About Linguistics

What is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Language is a human behavior, a product of the human brain. It is used for social purposes, and can be acquired by human children and adults. Languages are also a community’s means of communication – they change over time, and, increasingly today, are becoming endangered and are dying. The subfields of linguistics are dedicated to understanding and explaining these aspects of language.

  • Language and cognition. Like other human cognitive functions, knowledge about language and the ability to use it is the result of the human brain. Many linguists are interested in neurolinguistics – what areas of the brain are used for what sorts of language behavior, how the way the brain processes information influences how language is used, and how language degrades as the brain breaks down. Cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics study the ways the human capacity for language interfaces with other cognitive systems, like memory, perception, and motor control.
  • Language acquisition. Human children acquire their native language automatically, quickly, and without much explicit instruction. By contrast, human adults can labor intensively without ever reaching the same degree of proficiency, and other animals demonstrate limited success in learning a human language. How do children manage this feat? What tools do they bring to the language-learning process? Which among these are innate, and which are specific to language?
  • Language and society. The primary function of language is communication – communication of goals, expectations, commands, requests, social status, power relations, and group affiliation. In addition, the details of a language vary within and across communities of people who use that language – do you say po-TAY-to or po-TAH-to? bucket or pail? Sociolinguistics is the study of the social uses of language, as well as the variation in a language within a community.
  • Language structure. Human language has structure – it is made up of building blocks that are put together to form larger units. For example, complex words may be broken down into their component parts, like un-assail-able or black-bird-s. Similarly, sentences are made up of words, ordered in particular ways. Determiners, like a and the can come before a noun like boy or dog but rarely after it: The boy fell is a grammatical sentence of English but Boy the fell is not. This ability to fit the pieces of language together to form bigger, sometimes completely novel words and sentences appears to be a uniquely human ability, and it is the focus of research on the structure of language.
  • Language documentation and endangerment. The world’s languages are dying out at an unprecedented rate. More than 7,000 languages are spoken around the globe, but half of them may disappear by the end of the century. Language endangerment poses a catastrophic threat for science and signals danger to human rights and culture. Working with indigenous communities, linguists create audio and video documentation of language as spoken by a variety of people in a range of contexts. This documentation serves as a long-lasting linguistic record, providing the backbone for scientific analyses as well as efforts to revitalize and sustain a community’s language heritage.
  • Historical linguistics. One of the discipline’s oldest branches is the study of language over time. It seeks answers to questions like: How do languages change over time? How do multilingualism and contact between speakers of different languages lead to language change? By answering questions like these, historical linguists are able to understand not only how specific languages have changed and are changing, but are also able to track the migration patterns, living conditions, and general history of groups of people. The Department of Linguistics at UH has a long tradition of studying the history of languages of Europe and India, but the majority of historical research in the department has focused on the languages of the Pacific.