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Linguistics is a research field devoted to the science of language. Its aspects include language form, language meaning, and language in context. The earliest known activities in the description of language have been attributed to Pāṇini around 500 BCE, with his analysis of Sanskrit in Ashtadhyayi.


In the 20th century, language began to be understood as an interplay of sound and meaning. The discipline of phonetics was formulated to study linguistic sound, and is concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds and non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived. The study of language meaning, on the other hand, deals with how languages employ logic and real-world references to convey, process, and assign meaning, as well as to manage and resolve ambiguity. While the study of semantics is concerned with how meaning is inferred from words and concepts, pragmatics deals with how meaning is inferred from context. This popular understanding of language structure took off with the Prague school and the Russian formalists, and with Mikhail Bakhtin's structural analysis of narrative, for instance, which became a significant landmark as part of the ideological movement away from historicism to structuralism.

Grammar is the system of rules which governs the communication between members of a particular speech community. It is influenced by both sound and meaning, and includes morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the formation and composition of phrases and sentences from these words), and phonology (sound systems). Through corpus linguistics, large chunks of text can be analysed for possible occurrences of certain linguistic features on the basis of their grammatical features, and for their stylistic patterns, within a written as well as spoken discourse.

The study of such cultural discourses and dialects is the domain of sociolinguistics, which looks at the relation between linguistic variation and social structures, as well as that of discourse analysis, which involves the structure of texts and conversations. Research on language through historical and evolutionary linguistics focuses on how languages change, and the origin and growth of languages, particularly over an extended period of time.

During the 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure distinguished between the notions of langue and parole in his formulation of structural linguistics. According to him, parole is the specific utterance of speech, whereas langue refers to an abstract phenomenon that theoretically defines the principles and system of rules that govern a language. In classical Indian philosophy of language, the author(s) called Patanjali distinguished between sphota (meaning) and dhvani (sound) in the creation of shabda, which literally means "spoken word".

Katyayana, another Indian philosopher, further distinguished between shabda (utterance) and artha (meaning). In modern-day theoretical linguistics, Noam Chomsky distinguishes between the notions of competence and performance, where competence is the inherent capacity for language, while performance is the specific way in which it is used.

The newer 20th century formalist trend to view speech as a central signifier in language, with writing being seen only as its reflection, was critiqued by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In his 1967 book, Of Grammatology, he wrote against this arbitrary distinction between speech and writing, and emphasised on how written symbols are also legitimate signifiers in themselves. In doing so, he brought back a trend towards historiography in the analysis of language, and through which the notion of difference, which established historical relativity, became central to the late 20th century post-structural movement in linguistics.

In the meanwhile, the formalistic study of language has led to the growth of fields like psycholinguistics, which explores the representation and function of language in the mind; neurolinguistics, which studies language processing in the brain; and language acquisition, which investigates on how children and adults acquire a particular language. During the 1970s and 1980s, research developments took shape in the field of cognitive linguistics through theorists such as George Lakoff, who view language as a conceptual function of the mind, as opposed to a pre-defined grammatical template.

Language is also influenced by social, cultural, historical and political factors. Semiotics, for instance, is the study of signs and symbols both within language and without. Literary critics study the use of language in literature. Translation entails the conversion of a text from one language to another. Speech language pathologists work on corrective measures to remove communication disorders largely at the phonetic level, employing a combination of cognitive and phonological devices.

Language documentation combines anthropological inquiry with linguistic inquiry to describe languages and their grammars. Lexicographers map vocabularies in languages to write dictionaries and encyclopedias and edit other such educational material for publishing houses. In the age of digital technology, linguists, translators, and lexicographers work on computer language to facilitate and create web entities and digital dictionaries on both mobile as well as desktop machines, and create software through technical and human language that enables a large number of social functions, from designing to even machine-based translation itself. Actual knowledge of a language can be applied in the teaching of it as a second or foreign language. Research experiments in linguistics have in the recent years, seen communities of linguists build new constructed languages like Esperanto, to test the theories of language in an abstract and artificial setting. Policy makers work with the government to implement new plans in education and teaching which are based on certain linguistic factors.

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External Links

  • WikipediaThe Linguist ListGlossary of linguistic termsLanguage LogGlottopediaLinguistic sub-fields"Linguistics" section

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