Frequently Asked Questions About Linguistics

What is Linguistics, anyway?
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language.

What do you mean by "human language"?
All humans have some language, without exception. It's a distinguishing biological trait of Homo Sapiens. And all human languages have a lot of similarities, and they tell us quite a lot about what it means to be human, which is a big preoccupation of H. Sapiens.

Here's what Edward Sapir (considered by many the greatest American linguist of the last century) said:

"Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to the fact
  that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has
  evolved -- nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable
  experience. This form may be endlessly varied by the individual without thereby
  losing its distinctive contours; and it is constantly reshaping itself as is all art.

"Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and
  anonymous work of unconscious generations."         -- Language (1921)

All right, what do you mean by "scientific"?
Roughly, objective, unbiased, data-oriented, and reproducible, among other meanings. Simply put, linguists are concerned with how language actually does work, rather than with how (somebody says) it ought to work. This is a fairly new approach to a very old interest, since people have always been interested in language, even though it is a hard subject to talk about.

How old is Linguistics, then?
Linguistics is paradoxically both a very old and a very new discipline. It's very old because its physical and physiological basis is the science of Phonetics (the study of how the sounds of human speech are produced and perceived), which was founded in ancient India about 2500 years ago, roughly the same time the Periclean Golden Age was happening in Athens. Later, three of the classical and medieval Seven Liberal Arts, studied by all university students as a basis for all other studies, were concerned with language:
  • Grammar,
  • Rhetoric, and
  • Logic.
All of these ancient disciplines have found their way into modern Linguistics.

Linguistics is also very new because Western science didn't put all this together into a useful discipline until about 200 years ago, and didn't invent many other useful ways to study other aspects of human language until the present century. In fact, it's so new that most Americans, for instance, know even less about Linguistics (and about languages, including their own) than they do about mathematics; both are notoriously difficult things to talk and to think about.

Why is that? And how do you get around it?
Linguistics is a bit unusual as a discipline because human language is so ubiquitous that it permeates everything in our experience. It's not all that easy to think and talk about, since you have to use language to do that. So linguists have tried all kinds of ways to study language, and found out all kinds of things from each method. In consequence, Linguistics extends across the modern academic categories of Natural Science, Social Science, and Humanities. In the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts of the University of Michigan, the Linguistics Department is housed administratively in the Division of Humanities, though its studies range far beyond that. For instance, all of the following are the subject of research and teaching in the Linguistics Department:
  • Phonetics is a natural science, encompassing parts of Acoustics and Human Physiology, Anatomy, and Perceptual Psychology.
  • Sociolinguistics (the study of how language works in social interaction),
  • Ethnolinguistics (the study of language as a part of culture), and
  • Psycholinguistics (the study of how humans learn and use language individually)
    are social sciences -- allied (respectively) with Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology.
  • Text Analysis (the study of how authors use written language to produce the effects they do) is one of the humanities, affiliated with Literary Criticism.
  • Syntax (the part of Grammar that studies how words go together to form phrases and clauses) is related to some parts of Mathematics.

  • Q:
    What can I do with a Linguistics major?
    About the same thing you can do with any LS&A major: learn to think. College isn't really about job training; college is about expanding your intellectual skills and building up your knowledge base to use them on; "furnishing your mind so you have a place to live in twenty years."

    Linguistics does, however, convey certain benefits as a major:

    There are also certain drawbacks to the study of Linguistics as well:

    UM Linguistics Concentration Requirements       Make an appointment with an advisor (for UM students)     Ask A Linguist
    Last change 3/6/05 John Lawler