About CAL
Join Our List
Featured Publication
Email this page
Print this page


Online Resources: Frequently Asked Questions

What is linguistics?

The domain of modern linguistics, defined as the scientific study of language, has a rich and varied history spanning over two centuries. However, people have been concerned with studying language for a very long time. Linguistics is mentioned in the dialogues of Plato (c. 427-346 BC) and in Roman writings.

Modern linguistics can trace its beginnings to the 17th and 18th centuries when European scholars began to develop--among other forms of philosophy--the notion of grammars based on universalist principles, the belief that all languages share common features. In modern times, this philosophy of universal principles is best known through the work of Noam Chomsky, who has influenced an entire generation of scholars described as "generative linguists."

Modern linguistics is also influenced by another group of scholars who were interested in recording languages that did not have writing systems. In the United States, two men who created the models for recording and analyzing languages in the early part of the 20th century were Franz Boas and Edward Sapir. Their work focused on Native American languages but soon was carried to language groups around the world.

As the field of linguistics became more accepted as a discipline, other scholars from different fields began to incorporate language-related topics into their work. Linguistics found its way into sociology, anthropology, language arts, foreign language learning and teaching, English as a second language, translation and interpretation, literacy, and the development of language policy in countries around the world.

Today the field of linguistics has blossomed into an interdisciplinary science comprising a number of subfields and several schools of thought. Among the subfields are anthropological linguistics, applied linguistics, biological linguistics, clinical linguistics, computational linguistics, educational linguistics, ethnolinguistics, geographical linguistics, mathematical linguistics, neurolinguistics, philosophical linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, statistical linguistics, and theolinguistics.

The grounding for all of these interdisciplinary fields is formal linguistics --the study of the structures and processes of language, or how language works and is organized. Formal linguists study the structures of different languages, and by identifying and studying the elements common among them seek to discover the most effective ways to describe language in general. Major areas of study in this field are phonetics (the study of the sounds of languages and their physical properties); phonology (the study of how sounds function in a given language or dialect); morphology (the study of the structure of words); syntax (the study of the structure of sentences); semantics (the study of meaning in language); discourse analysis (the study of connected spoken and written discourse); and pragmatics (the study of the social meanings of utterances). Each of these areas also includes subfields. Languages are studied from a historical perspective (diachronic linguistics) or as they are used at a given time (synchronic linguistics). Like most disciplines, linguistics has its theoretical and applied scholars and practitioners.

What is interesting and unique about the field of linguistics is that it can also be included in the world of science (e.g., forensics and neurology) on the one hand, and in the worlds of philosophy and literary criticism on the other (Crystal, 1987). As Geoff Nunberg and Tom Wasow describe in Fields of Linguistics, language can best be studied as a formal system, as a human phenomenon, and as a social phenomenon.

Among the more popular areas of cross-disciplinary linguistic study are the following:

  • Applied Linguistics, which draws from theories of language acquisition to develop first and second language teaching methodologies and to implement successful literacy programs.

  • Computational Linguistics, or the application of the concepts of computer science to the analysis of language. This field is growing immensely, particularly in machine translation, information retrieval, and artificial intelligence.

  • Psycholinguistics, or the study of the relationships between linguistic and psychological behavior. Psycholinguists study first and second language acquisition and how humans store and retrieve linguistic information, referred to as verbal processing. Language acquisition is an area within this field.

  • Sociolinguistics is the study of the interrelationships between language and social structure, linguistic variation, and attitudes toward language.


Crystal, D. (1987). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nunberg, G. & Wasow, T. (1997). Fields of linguistics. Washington, DC: Linguistic Society of America.

Return to the list of Frequently Asked Questions.