When you get down to it, any field of study can be considered “lumpy” — there will always be those weird outliers of the field that merge in from a different category, and Linguistics is no different. Contrary to popular ignorance though, Linguistics is NOT the mere study of different languages. That’s kinda like saying that Computer Science is just learning to use different computers. Which, while true to an extent, barely scratches the surface of the matter.

Simply put, linguistics is the study of the mechanics of language. And while data sets of different languages do come into play to help illustrate these mechanics, they’re not the end goal. But as it so happens, I have a passion for both linguistics and learning languages, which perhaps conflates the confusion with my friends. (Or at least, the friends I haven’t yet initiated with my rant about what linguistics is.)

And, like any other field, Linguistics can be split into smaller fields of study. The big ones (the ones covered in any decent Ling101 course) are:

Phonetics & Phonology – the study of sound, after you remove individual variation (voice, pitch, etc). The two are slightly different in Linguistics, but I’ll save that distinction for its dedicated post. The IPA is a huge advancement in this field.

Morphology – the study of ‘sound-with-meaning’. We all know what the -ing does to a verb, but we also all accept that *ing cannot exist by itself. It carries meaning, and yet doesn’t. Such things are called morphemes. Although different languages will embed morphemes differently, they all share the same basic parts of speech (which leads into syntax).

Syntax – word order. Why is it that the verb always goes at the end in Japanese? But all languages have nouns and verbs. Most developed languages also have adjective and adverbs. And then there are those other interesting ones that don’t quite make it to top salience: conjunctions, interjections, pronouns, prepositions, determiners, … . Excessively precise to the layman, perhaps, but this kind of thing actually gets me excited.

Semantics – the study of meaning …but not in an ontological way. This is where we get into the ‘meaning’ of words. Lexicography (the practice of compiling dictionaries) is a subset of semantics, I suppose.

Pragmatics – the study of meaning beyond semantics. There are the words we use, and then there are the ways we use them. This is the interesting domain of how intent is conveyed beyond the literal words. Consider: “a dirty old man” doesn’t usually connote an unhygienic pensioner. And yet, that’s what those words individually mean.

Discourse analysis – the analysis of how language is used in “text” (whether written, spoken, or signed).

Of course, there are many other areas that I haven’t mentioned (orthography, language acquisition, psycho-linguistics, computational linguistics), but the ones I’ve described already are more-or-less the basics. Over the next few days (or indeed, hours, depending on my mood), I’ll make my small humble attempt to share why each branch of linguistics is an exciting field of study.