Skip to Content

College of Arts & Sciences
Linguistics Program

What is Linguistics?

You may have wondered, "What exactly is Linguistics, and what do linguists do?" You might assume that a linguist is multilingual, and a linguist may, in fact, be a polyglot, but that's not what linguistics is about, strictly speaking. Linguistics is, broadly, the scientific study of language, and many topics are studied under this umbrella. The links below help to explain the discipline to the general public:

Linguistic Society of America article on Why Major in Linguistics

Linguistic Society of America collection on The Domain of Linguistics

National Science Foundation Special Report on Languages & Linguistics

We often start introductory courses in linguistics with what linguistics is NOT about: it is not about learning to speak languages, it is not about providing tools for the grammar police, it is not about proving which languages are harder than others, and it is not about maintaining the superiority of writing over speech. All those statements beg the question: What IS linguistics all about then? The short answer is that linguistics is a social study of how language in general works.

  • Linguistics is a formal study of the sound system (phonology), word structure (morphology), sentence structure and meaning (syntax and semantics) of the world's languages.
  • Linguistics is a study of the origins of language and of how language evolved (historical linguistics).
  • Linguistics is a study of how languages are acquired in childhood or later in life (language acquisition).
  • Linguistics is a study of how languages are used in different social, economic and geographical settings (sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology).
  • Linguistics is a study of the manifestations of language in the brain (neurolinguistics).

In its nature, linguistics is a multidisciplinary science that shares concerns and methods with all other social sciences. To learn more about what linguists do, find possible career paths, and search for information on the issues of concern in linguistics, visit the Linguistic Society of America’s website.