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Information in this page copyright 2001 Brigham Young University Department of Linguistics. Permission to duplicate this material for non-commercial academic purposes is freely given, provided BYU is noted as the copyright holder.

This page last updated March 22, 2001 at 10:45 p.m. MDT by Daniel Roundy, dqr@ttt.org


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Top-down view of linguistics

Most of this should be old hat to linguistics students, but a refresher is useful at times anyway. The following division of areas of lingusitic inquiry is widely, but not universally, accepted among linguists and is a useful framework for looking at areas of linguistic study. "Mainstream" American linguistics has typically divided linguistics into these six areas, but whether they can be as neatly divided as this model suggests is an area of debate. The following list is (paradoxically since this is a top-down view) listed from the most "basic" to the most "complex":


Phonetics is the study of speech sounds as sound (versus phonology, which looks at sound in language as a system). It is usually divided into two main branches: articulatory phonetics, which examines how the human vocal apparatus produces speech (and other) sounds, and acoustic phonetics, which looks at the acoustic structure of human speech sounds. Other fields in phonetics include language-specific phonetics and the study of accents. Phonetics is related to other areas of linguistics that share an interest in speech sounds (most notably phonology and neurolinguistics, but also semantics).


Phonology is the study of speech sounds as a system in language. The fundamental unit of study in many (but not all) phonological theories is the phoneme; other theories consider the fundamental unit of study to be the distinctive feature and treat phonemes as conglomerations of distinctive features. Phonology differs from phonetics in that its primary focus is not on the sounds themselves, but on how the distinctive sound inventory of a language or languages is used to convey information content. Because of this phonology is studied with reference to a language (or languages) and cannot be approached in the same langauge-independent theoretical manner as phonetics sometimes is.


Morphology is the study of the smallest meaningful pieces of language, known as morphemes, which can be words or parts of words. Saying that morphology studies meaningful units of language does not, however, say that morphology studies meaning, although in some cases the boundaries between morphology and semantics, on the one hand, and morphology and phonology, on the other, are hard to define.


Syntax is sometimes defined as the study of the structure of morphological units within a (grammatical) sentence. The exact definition of syntax and the question of its relative importance in linguistics has been one of the most debated and vexing issues of twentieth century lingusitics.


Semantics is the study of meaning in language.


Pragmatics is the study of language use in the world.

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