what linguistics studies (& what it doesn’t)

When i was an English major, i perpetually got questions about (a) whether i was going to teach, and (b) what language usage would be “correct” in X situation.  I worried when i started studying linguistics that i’d get a lot of (b) all over again.  Fortunately, no one really seems to know exactly what linguistics actually is, so i mostly get a lot of vague “oh, that must be interesting”s.

So what is linguistics interested in studying?  As i said in my earlier post, “linguists are interested in describing linguistic competence by observing linguistic performance”.  “Linguistic competence” basically means “what you’re doing mentally when you use language”.  “Linguistic performance” is the outward expression of your linguistic competence — speaking or signing.

Note:  Writing isn’t on the list above.  One of the things the linguistics does not study is writing.  Why?  The 2 best reasons are that (1) writing must be taught, and (2) writing can be edited and is thus a less immediate, natural expression.

What do linguists look at to “see” a person’s linguistics performance?  Speech and signing (e.g., American Sign Language).  By observing these, a linguist can develop what’s called a descriptive grammar.  So-called because it describes the rules of the language.  Everyone who speaks a language uses these unconscious rules to put together utterances.

By contrast, the type of grammar everyone bugged me about in my English major example (b) above is called a prescriptive grammar — because it prescribes the rules one “should” use.  Linguistics isn’t interested in prescriptive grammar, because the rules of prescriptive grammar have to be taught (hence, “grammar school”) and because they’re not natural features of language.

That’s another thing that draws me to linguistics: the idea that if you’re a native speaker of a language, you already know how to use your language perfectly well to convey your meaning.  I get tired of people who get hung up on being nitpicky about “what language usage would be ‘correct’ in X situation.”  Blech.

2 thoughts on “what linguistics studies (& what it doesn’t)”

  1. I’m finding that studying another language really makes that written/spoken distinction clear.

    1. That’s an interesting observation. I wonder if you were more inclined to notice since you’re studying Japanese, which has 3 systems for writing.

      I haven’t been writing nearly enough in French to notice a distinction yet myself. It’s still enough to get a subject-verb-object structure to work properly. Sigh.

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