Linguistics For Beginners

Linguistics For Beginners


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Linguistics For Beginners is the first book to ever make the arcane labors of linguistics accessible to general readers. It begins with a lucid definition of language and proceeds to examine how it becomes the subject matter of linguistics. Key topics include the contrast between writing and speech, and elementary lessons in analyses ranging from simple sounds to entire sentences. Absurd fictions such as Eskimos having hundreds of words for snow are exploded, and the borderlands between linguistics and philosophy are investigated.

Linguistics For Beginners teaches concise lessons using wit and whimsy making for a memorable learning experience. The reader will learn about language acquisition, ancient languages, little-known languages, tonal and whistle languages, linguistic engineering, structuralism, language origins, the anthropological approach to linguistics, kinship semantics, color lexicons, geographical linguistics, and much more! Linguistics For Beginners is the key tool for linguistic students of any level.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781934389287
Publisher: For Beginners
Publication date: 07/22/2008
Series: For Beginners
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 590,704
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

W. Terrence Gordon has published more than twenty books, including McLuhan For Beginners and Linguistics For Beginners. He is currently at work on a book about James Joyce and a biographical fiction about the legendary linguist Charles Kay Ogden. When he is not busy writing or teaching, Gordon photographs the haunting beauty of Nova Scotia, Canada, where he has lived since the 1970s.

Susan Willmarth was born in New Mexico and moved in the early '70's to New York City. Since graduating from Parsons School of Design, she has worked as a free-lance editorial illustrator for Push Pin Press Books, Edward Booth-Clibborn editions, New York Magazine, The Open Society, Writers and Readers Publishing, and now For Beginners LLC. Past work includes Black History For Beginners and McLuhan For Beginners. She lives in Manhattan with her bicycle.

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Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2008 W. Terrence Gordon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939994-14-1



Lessons One and Two

Let's start with these basics:

language is a tool; linguistics is the analysis of language

Why say that language is a tool? Because like any of the things that we recognize as tools, from hammers to computers, it lets us do things that would otherwise be impossible or a lot harder to do (try to imagine driving nails without a hammer or compiling a city phone directory without the help of a computer).

Language is a tool for getting thoughts out of our brains and into our mouths and into other brains.

How else would we communicate? Sure, you can just let out a yell to warn of danger, or a groan to express pain, strain, or boredom, and a map or a sketch can give a lot of information. But try sketching this:

I'll never forget her laugh.

Apart from "laugh," the elements of this sentence are too abstract for a picture. They are ideas and concepts, expressible only when organized by and into a complex system: language.

Unlike most other tools, language can be used on itself, and that is exactly what happens in the study called linguistics. It is analysis of language, it is language about language.

Here's another way to think about it: linguistics is to language what a mechanic's manual is to a car. A linguist working on a language with analytical tools is not much different from a mechanic working on an engine with his socket wrenches. The shop manual is not a driver education handbook. And a book on linguistics does not teach you how to speak. It's possible to be a competent mechanic without knowing how to drive a car and just as possible to be a linguist without being fluent in the language you are analyzing. (More about this below, where we meet three guys named Chomsky, Mithridates, and Fazah.)

What? No Words?

So far, we haven't said a word about words, and we're not defining linguistics as words about words. Why? Because linguistic analysis is not limited to words.

Linguistics goes below and above the word. It takes words apart (hopelessly=hope+less+ly) and examines how the parts go together (hope+less+ly but not less+hope+ly). It also looks at how words form groups (He is hopelessly lost but not Lost is hopelessly he).

When a sentence makes sense, its words are linked like pearls on a string. What keeps the words together is a pattern. Many different sets of pearls could be put together on the same piece of string, and many different sets of words can hang together on the same pattern. The study of patterns for sentences is called syntax by linguists and grammar by the rest of the world. Let' go back to our example: He is hopelessly lost.

This sentence has the same pattern (we could also say the same model or the same structure, and we will see later that structure especially is a favorite word among linguists) as the following:


He is probably lost. She was very cold. They will be somewhat annoyed. Linguists are a lot less interested in words than they are in how words combine with each other and in how bits and pieces combine to make up a word. The bits and pieces of spoken language turn out to be more interesting than those of written language, because there is more regularity, more system, more pattern, more structure (there's that linguist's word or choice again) in speech than in writing. Think of it this way: you can line up ten people who all look very different from each other, but if you line up their x-rays, their skeletons will look very similar. Linguists pay more attention to skeletons than to skin; they spend more time studying the sounds of speech and sound systems than words on the page.

Put it in Writing

But let's not imagine that learning about writing is completely outside the important fundamentals of linguistics. We write English in what is called a phonetic alphabet. This means that the letters of the alphabet stand for sounds, the most basic elements of language that linguists study.

