What is Linguistics: Meaning, Scope, Branches, Types and Career


Linguistics refers to the scientific study of language. The word ‘linguistics’ is derived from the Latin words ‘lingua’ meaning ‘tongue’ and ‘istics’ meaning ‘knowledge’.  According to the Cambridge Dictionary, linguistics refers to ‘the scientific study of the structure and development of language in general or of particular languages’. The study of linguistics comes from the natural curiosity of man about the particulars of the language he speaks, evaluated through different perspectives. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the most famous linguists, “A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas.”  This article looks into different aspects of linguistics, a science that studies the role of language in personal and social levels.

The Scope of Linguistics

Linguistics involves a vast, complex and systematic study, with different core areas such as phonology, phonetics, morphology, syntax and semantics. It is also intertwined with various other disciplines and contains fields like sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics etc. Linguistics, unlike past ages, is being recognized as an independent discipline of study, thus paving the way to a lot of developments and research. Linguistics is a descriptive study and not a prescriptive one and describes language in all aspects. It is a subject that keeps changing, as languages change.

It is a very dynamic domain of study. Although some aspects of the subject are based on historical notes and few sets of rules, it continues to evolve out of old boundaries into new, with developments that occur in different languages. Linguistics is applied to different fields of study, and this makes it a very important discipline. The application of linguistics extends from anthropology to speech therapy in modern medicine. Extensive researches and studies are conducted on the linguistic perspectives of every language, aimed at tracing the characteristics of the language as well as in employing the scope of linguistics into understanding the specific characteristics of literature, including prose and poems in different languages.

Let us take a look at the different levels of linguistics:

Levels of linguistic analysis

Language has a hierarchical structure. In order to study the science of language systematically, we sub-divide the area of study in an analytical and easier way. Each level of the system that constitutes the study of linguistics is independent on its own. These levels can be represented in the following manner:

Branches of Linguistics

  • Phonetics: Phonetics refers to the study of the sounds of speech. It deals with the way sounds are produced, transmitted and perceived.

The three main branches of phonetics are

1.Articulatory phonetics: studies the articulation of speech sounds

2. Acoustic phonetics: studies the physical properties of speech sounds as transmitted between mouth and ear

3.Auditory phonetics: studies the perpetual response to speech sounds as mediated by ear, auditory nerve and brain.

  • Phonology: a study of how sounds/sound patterns/signs are arranged in each language, as organized units of speech. It also looks into the specifications in the distribution of sounds in each language.
  • Morphology: studies the forms of words in different uses and constructions. It is concerned with the evolution of small words from meaningful units called ‘morphemes’. It is studied under two fields, namely, inflectional morphology and derivational morphology.
  • Syntax: studies the construction of phrases, clauses and sentences in a language. It analyses the basic word order followed in languages.
  • Semantics: it is a study of meaning. It focuses on studying the structure of meaning in a language and in giving an account of word and sentence meaning.
  • Pragmatics: it is an extension of semantic and deals with the study on how meaning changes with different contexts.

The hierarchy of language can be represented as:

  • Phonemes
  • Syllables
  • Morphemes
  • Words
  • Phrases
  • Clauses
  • Sentences/Utterances
  • Texts/discourses

Types of Linguistics

  • Theoretical linguistics: studies the nature of language as it is and analyses the properties it possesses. It is aimed at learning behaviour and features of language.
  • Descriptive linguistics: a study of particular languages and language families, from both historical and synchronic points of view.
  • Historical Linguistics: a study of the pattern of change of languages over time.
  • Sociolinguistics: the branch of linguistics that studies the relation between society and language.
  • Dialectology: study of the division of one language into many.
  • Applied linguistics: a study of practical applications of language studies, such as translation and speech therapy.

Fields of linguistics

  • Computational Linguistics: studies natural language from a computational aspect
  • Neurolinguistics: studies the biological basis of language and its development.
  • Mathematical linguistics: studies the mathematical aspects of language
  • Psycholinguistics: a study of biological and psychological factors that enable humans to acquire, use and understand language.
  • Ontogeny linguistics: studies child language acquisition

Why Study Linguistics?

The study of linguistics is aimed at achieving two major objectives.

  • To study the nature of language and establish a theory of language
  • To describe a language and all languages by applying the theory established.

A formal study in linguistics helps us evaluate and analyze human language through various angles. A major in the discipline helps us in understanding the different methodologies that are devised in the study of language, understand the world better, realize the scope and applications of language and so- on.

Career in Linguistics

Those studying the field of linguistics are called as ‘Linguists’. They study and bring into application the concepts, branches and fields of linguistics.

There is a wide range of career option available and Some of them are:

  • Teacher in the field of linguistics
  • Foreign/English language teacher
  • Lexicographer
  • Speech Pathologist
  • Psycholinguists/Sociolinguists/Historical linguists
  • Diplomats
  • Translator
  • Text-to-speech developers
  • Machine translator
  • Artificial intelligence developer
  • Language documenter
  • Interpreter
  • Journalist/Writer
  • Language consultant

Famous Universities:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (United States)
  • The University of Edinburgh (United Kingdom()
  • Harvard University (United States)
  • University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
  • Stanford University (United Kingdom)
  • University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
  • Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (India)
  • Jawaharlal Nehru University (India)

Famous Linguists and their contributions

  • Ferdinand de Saussure – a Swiss linguist who worked on structural principles of language. His ideas revolutionized the discipline of linguistics and paved the way to many significant developments in the field.
  • Edward Sapir – an anthropologist-linguist who worked on the genetic relationship of Native American languages and brought advancements to modern theoretical linguistics.
  • Roman Jakobson – Russian-American linguist who contributed to the establishment of the Prague school of linguistics.
  • Noam Chomsky – American linguist referred to as the ‘Father of modern linguistics’. He contributed extensively to the discipline. Chomsky brought forward the theory of generative grammar, which is based on the biological use of human language.
  • Leonard Bloomfield – American linguist who led the developments in structural linguistics.

Popular Books

  • Through the language glass: Why the world looks different in other languages – Guy Deutscher
  • The Language Instinct: How the mind creates language – Steven Pinker
  • Women, Fire and Dangerous things – George Lakoff
  • The Symbolic Species – Terry Deacon
  • What Language Is – John McWhorter
  • On Language: Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language – Noam Chomsky
  • The Linguistic Wars – Randy Allen Harris



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Student of Economics in Miranda House, University of Delhi. Interested in writing, reading, music, painting, public speaking, and debating.Aspiring Economist. A dreamer who loves the smiles and colours of the world.