Department of Philology // University of Patras

What is Linguistics?

Linguistics is a comparatively new science, or new, at least, in the form it has taken in recent years. The science seeks to answer the following questions: (a) what exactly do we know when we know a language (b) how is this knowledge acquired and (c) how is such knowledge used? Linguistics examines language as a part of human behaviour from a psychological and a social and cultural aspect and attempts to determine which characteristics are unique to a language and which are universal (found in all the world's languages), how individual languages differ, how and why they change, "die" or "are born". Like all sciences, linguistics is divided into theoretical and applied.

Theoretical Linguistics examines a language at different levels of analysis, i.e. its phonological system, articulation and perception of sounds (phonetics), word formation (morphology) and phrases and sentences (syntax), the meaning of linguistic expressions (semantics), and language use (pragmatics). In the early days of the science, the chief concern of those involved was to describe the different languages spoken throughout the world and to classify them into typological groups. The conclusions drawn as a result of this painstaking work were, unfortunately, limited to the production of descriptive conclusions, and no answers were found to more fundamental questions which had been posed since ancient times relating to the human mind (Aristotle, Plato). By the mid 20th century, Theoretical Linguistics had adopted a more precise descriptive approach and began to focus on interpreting data in order to attempt to answer such questions as how humans acquire a language and the structure and function of the human mind. It was the American linguist Noam Chomsky who led the science down this route, establishing and developing contemporary linguistic thinking under the umbrella of what is known as generative linguistics.

Applied Linguistics builds on the findings of Theoretical Linguistics and, combining its strengths with those of other sciences such as Psychology, Mathematics, Sociology, etc. seeks to examine the circumstances under which a language is acquired and used by a language community. Applied Linguistics proposes new methods and approaches to a language and offers support to the language community with any issue or problem it may be facing relating to language. Depending on the area of application, Applied Linguistics extends into such fields as: Teaching and Learning Foreign Languages (developing foreign language teaching methods), Clinical Linguistics (analysis and treatment of language disorders), Educational Linguistics (the use of the mother tongue in school), Lexicography (methods and techniques for creating dictionaries), Translation (methods for translating / rendering from one language to another), Sociolinguistics (study of the link between language and society), Psycholinguistics (relationship between language and human behaviour), Computational Linguistics (the use of computers in language analysis and use), etc.

The interdisciplinary nature of modern Linguistics

For more general information concerning Linguistics, please refer to the following websites: