy describes the ways in which we sometimes blend morphemes to make a brand new word:

“A blend combines two words to create a new word. Smog is a blend of smoke plus fog. Mockumentary combines mock and documentary. Jeggings are snug-fitting leggings that look like jeans.”

We can also compound two root words to make a new word.  Some examples might be boathouse, yellowhammer, blockhead, Greenpeace.

We can also add prefixes and suffixes to root words. All of these examples are aspect of morphology.

Syntax – Sentences with Clout!

Syntax concerns the correct structure of sentences in agreement with certain principles, processes and rules as laid down by grammarians.

Good grammatical sentences have a subject (who and what the sentence is about) and a predicate (information relating to the subject.)  For example, (in active voice): “Decoded sites help to disseminate useful information.”  The subject is “Decoded sites” and the predicate is that they “help to disseminate useful information.”  Generally, sentence structure is clearer if the subject comes first, but it’s not mandatory.  We could say, (in passive voice): “Useful information is disseminated by Decoded sites.”

Tower of Babel, Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpg

Tower of Babel, Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. Image courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum

Semantics – A Regular Tower of Babel!

The term “semantics” is essentially to do with meaning, although it is an extremely broad term. It can be used to examine changes in meaning over time. It examines shifts in meaning due to cultural or social changes.  It covers the interpretation of texts, ambiguity in the way language is used, connotations that may skew meaning and it examines the effects of metaphor, pun and word-play.

In his essay The Signs of Drama, Martin Esslin says, of the fictional character, Hamlet, “He may… become in the eyes of some members of the audience a representative of a class of individuals.”  Esslin continues by explaining that Hamlet could be viewed as a prince, or as an intellectual who thinks too much, or as a son in love with his mother. He could also represent the “human predicament” and, as Esslin adds, “a multitude of others.” 

Politicians are accused of using semantics in order to mislead the public.  Examples of how advertisers exploit the use of semantics to increase their profits appear on our televisions and in our newspapers every day.

In his essay, The Babel of Interpretations, linguist E.D. Hirsch asks:

“How can a consensus be reached with regard to a text’s meaning when every known interpretation of every text has always been different in some respect from every other interpretation of the text? … [E]very interpretation is partial. No single interpretation can possibly exhaust the meanings of a test.  [D]ifferent interpretations bring into relief different aspects of textual meaning…  the diversity of interpretations should be welcomed; they all contribute to understanding. The more interpretations one knows, the fuller will be one’s understanding.”

E.D. Hirsch separates the act of interpretation into two distinctive areas, the art of understanding and the art of explaining.

Interpretation can deepen and develop our appreciation of texts or it may even alter our conception of the text’s meaning, perhaps making us change our mind or viewpoint.

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Nessie Replica in Scotland. Image by StaraBlazkova

Pragmatics – What Happened to Nessie?

“Pragmatics:” philosopher C.W. Morris invented the term in the 1930s, and everyday speech is rife with such ambiguous first sentences that often result in causing upset or even offence unintentionally.

There have been a few articles published recently with the title, “Loch Ness Monster Feared Dead Due to Lack of Sightings.”  One might ask, “Is it the lack of sightings that killed poor Nessie?”

There are elements of philosophy here – do we actually create our world from our own consciousness?  That’s a much more interesting take on the situation than the possibility that Nessie may have simply died and so we didn’t see it anymore.

Linguistics: Complex But Useful

Linguistics can seem difficult, and literary theory can seem intimidating, even scary – with so many different schools of thought and criticism to get your head around. However, it’s worth delving into, just one step at a time, if only because it is rife with such delightful examples of human interaction.

Without, how can we truly understand ourselves?

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