Introduction to Linguistics

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The scientific study of a language is called Linguistics. Language is the ability to comprehend both spoken and written words, and to produce meaningful words when a person speaks or writes.

This article is Part 1 in a 3-Part Series.

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Introduction to Linguistics

The scientific study of a language is called Linguistics. Language is the ability to comprehend both spoken and written words, and to produce meaningful words when a person speaks or writes. Language uses complex system of communication and it involves various . Language is a complex skill set that involves many complicated processes, such as biological, cognitive, and social skills. Other types of language involve the use of signs or body signals to convey meaning.


The rules of a language are called grammar. These rules include phonology, the sound system, morphology, the structure of words, syntax, the combination of words into sentences, semantics, the ways in which sounds and meanings are related, and the pragmatics, the context to meaning.

Grammar Types

There are two types of grammars: descriptive and prescriptive.

Descriptive grammar

Descriptive grammars represent the unconscious knowledge of a language. English speakers, for example, know that “me likes apples” is incorrect and “I like apples” is correct, although the speaker may not be able to explain why. Descriptive grammars do not teach the rules of a language, but rather describe rules that are already known.

Prescriptive grammar

In contrast, prescriptive grammars dictate what a speaker’s grammar should be and they include teaching grammars, which are written to help teach a foreign language.

Universal Grammar

There are about 5,000 languages in the world right now , and linguists have discovered that these languages are more alike than different from each other. There are universal concepts and properties that are shared by all languages, and these principles are contained in the Universal Grammar, which forms the basis of all possible human languages.

Components of Universal Grammar

Linguists have identified five basic components found across languages.

  • Phonology
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
  • Pragmatics

Language acquisition progresses across these components with increasing quantity (e.g., sounds, words, and sentence length) and gradual refinement, and understanding of the subtler and more complex points of usage (e.g., using “taught” rather than “teached”).


The study of speech structure within a language, including both the patterns of basic speech units and the accepted rules of pronunciation, is known as phonology. The smallest units of sound that make up a language are called phonemes. For example, the word “that” contains three phonemes the “th” represents one phoneme /th/, the “a” maps to the short a sound /ă/, and the “t” to its basic sound /t/.


Morphemes are the minimal units of words that have a meaning and cannot be subdivided further.  Knowledge of the morphology of our language is critical to vocabulary development and reflects the smallest building blocks for comprehension. There are two group of morphemes : Free morphemes and bound morphemes.

Free Morphemes

Free morphemes can occur alone  An example of a free morpheme is “bad”. Again, there are two broad group of free morphemes:

Lexical Words

Lexical words are called open class words and include nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. New words can regularly be added to this group.

Function Words

Function words, or closed class words, are conjunctions, prepositions, articles and pronouns; and new words cannot be (or are very rarely) added to this class.

Bound Morphemes

Bound morphemes must occur with another morpheme. An example of a bound morpheme is “ly.” It is bound because although it has meaning, it cannot stand alone. It must be attached to another morpheme to produce a word.

For example word, “badly” = free morpheme (“bad”) + bound morpheme (“ly”).

Morpheme group again have various types:


There are two categories of affixes: derivational and inflectional. The main difference between the two is that derivational affixes are added to morphemes to form new words that may or may not be the same part of speech and inflectional affixes are added to the end of an existing word for purely grammatical reasons. In English there are only eight total inflectional affixes:

Form Description Example
-s 3rd person singular present Jack waits
-ed past tense Jack waited
-ing progressive Jack's eating
-en past participle Jack has eaten
-s plural three bottles
-'s possessive Toby's son
-er comparative Jim is taller
-est superlative Jim is the shortest

Prefixes are added to the beginning of another morpheme.

  • Example: re- added to do produces redo

Suffixes are added to the end of the morpheme.

  • Example: -or added to edit produces editor

Infixes are inserted into other morphemes.

  • Example: -um- added to fikas (strong) produces fumikas (to be strong) in Bontoc

Circumfixes are attached to another morpheme at the beginning and end.

  • Example: ge- and -t to lieb (love) produces geliebt (loved) in German

Formation of words

There are six ways to form new words.

  • Compounds are a combination of words.
    • Examples: Doghouse
  • Acronyms are derived from the initials of words.
    • Examples: WWW (World Wide Web) 
  • Back-formations are created from removing what is mistakenly considered to be an affix
    • Examples: credit _from _creditor
  • Abbreviations or Clippings are shortening longer words
    • Examples: phone _from _telephone
  • Eponyms are created from proper nouns (names)
    • Examples: sandwich from Earl of Sandwich
  • Blending is combining parts of words into one.
    • Examples: smog from smoke and fog


The study of how individual words and their most basic meaningful units are combined to create sentences is known as syntax. As words are grouped together when we communicate, we must follow the rules of grammar for our language, in other words, its syntax. It is the knowledge of syntax that allows us to recognize that the following two sentences, while containing different word order and levels of complexity, have the same meaning.

  • The boy hit the ball.
  • The ball was hit by the boy.

Syntax also allows us to accept “I went to the store” as a meaningful (grammatical) sentence while “To store went I” would not be acceptable English.

You can read more on syntax on this post


Semantics refers to the ways in which a language conveys meaning. It is our understanding of semantics that allows us to recognize that someone who is “green with envy” has not changed hue, or that “having cold feet” has less to do with the appendage at the end of our legs and more to do with our anxiety about a new experience.

Because semantics moves beyond the literal meaning of words and is culture-dependent, this is among the most difficult aspects of language for individuals who are not native speakers and even those who speak the same language but come from different cultures and convey meaning using words in unique ways. Anyone who has attempted to converse with a teenager in his own vernacular can appreciate the importance of sharing a semantic base for communicating clearly.


Pragmatics refers to the ways the members of the speech community achieve their goals using language.” The way we speak to our parents is not the same as the way we interact with a sibling, for example. The language used in a formal speech may bear little resemblance to what we would hear at a lunch with five friends. The conversational style of day-to-day interactions is quite different from the language used even when reading a storybook to a toddler. Knowing the difference and when to use which style is the essence of pragmatics.


You can see the major levels of linguistic structure in the below diagram:



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