What is linguistics?

Whenever I tell someone that I study linguistics, they often ask:

  • What language(s) do you study?
  • How many languages do you speak?

But linguistics is more than just about studying one language or even multiple languages.

What is a linguist?

The term linguist can refer to:

  • a person who speaks many languages (also known as a polyglot),
  • a person who is a language expert (e.g. translators, interpreters and language teachers) OR
  • a person who studies linguistics (also known as an academic linguist).

In this post, I’ll use the term linguist in the third sense, i.e., someone who studies linguistics.

What is linguistics?

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, specifically the rules that govern language.

When I say rules, you may think of rules your teacher taught you, e.g. “never end a sentence with a preposition”.

These rules are called prescriptive rules because they are externally imposed on speakers by higher authorities and are cheerfully ignored and broken all the time.

Linguists aren’t interested in such rules for the most part.

Many of the rules we’re interested in are rules that no one taught you but you somehow managed to figure out.

It almost seems as if you were born knowing these rules.

Here’s an example of a rule that linguists study. Take these two sentences:


Mary’s mum loves herself.


Mary’s mum loves her.

There seems to be a rule that:

  • herself in (1) must refer to Mary’s mum (and not Mary),
  • but her in (2) cannot refer to Mary’s mum (but could refer to Mary).

I’m pretty sure your parents and teachers didn’t teach you this rule. But you know it.

But surely this rule is obvious!

Well, then try coming up with a set of rules to explain when you can and cannot use her/him(self).

I’d bet that most people without any training in linguistics (including language teachers) would not be able to explain what’s going on.

What do linguists study?

Linguists study all aspects of language.

You can think of language as a bridge between sounds/signs and meaning. The bridge itself is the abstract structures that we produce in our minds to represent these sounds/signs and meanings.

We can’t observe these structures directly, but we can learn a lot about these structures by observing and describing patterns in human languages.

The study of sounds/signs, structure and meaning correspond to three branches of linguistics:

  • Phonology is the study of sounds/signs. Linguists who study phonology are called phonologists.
  • Syntax is the study of the structure of language. Linguists who study syntax are called syntacticians.
  • Semantics is the study of meaning. Linguists who study semantics are called semanticists.

Phonology, syntax and semantics are sometimes referred to as general linguistics or theoretical linguistics. I identify as a theoretical linguist who studies a bit of syntax, semantics and how they interact (also known as the syntax-semantics interface).

Linguists are also interested in the applications of theoretical linguistics. For example:

  • Psycholinguistics is the study of the psychological processes that underlie language.
  • Sociolinguistics is the study of language and society.
  • Historical linguistics is the study of how language changes through time.

There’s a lot of interaction among the different branches of linguistics. Theoretical linguistics forms the basis for applied linguistics, but insights from applied linguistics directly influence the shape of linguistic theory.

What is theoretical linguistics?

Terms like theory and theoretical are intimidating. What is linguistic theory? What do linguists theorise about?

Let’s assume that there are different components in our mind that are responsible for the main components of language – sounds/signs, structures and meaning.

  • How are these components organised?
  • Do they have any subparts?
  • How do they communicate with one another?

For example, part of my research is concerned with the component of language called syntax which is responsible for building structures in language.

One theoretical question that I think about is whether this syntax component contains a subcomponent (called morphology) that’s dedicated to building the structure of complex words (e.g. fold-able or soft-en).

Understanding how these components are organised has potential implications for real-world applications.

  • Speech and language therapists could use these insights to diagnose and treat patients with language disorders.
  • Computational linguists could create models that mimic/reflect the way language is organised in human minds.

What do linguists do?

Since linguistics is the scientific study of language, that means that linguists are scientists who use the scientific method.

  • Like other scientists, we come up with hypotheses about language. Based on these hypotheses, we make predictions about language that we expect to be true.
  • And just like other scientists, we go out and collect data that confirm or refute our hypotheses.

And then we start all over again.

For example, I begin with a hypothesis that the component of language called syntax which is responsible for building structures in language contains a subcomponent called morphology.

I claim that this morphology subcomponent is responsible for building the structure of complex words (e.g. fold-able or soft-en).

If my hypothesis is correct, then I would predict that structures built by this morphology subcomponent are different from structures built outside this component.

I collect data on the properties of both types of structures. I could collect data in any language that has both types of structures, but I focus on structures in Mandarin Chinese called resultatives.

What does a day in the life of a linguist look like?

As a theoretical linguist, I spend a lot of time thinking about fairly abstract concepts. It can seem like I’m staring into space and doing nothing. But I’m actually coming up with hypotheses and predictions and finding ways to test my predictions.

I also spend a lot of time collecting data. Since I focus on Mandarin Chinese, I collect data by talking to native Mandarin speakers and asking them to judge whether they find certain structures or sentences acceptable.

Since I also speak Mandarin, I could collect data simply by talking to myself. Many native speaker linguists rely on their own judgements and intuitions for data.

But there are many speakers of Mandarin Chinese around the world who speak slightly different variants of Mandarin, so I try to consult as many native speakers as possible to ensure that my data is reliable.

Applied linguists spend more time collecting data using surveys, experiments, etc. They might have to recruit participants, administer their studies, code their results, analyse their data using statistics, describe and explain their data, etc.

But as scientists, applied linguists also spend time coming up with hypotheses and predictions and carefully designing surveys, experiments etc. to test these predictions.

Linguists also spend time reading research papers and articles in academic journals. There is a lot of data and analysis already out there, and part of our job is to connect our research projects to the broader research directions in our field.

Linguists also spend time communicating our research by teaching, writing papers and presenting our work at conferences.


I hope you found this post helpful, but if you have any questions you’d like to see answered, please feel free to contact me!