Language and Linguistics


What is Linguistics?

WHAT IS linguistics?  Let’s begin by offering a couple of indirect and therefore partial answers to this question.  First, linguistics is the field of study and knowledge that used to be called Philology or Comparative philology in the 19th century.  This older name points to one of the points of origin of modern linguistics.  Scholars who made a study of literature as historical documents realized the importance of understanding the working of languages in which they were written – of course, in a historical perspective.  But linguistics is now much more than an extension of philology.  Bhashavijnan has to be distinguished from Vangmayavidya.


            Secondly, linguistics is what linguists do.  The word ‘linguist’ is not to be understood here as a person knowing many languages and therefore able to use them in a practical situation.  Rather, a linguist in the present context is someone who keeps company with sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other students of man and who is busy not only in a library (like a true philologist) but also in a laboratory or in the field.


            COMING NOW TO a more direct answer, we could identify linguistics as the science of language as such.  The components of this definition need to be carefully looked into. The word ‘science’ refers both to a collection of certain activities – asking questions about things and events in the observable world, experimenting with them if necessary, describing, analyzing, and explaining them in the course of answering those questions, testing and checking these answers publicly, weaving these answers into a logical system – and also at the same time to a body of knowledge resulting from such activities.  Linguistics, being a science, is therefore not to be confused with the intuitive grasp of an ordinary person using a language fluently or a literary artist transforming it into something rich and strange or with the critical scrutiny of language by a philosopher who is trying to go beyond the limits of this or that language.  It is not a natural science like physics or biology but (as we have already suggested) a human science like psychology or anthropology.


            The word ‘language’ is not to be taken in its extended, metaphorical sense so as to include in its range the language of bees or bats or the language of music or flowers or ritual or the language of computers. This is not to deny that linguistics may not have a bearing on the study of these other ‘languages’ or that the latter may not have a bearing on linguistics.  Indeed one can perhaps argue that the study of man’s natural language, that is linguistics, can be regarded as a branch of or an application of a general theory of signs, symbols, and communications – in short, as a branch of semiotics.


            This leads us to the inclusion of the words ‘as such’ in our direct definition.  The point is that other scientists are also interested in man’s natural languages.  The formal sciences of mathematics, logic, statistics or the natural sciences of human physiology and ecology or the human sciences of psychology, anthropology, sociology, even political science are all interested in language – but not in language as language.  Linguistics is the only science for which language is the central focus.  It is not a branch of psychology or anthropology as has been suggested. 


            SO FAR WE have looked at linguistics from the outside, as it were.  Let’s now take a look at the inside of linguistics, at its various divisions or branches.  To begin with, linguistics can be divided into two main branches:


(1)    Linguistic analysis or analytic linguistics

(2)    Linguistic comparison or comparative linguistics


            The analytic study seeks to answer the questions.  How do two persons understand each other?  Because they share the same language?  Well then, what makes the ‘same’ language?  The same way of linking speech signs (or written signs) with meanings?  In answering these questions, analytic linguistics looks at the various subsystems that together make up a language and thus partially regulate behaviour.


            (1)        (a)            Phonology

                        (b)            Grammar

                        (c)            Lexicon (Lexicology)

                        (d)            Semology

                        (e)            The writing system (Graphonomy)

                        (f)            The naming system (Onomastics)

                        (g)            The vocal gestures (Paraphonology)



            The comparative study seeks to answer two sets of questions that call for a comparison of languages.  The comparison may be historical or functional.  Why do two persons fail to understand each other?  Because they use different languages?  Historical comparison will consider these differences historically in order to find how two languages have come to be similar and different in terms of history.  Historical linguistics accordingly deals with language change over a line of descent, language divergence yielding a language family, language convergence yielding a language area, and language competition and symbiosis within a language network.  Functional comparison will consider these differences in functional terms in order to find how two languages resemble or differ from each other in solving comparable functional problems.  Correlative linguistics deals with the possibility and improbability of adequate translation, with language universals, and with language types.  Schematically –


            (2)        (a)            Historical linguistics

                        (b)            Correlative linguistics

            Either of these could concentrate on any of the subsystems of languages listed earlier as (1a) to (1g).


            THE QUESTION ‘What is linguistics?’ cannot entirely be separated from the question ‘Why linguistics?’


            At the personal level, this question is to be understood in the sense ‘Why do I study linguistics?’  The answers may equally be personal ranging from ‘I do linguistics because I enjoy finding more about such a fascinating subject as language’ to ‘I do linguistics because it will help me earn a living since it seems to be the latest rage’.


            At the social level, this question is to be understood in the sense ‘What are the possible applications of the scientific study of language in general and of particular languages or groups of languages?’  The applications lie in three different directions (1) application towards more effective methods for learning and teaching languages for practical purposes (language pedagogy), (2) application towards wiser and more effective policy-making and planning (language planning) (3) application towards the solution of problems in respect of language in printing, telecommunication, speedwriting, and so forth (language technology).  The cover term for these three that is sometimes used is ‘applied linguistics’ as if this is a branch of linguistics.  It will be much better to speak of ‘Applications of Language sciences’ such as linguistics, the psychology of language, language statistics, and the like...,





            This was published in the Souvenir 14th All-India Conference of Linguists, Nagpur : Dept. of Linguistics and Foreign Indian Languages, Nagpur University, 1985, p.3-5.