Okay, so I have a confession to make. Although I more or less regularly contribute to this students’ journal, I’m not exactly a student. Not a B.A. or M.A. student, at least. Rather, I’m a PhD student and a researcher here at the University of Hamburg. And I specialize in linguistics. Linguistics is something that I’m truly enthusiastic about. It’s one of the things that nowadays defines me, though this wasn’t always the case.
Now, I realize that linguistics is not exactly the most popular subject in the context of English Language studies, but I’ve never quite understood why that is. Surely, there must be some sort of misunderstanding. Well, I’ve decided to clear that misunderstanding up and share my thoughts on why linguistics is not only invaluable, but also quite awesome.
We are able to convey our thoughts and, indeed, the very essence of our self-perception and our being by means of language. When we speak, we produce sounds (=phones), which, when uttered in a certain way, create units (phonemes), that in turn are stringed together to form meaningful units (morphemes). This is a process we have naturally acquired – depending on which linguistic school you follow either by means of an innate language acquisition device or as a combination of statistical preemption, imitation and rule formation. The fact that we acquire language and the questions of where and how languages are stored in the brain are areas of utmost fascination to me. Just think about it: Someone utters a sentence like The penguin over there is pink and we are able to a) understand that person is referring to a specific kind of bird normally found in the Antarctic and b) deduce that the statement cannot be true, because we know that penguins are, in fact, not pink and we know that pink refers to something other than black and white. The whole world is describable in this way, and if you think of mathematics as a type of language, there are no limits to the angles you choose to approach the world from.
Only when looking at diachronic linguistics, i.e. the development of language over time, you’ll come to realize why there are so many words derived from Latin and Greek in the English language, and why English is spelled completely differently from how it is pronounced.
When applied in the field of discourse analysis, linguistics is an important part of literary studies, as well. Stylistic devices in literary studies overlap with linguistics to a great extent, and, indeed, knowledge of linguistics will help you become a better author. Did you know, for example, that Tolkien was a linguist? Linguistics can also be investigative in nature, solving crimes, mysteries and for example finding out that the alleged first-time author Robert Galbraith, who published a crime novel in 2013, was actually J.K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym. Moreover, communication studies and, in fact, successful communication as a whole, are informed by pragmatic processes – another part of linguistics.
But that’s not all: When you type words into a search engine like google and google provides you with links that fit your search or are similar to what you’ve searched for: that is linguistics. It is because words have been annotated to fit into semantic fields that these search mechanisms are as effective as they are nowadays. Even basic computer science is linked to linguistics in a fundamental way, as programmers use computer based languages with syntax that is based on naturally occuring languages.
Within the field of English studies in Hamburg, linguistics is the only subject that pays equal amounts of attention to the English-speaking world outside of Great Britain, parts of the Commonwealth and the United States. There are many other areas in the world that use English, and being aware of English as it is spoken in Great Britain and the United States is not enough to get by in our globalized world. For example, it can be quite crucial to know the concepts native speakers of Mandarin Chinese with English as their second language transfer to English.
There are, of course, many other interesting fields within linguistics. Unlike literary science, though, linguistics is not really taught in school, and most people therefore come to the conclusion that linguistics must equal grammar. It’s true that grammar is a part of linguistics, yes, but it’s by far not the only part. Unfortunately, in our introductory courses, we need to make students understand the basics first. So we can only give you a very limited picture of what linguistics is actually about and you’re forced to learn things that probably seem alien at first, because you’ve never covered them before. But I can assure you: There is more to it than that.
If you’re studying English, it makes sense to pay equal amounts of attention to linguistics and literary studies. Linguistics in combination with literary science will grant you access to a wider range of different job opportunities than literary science will on its own, and vice versa. Linguistics can open doors for you. So don’t shut them in advance.
by Simone Lechner
Simone was listening to a heated podcast discussion while writing this.