Language and Linguistics








Introduction to Linguistics


    • The study and characterization of the rules (grammar) and systems (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, graphics) that constitute a language and govern the relationships between its signifiying elements. Some varieties of linguistics:

      • Structural Linguistics: describes the systems and rules of language and how it operates (Ferdinand de Saussure)

      • Historical Linguistics: describes how language changes and evolves over time, often identifying, by comparative methods, the common origins and relationships between different languages (William Jones, Jacob Grimm, Aron Dolgopolsky, Joseph Greenberg, Merritt Ruhlen)

      • Transformational/Generative Linguistics: considers how the features and grammar of a given language may be related to and issue from the deep, underlying features of Universal Grammar (Noam Chomsky)

      • Poststructuralist Linguistics: emphasizes the self-containment and self-referentiality of language and its utterances, with special attention to the interplay of signifiers and the illusion of meaning they create against a background of inescapable tautology where words, ultimately, refer only to other words (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida)



      Morphology is the study of significant language units (morphemes) and their combination to form words. Morphology defines and classifies the type and functionality of words and the morphemes that constitute them

      • Morpheme: the smallest meaningful unit of a language, e.g. the word dog has one morpheme; the word dogs has two morphemes, dog + s, and unlikely is a word containing three morphemes, un + like + ly

        • free and bound morphemes: free morphemes can stand alone as words while bound morphemes have to be attached to other morphemes as part of a word (e.g. the is a free morpheme, un- is a bound morpheme)

        • affixes: morphemes which are appended to the beginning (prefixes) or ending (suffixes) of a word to signify grammatical and other functions

        • root/stem: the main morpheme of a word to which affixes can be added

      • Inflection: a variation in the form of a word to convey a different meaning, e.g. dogs is an inflection/variation of the word dog indicating the plural; sang is an inflection of sing indicating that the action was performed in the past; dog's is an inflection of dog indicating that the dog is the possessor of something

        • The -s at the end of dogs and the -'s at the end of dog's are called inflectional endings

        • inflections can be produced by adding affixes (dogs = dog+s) or changing internal parts of a word (sing, sang, sung).

        • Inflection includes:

          • Declension: inflection of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, articles and other words to denote grammatical functions (cases) such as subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor, source, location, direction, etc. Declension also indicates number and gender

          • Conjugation: inflection of verbs (am, are, is, was, were) to denote tense, mood, grammatical person, number

          • Comparison: inflection of adjectives to denote the degree of a quality (great, greater, greatest)

      • Lexicon is the total inventory of the morphemes of a language

      • Lexical categories (parts of speech): classification of words as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, function words (prepositions, articles, conjunctions, pronouns, auxiliaries)

      • Languages can be classified according to the structure of their morpheme combinations as follows:

        • Isolating languages: In isolating languages the words are fixed, single morphemes and not combined with other morphemes; the meaning of a sequence of words is conveyed by their individual meanings and their sequential position (word order) in a phrase (e.g. Chinese, Vietnamese)

        • Agglutinative languages: In agglutinative languages long words are formed by combining/aggregating fixed morphemes (e.g. Swahili, Turkish). Agglutinative languages are the opposite of isolating languages but share the similarity of fixed, invariable morphemes.

        • Synthetic languages: Synthetic languages combine morphemes into single words that carry a great deal of information; morphemes, however are not invariable but can themselves be modified as they are combined with other morphemes; Synthetic languages are similar to agglutinative languages but their morphemes are not fixed (e.g. classical Greek and Latin)

        • Analytic languages: words can be composed of one or more morphemes (dogs), morphemes can be modified (sang) but words generally do not contain large numbers of morphemes and the meaning of a statement is conveyed, as in isolating languages, by word order (syntax) and separate function words (prepositions, articles, auxiliaries, conjunctions) (e.g. Modern English)

      Phonology is the study of the sounds of a language

      There are about 100-150 sounds that humans can produce -- see International Phonetic Alphabet

      Phoneme: a minimal sound unit recognized as a distinct value by the speakers of a language (e.g. [p], [b], [a]); the smallest sound that can distinguish one word from another (e.g.[f]at/[v]at, stri[f]e, stri[v]e)

      Allophones are variants of a phoneme which are quite different from each other in terms of their sound but which the speakers of a language don't perceive as different from a given phoneme (e.g. compare the different sounds of the "t" in "cat," "satin," "cater"-- they sound very different but, to speakers of American English, they are equivalent and don't indicate a different phoneme)

      The sounds of language are produced by the passage of air through the vocal tract:

      vocal tract

      The Human Vocal Tract (Illustration © 2002 Emily J. Fajardo)

