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Scholars who made a study of literature as historical documents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:
Linguistic analysis or analytic linguistics
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.
The writing system (Graphonomy)
The naming system (Onomastics)
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
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.