A phonetic alphabet is a medium, in the sense of an extension of our bodies. It turns the sounds of language that we produce with our lungs and tongues and teeth and lips into visual marks, whereas the sounds of language are an extension of the thoughts in our minds. Here we are back at the basic idea we started with: language as a tool.

A phonetic alphabet is a tool or medium not only because it extends our bodies but in the even more basic sense of something that goes between and brings together. What does a phonetic alphabet go between and bring together? Meaning and sound.

If we compare, say, Chinese characters, with a phonetic alphabet, we find no "go- between" in Chinese. The writing gives meanings, but it doesn't show how to pronounce what is written.

If you are having trouble understanding this, think about symbols like + or $ or %. There is nothing in the shapes of these symbols to show how they are pronounced, but there is in the letters of plus, dollar, and percent. Imagine if every word in English was a symbol like + instead of plus, $ instead of dollar, or % instead of percent, and then you've got an idea of how Chinese works and how It is different from a phonetic alphabet.

What Does a Linguist Do from Nine to Five

Some linguists study one language and how its sounds vary in different places in a sound- group (p, for example, is not pronounced in exactly the same way at the beginning of a word in English—pot, and at the end—top). Some may examine the street slang of their own neighborhoods, but others may race to a far corner of the world to record conversations among the last few speakers of a dying language.

This is all modern linguistics, twentieth century linguistics, as it has been practiced since the time of Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and because of his influence. So far-reaching has this influence been that Sauseure is often called the father of modern linguistics. But what about earlier?

Is it not possible that people have been thinking about language for almost as long as they have been using it? In fact, we find the first flowering of linguistic thought twenty-two centuries before Saussure.

The French word linguistique had already been in use for at least 24 years when Saussure was born; its English cousin linguistic appeared first in 1837 in the writings of the British scholar William Whewell, who defined it as the science of language. Under the influence of American scholars such as Noah Webster and Dwight Whitney, linguistic was transformed into linguistics.

By comparison with linguistic(s), linguist has a much longer history, having been used first by Shakespeare in 1591 in Two Gentlemen of Verona to mean "one who is skilled in the use of language." Language scholars were known as philologists before linguist came along, and the two terms continued in use alongside each other through the years of Saussure's lifetime.

What does a linguist not do at any time of day? The job of the linguist is to describe language, to record it, analyze it, explain how it works, theorize about how we learn it, and much more. But not to dictate how you should use your language. That would be just as inappropriate as a geneticist giving you suggestions about who you should mate with. But of course there are cases where there has been meddling and mending ...


1) Saussure taught that language change comes about spontaneously and cannot be imposed, but this has not kept any number of people from trying, and their efforts are sometimes called linguistic engineering. At its worst, the phenomenon can induce collective brainwashing (Newspeak in George Orwell's 1984); at its best it eliminates prejudice and bias, as in the introduction of Down's syndrome to replace mongolism, engender to replace father (pseudogeneric verb), or founder to replace father (pseudogeneric noun).

2) In Canada, Quebec's Commission de la protection de la language française (Commission for Protection of the French Language) is commonly known in English as the language police. It is the business of this body to enforce Quebec's parochial and misguided legislation for ensuring the survival of the French language in the predominantly French-speaking province (words on public signs in languages other than French must be half the size of French words). The language police have been vigilant enough to spot unilingual English matzo meal packaging. And, a Montreal gravestone maker has been required to downsize the Hebrew lettering on a fifty year old sign over his business premises.

3) Modern society is making progress toward eliminating language that is prejudicial against persons because of their race, sex, age, sexual orientation, disability, ethnic origin, or belief system. But linguists and non-linguiats alike disagree on exactly where to draw the line on what is deemed to be biased language. Is fellowship objectionable? Should a new term be invented for a female holder of a fellowship? It is true that the primary meaning of the root word fellow given in most dictionaries is that of man or boy, but historically there are several other meanings such as associate, companion, trustee, etc., and the Old English origin of the term is a gender free word for business partner. Of course, it is possible to argue that in contexts where the meanings of associate, companion, etc., are to be expressed, one should opt for one of these terms. And it is probably true that even if Old English feolaga (business partner) was technically gender- free, there were probably few if any female business partners to be found a thousand years ago!


If you have read anything about linguistics, you may have already discovered that the name of Noam Chomsky has dominated the field, particularly in the United States, for fifty years. Chomsky is credited with recharting the course of linguistics when, with the ink still fresh on his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, he published Syntactic Structures in 1957. It was a very slim book but enough of a firecracker to start linguists arguing about how they should approach the analysis of language. They are still at it. Linguistics has gone through many phases of development as a direct result of Chomsky's work (as have his own basic ideas on the subject).