      1. Lips
      2. Teeth
      3. Alveolar Region
      4. Tongue
      5. Palate
      6. Velum
      7. Uvula
      8. Pharynx
      9. Nasal Cavity
      10. Epiglottis
      11. Esophagus
      12. Glottis
      13. Vocal Cords
      14. Trachea
      15. Larynx

      Vowels: sounds involving the unrestricted flow of air through the mouth

      • vowel sounds are always voiced (i.e. they involve vibration of the vocal cords)

      • vowels differ depending on the degree of openness of the mouth and height of the tongue (the lower the tongue the more open the mouth) (high, mid, low)

      • also important in vowel articulation is the position in the mouth of the highest part of the tongue (front, central, back)

      • diphthongs are sounds involving two vowels (e.g. [ai], [au], [oi], in words like "buy," "bough," and "boy" respectively )

      Consonants: phonemes that involve stoppage or constriction of flow of air in vocal tract

      voiceless consonants: no vibration of the vocal cords, e.g. [p] [t] [k]

      voiced consonants: involve vibration of the vocal cords, e.g. [b] [d] [g]

      consonants are classified according to place of articulation in the vocal tract and manner of articulation

      place of articulation:

      • labial (bilabial): involving the lips, e.g. [b] [p] [m]

      • dental (interdental): involving the teeth, e.g. the sound of "th" in "thorn"

      • labiodental: involving both the lips and teeth, e.g. [f] [v]

      • alveolar: involving the area behind the teeth, e.g. [t] [d]

      • palatal: involving the hard palate, e.g. the sound of "sh" in "shore"

      • velar: involving the velum or soft palate, e.g. [k] [g]

      • glottal: articulated at the glottis, e.g. the sound of the "t" in "satin" and "mountain" in American English

      manner of articulation

      • stops (plosives): involve the stoppage and sudden release of air, e.g. [p] [t] [k] [b] [d] [g]

      • fricatives (spirants): involve the constricted flow of air producing a kind of hissing sound, e.g. [s] [z]

      • affricates: a combination of stop + fricative, e.g. the sound of "ch" in "church; the sound of "j" in jump

      • nasals: flow of air channeled through the nose, always voiced, e.g. [m] [n]

      • liquids (approximants)

        • lateral: flow of air channeled through the sides of the tongue, also voiced, e.g. the sound of "l" in "low"

        • retroflex: similar to the lateral but involving a backward curving of the tip of the tongue, also voiced, e.g. the sound of "r" in "road"

      • flap (tap): involving a backward flapping motion of the tongue ,e.g. the sound of the "t" in "cater" and "waiter" in American English

      • glides (semivowels): minimal constriction of the flow of air but not quite as unconstricted as vowel sounds, e.g. the sound of the "w" in "water"; the sound of the "y" in "yes"
    • SYNTAX

      • Syntax is the study of word order and the sequencing of words in phrases, clauses, and sentences. Syntax is concerned with categories such as subject, object, verb, parts of speech, and the order in which they can appear in a statement to convey specific meanings.


      • Semantics is the study of meaning in language


      • Graphics is the study of the visual representation of language by means of a writing system


      • Paralanguage is a set of extra-linguistic signals contributing to meaning and supporting the functioning of the other systems of a language. Depending on the language, paralanguage can include signals such as tone of voice, pitch, tempo/speed, rhythm, pauses, volume, sighs, coughs, gestures, body motions, setting, cultural context, etc.

      • Prosody is the study of the stress, accent, pitch, and rhythm patterns of a language and the ways in which they contribute to the conveying of significance

        • pitch difference: "he's here" vs "he's here?"
        • stress/accent difference: "rébel" vs "rebél"
        • pause: "he died happily" vs "he died, happily"

      • Kinesics: body-motion, gestures accompanying language and contributing to meaning

      • Proxemics (use of space, proximity between speakers)

      • Pragmatics: language users' shared knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, presuppositions, physical surroundings, context/situation of an utterance

      • Deictics/Deixis: a form of both pragmatics and kinesics concerning the use of words like this/that, here/there, me, them, those, etc and accompanying physical gestures (pointing with a finger) which could mean entirely different things when used in different physical or other settings. Pointing toward an object with a finger and uttering a sound may have constituted the first act of naming and the association of a sound and a physical gesture with an object of the material world.

Language Change:

    • change is a fundamental aspect of language
    • change can be systematic or sporadic
    • principle of least effort: tendency to economy, efficiency
    • analogy: tendency to imitation, regularity
    • imperfect learning
    • external pressures: social, economic, political, historical and other factors
    • influence of other languages
    • spoken language changes faster than its written forms

References and Websites of Interest:

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Last updated: September 6, 2018 16:45


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