What is Linguistics?

The Department of World Languages and Literatures at Western Michigan University offers various courses in linguistics.

Linguistics is often called "the science of language," the study of the human capacity to communicate and organize thought using different tools (the vocal tract for spoken languages, hands for sign languages, etc.) and involving different abstract and tactile components.

Linguistics looks at:

  • The general phenomenon of human language.
  • Different families of languages (example: Germanic, including English, German, Dutch and Scandinavian, among others).
  • Specific languages (example: Arabic, Mandarin and French).
  • Communicative codes or behaviors that are not so well defined (example: the language of recent immigrants, the ways by which bilinguals choose one or another language in certain settings).

Linguistics is a human science—in fact, one of the foundational disciplines in the western intellectual tradition—and may be compared with programs such as sociology, psychology or anthropology.

As with all human sciences, there are several sub-fields in linguistics:

  • Phonetics (the study of how speech sounds are made)
  • Phonology (how these sounds are organized)
  • Morphology (how sounds are organized into units of meaning)
  • Pragmatics (the relationship between language signs and language users)
  • Semantics (the study of meanings themselves)
  • Sociolinguistics (the interaction of language and people or collectives)
  • Syntax (how units of meaning come together to create utterances)

Because of its inherently cross-disciplinary nature, linguistics and linguists is often integrated into such disciplines as communications, sociology, history, literature, foreign languages, pedagogy and psychology.

Why study linguistics?

The study of linguistics permits a person to better understand the world around her or him, as this world is constantly being filtered through and organized by language.

  • How do you talk to yourself? To others?
  • How do you organize your day?
  • How do you conceive of your existence and that of others?

When you see something interesting or shocking, when you try to remember a fact or setting, express anger or love, you do this through the medium of language. When you read, sing, study, write, chat or daydream, language is at the heart of your experience. The study of linguistics is not just an investigation into words or sounds, but into the heart of humanity.


Studying linguistics has many benefits.

  • Teachers of English or other languages can better understand their subject matter.
  • People communicating with others—of their culture or another—can become more effective and persuasive.
  • Counselors and mediators can learn the value of such hidden things as affect or intonation.
  • People in business can better grasp the role language plays in their contacts and communications.
  • Historians and politicians can see the role played by language and by peoples' views of language in past and current events.
  • Understanding that language is a powerful force—and gaining the intellectual tools to go beneath the surface of daily observation—might well build better international friendships and help communities and individuals understand and respect one another more fully.

Finally, linguistics is fun and will make you a more rounded person with interesting things to say. Have you ever wondered why sentences such as, "the friend I came to the party with" are incorrect (according to your high school English teacher, at least)? Are you confused by the subjunctive of Spanish or French or by the use of the dative or accusative in German? Do you wonder why so many people learn English, but why so few English speakers learn other languages? All of these are questions that make linguists' hearts stir and, although we might not always have the answers, we definitely enjoy trying to find them.