What is Linguistics?

And more importantly, why study it? Christopher Manning, former lecturer at the University of Sydney, explains briefly what linguistics is all about and why study of the subject is important (1997).
Papuan paintings

Of all the skills that human beings possess, language is the most quintessentially human. The practices and institutions that we take for granted, such as law, religion and science, would not be possible if not for the communication of symbolic and abstract meanings that language makes easy. No other animal has anything even approximating human language, and this is no doubt the reason for the complete absence of such institutions even among our closest relatives, the great apes.

In spite of the fact that we all use language intensively each day and are constantly surrounded by its spoken and written forms, most of us are completely unaware of its true nature and structure. This is because it is so close for us, so much a part of our daily lives, that we use it unconsciously. It is a skill we take for granted like riding a pushbike or driving a car. But this easy, largely unconscious skill is very deceptive, for all human languages are highly complex systems for communication, with greatly elaborated structures and rules. Linguistics is the discipline that takes language as its particular object of study, to uncover its structures and rules and to understand how these are used in human acts of communication.

Linguistics studies the full range of aspects of human language. It investigates the phonetics, grammar and semantics of individual languages, but through this seeks to uncover the features common to all human languages, the 'linguistic universals'. These are equivalent to the set of constraints on what is a possible human language, the so-called universal grammar. Various linguistic theories have been proposed which attempt to characterise this underlying structure of all languages; these theories are then used as a guide for the description of individual languages and revised accordingly. Languages which seem on first view to be very different may turn out, on closer scrutiny, to share many important deeper similarities in terms of their overall structural patterning.

Linguistics occupies a privileged position in the field of the humanities and sciences in that it touches on many of the central issues that concern a number of disciplines. Because language is concerned with communication between humans, it is relevant for the social sciences like anthropology and sociology; but because it is the central instrument for thinking and other cognitive tasks, it is also important to psychologists. Problems of language also loom large in fields like philosophy and literary criticism. Finally linguistics has many practical applications in fields like language teaching, general education, and computer science.

Why Study Linguistics?

A Sepik villager

2005 Field Methods class

Perhaps the most important thing we offer is training in reasoning about language, and in writing and speaking about it, which should stand you in good stead whenever rational, independent and creative thinking is valued.

An Arts degree is not a professional qualification. However, an understanding of language is useful in many jobs.

The computer, information and telecommunications industries have taken many graduates.

Some linguistics graduates become teachers, (English, foreign languages, and indigenous language teaching).

Others work as speech pathologists or audiologists, working to overcome problems with language. Others have gone into translation and interpreting.

The public service has taken many linguistics graduates, because a knowledge of how we use language, and how languages vary is important in a society as diverse as ours.

Some work in Aboriginal and Islander communities, or Pacific Island communities, or Asian communities, doing a variety of work, including teaching, working on land claims, community development, policy development.

Webpage created by Voxcomm, a 2005 Arts Informatics Project. All information, images and media copyright of the Linguistics Department, USYD, 2005.