What is Linguistics?

Transcript of a lecture by Professor John McWhorter, Columbia University

A great many things about language that seem apparent, in fact, are quite otherwise upon examination, and this is what makes linguistics a fascinating field.

Linguistics is the study of human language, rather than an attempt to learn languages or change how people express themselves through language. It is a science that, in its current form, has existed only for the past 200 years. Linguistics is a scientific analysis of language, as opposed to the more impressionistic analysis of language that all of us spontaneously make because we all use language all the time. The idea is to find system in what appears to be either chaos or just randomness, such as the fact that the big bucket of words is a part of what a language is.

What do I mean by scientific? I will tell you. For example, here’s one example of how linguistics is scientific: There is a science of how words work in languages. For example, we can say “singin’,” or we can say “singing.” We’re often told that “singin’” is shorter than “singing,” that a “g” has been dropped. But if you think about it—and I’m always saying, “If you think about it,” because these things become obvious if you just pause for a second and smell some roses and think about it—actually, there is nothing dropped at all in “singin’.” Nothing has been left off, because the final sound of “singing” is not two sounds—even though it’s written that way with an “ng.” It’s just one sound.

“Finger” versus “Singer”

image of a singer and a finger, used to demonstrate the science of linguistics
How linguistics works as a science can be demonstrated by examining the words “singer” and “finger”—two words that are spelled nearly identically, but for some reason have different pronunciations.

Here’s how you know. Here are two words: There’s “singer,” and we know how that’s spelled, and then there’s “finger.” Notice that those two words only differ in terms of the initial consonant. You don’t say “finner”—that doesn’t work—and you don’t say “sing-ger.” I once knew a professor of music who kept talking about “sing-gers.” I didn’t know why, and it was like somebody jabbing his finger in my eye every time he said it, because that’s not the way it’s pronounced. You have a “singer” and a “fing-ger.” The difference is that in one of those cases you are actually enunciating an “n” and a “g,” and so a “fing-ger.” But with “singer,” you don’t say “sing–ger.” In other words, if you isolate what’s in the middle, it’s this “nguh” thing—not “nnn-guh,” but “nguh.” That “nguh” is a separate sound in English, and that’s the sound at the end of “singing.” It’s “singing,” not “singing-guh,” which is not something anybody would say.

There is a sound system of language, which is very different from the way language happens to be spelled. One thing that we’re going to learn again and again is that we have to get past letters. Language is about sound.

There’s a science of sound, which is very different from the alphabet that we diligently learned and now think of as something sacrosanct.

In fact, the way that language is represented on the page is very similar to how people are drawn on The Simpsons. For example, if Stephen Jay Gould guests on The Simpsons, then he’s going to have big eyes and this kind of blobby drawing style. That’s the way everybody looks on The Simpsons. There could be no Homo sapiens who actually looks like that. We’re just used to that kind of refraction of what people look like on The Simpsons. Letters are to spoken language as Simpsons are to real life and the way it actually looks. There’s a science of sound, which is very different from the alphabet that we diligently learned and now think of as something sacrosanct.

image of the words "the" and "a" hanging from a clothesline
In the vast majority of the world’s languages, there are no words for “the” and “a.”

There is a scientific perspective on what concepts are core to language as opposed to ones that are incidental frills. The things that are incidental frills are often ones that seem very meat-and-potatoes and central and vital to us within the particular language that we speak. For example, in the vast majority of the world’s languages, there are no words for “the” and “a.” We kind of think that it’s necessary to distinguish the soap that we slipped on this morning from a turtle that mysteriously popped up in the living room and that we’re mentioning right now. Actually, that is a very fine shade of meaning that many languages completely do without in any fashion, and it’s not something that is typical of a language, to have two words with those meanings. English is odd like that.

“Having” and “Doing”

Most languages in the world do not have a verb “to have.”

Most languages in the world do not have a verb “to have.” We think of it as the most ordinary thing in the world to say, as I do, “I have a cat.” But why would you put it that way? It’s interesting. If you talk about verbs, it could be “I own a cat,” and then there is a financial arrangement. I think mine cost a hundred dollars. Or it could be “I grasp a cat,” or it could be “I possess a cat.” But to say “I have a cat,” what am I doing? I’m really specifying a kind of relationship between me and my cat, not something that I do. I don’t walk around “having.” Actually, in a great many languages, the way that you say you have something is to say that thing is “to you.” Those of you who know Russian will be familiar with this, and this is very common around the world. Most of the languages in the world have some other way of dealing with “have” when using neutral sentences.

When you ask the question “Do you walk quickly? “What is the word “do” doing?

Or there’s this business of “do” in English. You say, “I do not walk quickly.” What’s the “do”? Can’t you just say, “I walk not quickly?” If you’ve learned any other language, then you’ll notice that’s the way it’s said. It’s either “I not walk quickly” or “I walk not quickly,” but what’s this “I do not walk quickly”? We just kind of get used to it, but it’s there. When you ask a question, “Do you walk quickly?” What’s the “do” doing? If you’re an English speaker, it seems like the most natural thing.

Why don’t you just say, “Walk you?” In fact, if you look at the languages of the whole world, then as far as this kind of little “do” usage, that is in (1) English; that is in (2) some Celtic languages like Welsh and Breton. Then, as far as I know—and I haven’t checked every language in the world—but I have reason to believe that one of the only other places where “do” is used in that way is up in some mountains in Italy in these villages where only a handful of people live. A few of these dialects use “do” only in questions. Those are the only languages in the world—and in this case they’re just dialects of Italian—that use “do” in that way.

Incidental Features of Language

Linguists have actually found that a lot of aspects of language that might feel essential to the speaker are actually incidentals. The incidental features tend to appear in a language only if other ones do in certain orders. And the orders that these things appear in just might have something to do with how our brains are configured to learn language when we are infants. When it comes to language, the proper analogy could be seen to be food preparation. There are all sorts of ways of preparing food around the world, but when you really think about it, all food preparation is based on certain basic principles involving temperature and whether—and how—you age the food in question. There’s no such thing as a cuisine that is not based on those fundamental elements. Of course, in some regions some items are more easily available than others. There are traditions that have set in as to what you eat and what you don’t eat. But all cooking is ultimately based on certain fundamental chemical principles. A Martian could be taught those and come up with a kind of food that would make a certain basic sense almost anywhere in the world.

As linguists, we’re looking for what the universals of, say, cooking mechanisms are, except as applied to language. Thai food’s great, but we wouldn’t want to say that the essentials of cooking are lime juice and chili and the particular things that they do. Those are variations on something much more general. In linguistics, we are looking for the general.

From the lecture series Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language
Taught by Professor John McWhorter, Columbia University