Not so, says the Guinness Book of World Records, where the top contender for the title is one Ziad Fazah of Brazil, who speaks and writes 58 languages.

History records that one of the first persons known for his multilingual skills was King Mithridates of Pontus (132-63 B.C.E.), who was fluent in 22 languages.

The Guinness Book uses linguist in the sense we saw earlier, as per Shakespeare: one who knows many languages. Apparently, in that respect, Dr. Chomsky can't hold a candle to King Mithridates, much less to Mr. Fazah.

Linguistics Then and Now

It didn't take the invention of the terms linguist and linguistics for the analytic study of language to begin. The link between logic and language goes back to ancient times in Aristotle's work and the categories he set up mark the beginnings of what would eventually be called linguistics.

The logic/language connection is still important to linguists today. When computers came on the scene, after the Second World War, somebody soon got the idea to try using them for translating. To do this, it was necessary to give the computer information about the languages it would translate in terms of very basic logic. So, logical and mathematical models of language began to appear, and they have dominated linguistics ever since.

The story goes that the first experiment in translation by computer (usually called machine translation, even though the computer is not a machine in the usual sense of having mechanical parts) was not a success. Supposedly an international team of linguists and translators had worked long and hard and thought that they had everything ready to get their computer to translate from English to Japanese. They gave it the sentence "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." The translation did not take long, but unfortunately it came out meaning "The drink is all right, but the meat is lousy." So it was back to the drawing board.

* * *

It's easy enough to get a computer to recognize a sentence pattern but very difficult to give it all the details about the limits of the pattern. All human languages have patterns, because humans have pattern-making minds, but language patterns are incomplete, imperfect, irregular in all kinds of ways:

sing-sang-sung and ring-rang-rungsink-sank-sunk but not think-thank-thunk and definitely not pink-pank-punk horror-horrid-horrify is a complete pattern terror-terrify, candor-candid are incomplete patterns

These incomplete patterns are no problem for us; we learn what and where the quirks are. It's a big problem for a computer to "understand" that you can have a smoke or have a drink but you can't *have an eat. (In linguistics, an asterisk precedes a word or phrase that is not found in standard use. This once prompted a linguist to come up with the rallying cry: Linguists of the world unite; you have nothing but your asterisk.) So *terild, *candify.

More About Writing it Down

Let's come back to three points we've already touched on and tie them together: 1) Linguists are especially interested in the bits and pieces of language; 2) the average linguist is more likely to pay attention to the stream of speech coming out of somebody's mouth than to chunks of language flash-frozen in written words; 3) We write English in an alphabet that shows us how to pronounce our words.

Think about this last statement. It is only partly true. The first letter in knight, gnome, and psyche, for example, does not tell us what the first sound in the word is. In the long history of English, the written language has not kept up with the changes that have taken place in speech. So, we have words where different letters stand for the same sound (way, weigh, whey) and words where the same letter stands for different sounds (the o in on, once, onion, only). And then there are combinations of letters that represent only one sound (th, sh, for example) and those silent letters in knight, gnome, psychic, etc.

Received Pronunciation

This phrase refers to the pronunciation of Received Standard English, the most prestigious dialect of British English—a class dialect rather than a local dialect, though it is associated primarily with the southern counties. "RP," as it is commonly known, is used by highly educated Britons and members of the Establishment. It is also known as the BBC accent, the public school accent, talking proper, and talking posh.

And Still More About Writing it Down

English is not the only language with inconsistent spelling or silent letters. In French, to take just one example, the verb avoir, meaning to have, has many forms, including aies. Here the four letters stand for just one sound. The word is pronounced like the vowel e in English pet.

The muddled up spellings of languages like English or French forced linguists to invent a new way of writing down speech to show it accurately and consistently. It is called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Here are some of the words we have already used as examples transposed into the IPA:


Those square brackets indicate a phonetic transcription – a written record of somebody talking. If I'm speaking very quickly and use the word "only," I may pronounce it [oni], and if a linguist is taking down my words, she will transcribe [oni] not [onli] to show exactly what I said.

Of course, in spite of my little slip. I know the usual pronunciation of the word, and if this is what the linguist wants to show, forward slashes are used around the transcription instead of square brackets: I onli/. Now we have an example of what is called phonemic or phonological transcription—not one person's words but what people usually say. Here we are moving up from the particulars of speech (phonetics) to the patterns and system of sounds of language (phonology).

If all this talk about phonetics and phonology has inspired you already to become a modern-day Henry (or Henrietta) Higgins. You can start by going to the section further on here titled "More About Phonetics."


Excerpted from LINGUISTICS FOR BEGINNERS by W. TERRENCE GORDON, SUSAN WILLMARTH. Copyright © 2008 W. Terrence Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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