1.1 Linguistics is Science

This unit introduces the idea of thinking scientifically about language by making empirical observations rather than judgments of correctness.

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Video Script

Linguistics is one of those subjects that not many people have heard of, so you might well be wondering exactly what it is.

The simplest definition of Linguistics is that it’s the science of language.

This is a simple definition but it contains some very important words. First, when we say that linguistics is a science, that doesn’t mean you need a lab coat and safety goggles to do linguistics.  Instead, what it means is that the way we ask questions to learn about language uses a scientific approach.

The scientific way of thinking about language involves making systematic, empirical observations.  There’s another important word:  empirical means that we observe data to find the evidence for our theories.

All scientists make empirical observations: botanists observe how plants grow and reproduce. Chemists observe how substances interact with other. Linguists observe how people use their language.

A crucial thing to keep in mind is that the observations we make about language use are NOT value judgments.  Lots of people in the world — like your high school English teacher, various newspaper columnists, maybe your grandparents, and maybe even some of your friends — make judgments about how people use language.  But linguists don’t.

A short-hand way of saying this is that linguists have a descriptive approach to language, not a prescriptive approach.

We describe what people do with their language, but we don’t prescribe how they should or shouldn’t do it.

This descriptive approach is consistent with a scientific way of thinking. Think about an entomologist who studies beetles.  Imagine that scientist observes that a species of beetle eats leaves.  She’s not going to judge that the beetles are eating wrong, and tell them that they’d be more successful in life if only they eat the same thing as ants.  No — she observes what the beetle eats and tries to figure out why:  she develops a theory of why the beetle eats this plant and not that one.

In the same way, linguists observe what people say and how they say it, and come up with theories of why people say certain things or make certain sounds but not others.

In our simple definition of linguistics, there’s another important word we need to focus on:  linguistics is the science of human language.

There are plenty of species that communicate with each other in an impressive variety of ways, but in linguistics, our job is to focus on the unique system that humans use.

It turns out that humans have some important differences to all other species that make our language unique.

First, what we call the articulatory system: our lungs, larynx & vocal folds, and the shape of our tongue, teeth, lips, nose, all enable us to produce speech.  No other species can do this in the way we can, not even our closest genetic relatives the chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans.

Second, our auditory system is special:  our ears are sensitive to exactly the frequencies that are most common in human speech.  There are other species that have similar patterns of auditory sensitivity, but human newborns pay special attention to human speech, even more so than synthetic speech that is matched for acoustic characteristics.

And most important of all, our neural system is special: no other species has a brain as complex and densely connected as ours with so many connections dedicated to producing and understanding language.

Humans’ language ability is different from all other species’ communication systems, and linguistics is the science that studies this unique ability.


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Essentials of Linguistics Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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