While other species of primates apparently possess protolanguage (ability to associate actions with mean-
ings, to produce new combinations of signs, to refer to events distant in time or space), language is both
symbolic and structured. Virtually all modern humans (even those with hearing loss and other cognitive
issues) have language with symbols (sounds that are arbitrary representations of things, processes or
ideas) and structure (word components, word order, rules of phrase construction).
Phonology is the study of sound. Phonetics is the objective study of sound. Linguists must be trained to
identify sounds as they actually are. Phonemics is the study of culturally significant sounds, with the
phoneme as the smallest unit of culturally significant sound. Since the human vocal tract can make more
sounds than is necessary for a particular language, children learn which sounds are relevant and which
are to be ignored.
Example: [p] in pit versus spit. One explodes the [p] and the other does not. The two sounds
are only one phoneme since the explosion of the [p] is ignored.
Example: [v] and [b] in Spanish as in vivir. [v] is a labiodental (lip and teeth) and [b] is a bilabial.
The difference in the sounds are very slight and not relevant, forming one phoneme.
Morphology is the study of meaningful sounds. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaningful sound. A free
morpheme can stand alone as a word, while a bound morpheme can not stand alone as a word. The word
"meaningful" itself has three morphemes: one free morpheme ("mean") and two bound morphemes ("ing" and
Syntax is word order. Without syntax, we would not be able to distinguish the two English sentences:
"Dog bites man" versus "Man bites dog".
English and other languages are "SVO" -- subject verb object -- in declarative (statement) sentences.
There are SOV and VOS languages, as well as languages with weak or no syntax. They use morphemes
to distinguish subjects and objects.
Grammar includes prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar . Prescriptive grammar is what is taught
in school and used formally; descriptive grammar is how the language is actually spoken. If a child says to
the teacher that "me and my friends, we went to the movies", the teacher's job is to correct the child. Parents
pay taxes or tuition to insure that the child can function in the society and become a responsible -- and up-
wardly mobile -- citizen. Mastery of the current fashion in one's language is the route to success.
Dialects are regional or historical forms of a language with some pronunciation and vocabulary differences
from each other. Nevertheless, they are mutually intelligible, meaning, they can understand each other. If
someone from England states that he is "going down the lift to look under the bonnet of the lorry", one can
understand some of the references and inquire about the rest.
Schools do not teach Spanish or French or Italian. They teach Castillian, the dialect of Madrid, which is in
the provine of Castille. They teach the dialect spoken in Paris or the dialect spoken in Naples. The dialect
of the politically and/or economically powerful region becomes the standard version of the language, also
known as "a dialect with an army". Speakers of other dialects may suffer from ethnocentric discrimination
Developmental Linguistics is the study of how human children learn language.
1. Children first hear sounds in the womb, especially their mothers' voices.
2. They make their first attempts at articulation a few months after birth by cooing v owels
and babbling consonants as well as by mimicking intonation patterns.
3. They learn which sounds are culturally significant phonemes.
4. They enter the "one-word phase" at about 9 to 12 months at which time they can articulate
"mama" and "dada" or "papa", simple repetitions of sounds made in the front of the mouth.
5. They enter the "two-word phase" some months later. The child combines a noun and a
verb or a noun and an adjective, with simple syntax, but without prepositions to clarify the
relationships between words.
"Mommy car" and "Doggie ball" may be statements or commands.
6. They overgeneralize by applying words or grammatical rules too broadly until they gain
more vocabulary and more grammatical competence. The two-year-old who called an
elderly neighbor "Grandpa" probably called him that because that was her word for all
old men. Similarly, a child may at first imitate a phrase "I ran", then tries to apply a gram-
matical rule and says "I runned", and finally returns to "I ran" after learning about irregular
Historical Linguistics is the study of how languages change over time. Several processes may
1. There can be inventions of new words for new technologies, like "refrigerator".
2. There are invasions of people bringing new languages to new places, leading to the fusion of
languages. This process is creolization. Creoles are not "broken" languages, but are languages
formed from the vocabulary of the incoming, dominant culture and the grammatical structure of
the native language. English can be considered to be a creole. Anglo-Saxon England, speaking
"Old English", was invaded in 1066 by the Norman French. By the 1300s, a creolized "Middle
English" formed from the fusion of the languages.
A quote from the Old English of "Beowulf": "And we to symble sseseten haefdon".
A quote from the Middle English of "The Canterbury Tales" : "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote".
The Old English is virtually incomprehensible, while the Middle English looks more like English.
3. There are sound transformations. When Middle English is spoken, it departs from expectations.
"Whonn thot Ah-preel with his shoor-ez soh-teh".
The vowels are pronounced more like other languages, such as French. The Great Vowel Shift
then occurred in England in the 1400s in which vowels moved one step higher in the mouth. This
produced the Modern English of Shakespeare: "Now is the winter of our discontent".
In the 1964 film "My Fair Lady", Eliza Doolittle is a young woman from Cockney East London who
is the object of a bet by Professor Henry Higgins. His bet is that he can transform her lower class
accent to that of upper class Londoners. She valiantly tries to say
"The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain" but repeatedly says
"The rine in Spine sties minely on the pline".
Eliza was simply pronouncing the vowel as it might have been from before the Great Vowel Shift.
Grimm's Law is another type of sound transformation. Jakob Grimm was a linguist and folklorist who,
with Wilhelm Grimm, collected folk tales. Jakob Grimm saw patterned transformations of sound from
an ancient predecessor of Indo-European languages (which include the Germanic, Romance, Slavic,
and Indo-Iranian branches) and such modern languages as German. The law shows that people hear
sounds differently across geographic space, regularly replacing one sound with another. If one knows
what the transformation is, translation may be possible. For example, Cinderella's slippers, in French
were "vair" (not "verre" for glass). The [v] transforms to an [f] and the vowel drops and the result is "fur".
There are also transformations which may be simple mispronunciations that occur due to slurring of words,
rather than perceiving sounds differently, with interesting results. One example of change of enunciation pro-
duced the phrase "the spitting image", which was originally "the spit and image". The latter makes sense,
while the former does not. Another example is the word "bedlam" for total confusion. The source of this
word was a London insane asylum known with "Bethlehem" as part of its name, the slurring of syllables
leading to a new, descriptive word.