intro to theoretical linguistics

An intro to theoretical linguistics (and 7 components of the language system)

competence, discourse, morphology, phonetics, phonology, pragmatics, semantics, syntax, system

Learn the 7 components of the linguistic system in our Intro to Theoretical Linguistics for beginners. Explore the basics of theoretical linguistics.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Theoretical Linguistics and its sub-fields

I first encountered linguistics when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Peking University. To be frank, I was rather surprised. As a fervent lover of languages, my approach to language learning has generally been more affective and experiential, instead of something that technical. As such, when I attended my first lecture on INTRO TO THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS, I was bewildered and concerned that the study of language has turned into an examination of codes, structures and diagrams. 

Today, the more enlightened me is thankful for the opportunity to have studied and gained expertise in linguistics. It sensitised me to the many interesting phenomena about language and enabled me to have a wider representation of what language is.

Depending on naming convention, there is one branch of linguistics in which every aspiring linguist has to immerse – THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS. I shared in an earlier article on how language can be conceived by different parties. Within the heart of THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS, however, language is generally studied as a “complex rule-governed system of discrete segments”. In other words, it answers questions specifically on the core structural elements of language. 

The relationship between THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS and language education may not be that apparent to language educators. However, an INTRO TO THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS, particularly the understanding of the scientific workings of the language system and its various components, provide us the tools and knowledge to identify and analyse linguistic issues in our practices within language education.

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Building a generative linguistic theory of language and languages

building a theory
Photo from Adobe Stock / Process of building a theory

To a certain extent, to claim that THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS is a branch sitting at the core of linguistic work is probably not an understatement. In certain contexts, THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS can also be known as “core linguistics” or “internal linguistics”. It is often juxtaposed with “APPLIED LINGUISTICS which is an extremely broad concept depicting an interdisciplinary branch of linguistics that is concerned with many applications of language in real life (thus having many sub-branches such as historical linguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, computational linguistics, language acquisition). In general, applied linguists would also have gone through the doors of theoretical linguistics.

Where Linguistics is defined generally as the scientific study of language, THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS aims to answer the general question of what language is; discover the universal properties of language that exist across languages; and reveal the architecture of language. A more common term with which language educators may be more familiar will be “grammar”.

To sum it up simply, THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS aims to build up a theory of grammar for language as a universal faculty of humans, as well as for individual languages. It would help in explaining and predicting linguistic phenomena based on a set of generative principles and rules.

As mentioned, THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS is concerned with the different parts of the language system. In most traditions, these components include phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Some institutions will also include pragmatics and discourse under THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS, though some others categorise the two under APPLIED LINGUISTICS.

1. Phonetics

phonetics and phonics
Photo from Envato Elements / Learning the phonetical rules

Phonetics studies the smallest discrete units of speech which provide insights into the production and interpretation of speech sounds. In simpler words, phonetics investigates the ways speech sounds are made, classified, combined and perceived.

One of the most important jobs of phoneticians is to examine the characteristics of the sound units in a given language, such as whether a certain pronunciation is existent in the language or whether the sound unit has distinctiveness. For example, in Japanese, sounds like “l” (“l”) and “r” (or “ɹ”) are indistinguishable from one another. In other words, the inventory of sounds in a language is codified.

You might have observed in English that similar spellings do not always correspond to similar pronunciation (“though” vs “through” vs “drought”). This is also the case for French. For languages which adopt logograms as writing systems, the written forms may also not correspond to a specific sound. How then do phoneticians represent the sounds for study?

Phoneticians make use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to standardise the representation of sound units across languages. IPA was established in 1886 and is arguably able to represent all the possible sounds that are produced in all known languages. This makes it scientifically possible for sounds to be compared across languages.

Notwithstanding that, phoneticians also study the patterns in individual languages on how they represent sounds, otherwise known as the phonemic and phonetic transcription systems of different languages.  

Phonetics provide parts of the equation for language education approaches such as phonics teaching and pronunciation-focused teaching. IPA has also become a popular tool for adult learners in practising or validating their pronunciation.

While the efficacy of such approaches can be called to question, using knowledge from phonetics to do language education is actually quite common. To a certain extent, it does help a language educator discern the issues of pronunciation in their learners.

2. Phonology

Photo from Adobe Stock / A group of sounds

Phonology is also concerned with the sounds of language. The difference from phonetics, though, is that phonology zooms in on the systems governing the combination of sounds to form meaningful speeches. Basically, phonology studies the grammar of sounds in language and in specific languages.

Without further thinking and introspection, we may not be immediately sensitive to the different meanings implied by varying speech sounds. Phonologists can heighten our awareness that the variation of speech sounds send different messages about speakers, speech content and the speech (or language) itself.

This can include understanding the contrast of sounds in a longer speech (e.g. stress and intonation of certain words in a sentence for emphasis), structures in which the sounds can be combined in speech acts (e.g. the musicality found in poems, the tone that represent questioning or aggression) or sound patterns that deviate from the native speaker norms (e.g. foreign accent).

Phonology consolidates knowledge that supports our understanding of spoken fluency and expression of social meaning, in general and in specific languages. This facilitates the identification of the milestones or gaps which our learners face in spoken language.

It might be useful to note that phonological patterns can differ widely across languages, be it due to cultural contexts of use or the inherent combination of phonetic units. In a nutshell, if we target to comprehend or speak in a certain language like a proficient speaker, getting accustomed to and imitating the phonological patterns (I sometimes like to use musicality) of the target language can be important for the learners. For language educators who generally focus on oracy, knowledge of phonology can also be very useful.

3. Morphology

Photo from Adobe Stock / Butterflies of different shapes and patterns, signifying the sense of morphology

Where phonetics and phonology are concerned with the sounds of language, morphology moves into the realm of words, word formation and word structures. It is closely linked to the next component, syntax, and can also be related to phonetics and phonology. It is also to be distinguished from lexicology which studies words and how they form a language’s vocabulary.

The key questions morphology aims to answer are how words can be formed structurally (e.g. how different morphological units combine to form new words) and how and why their forms change (e.g. adding -ing or -ed to root words in English) – study of word formation.

As language educators, we probably would have heard of, if not have been actively using, technical terms such as “prefix”, “suffix”, “root words” or “stems” as part of our teaching. Morphologists (see how this compares with phonologists and phoneticians as in “-ists” versus “-ians”) study how and why such features happen in language in general and in specific languages.

Having a strong sense of the rules that govern word formation in language and in the target language can have a strong generative potential for language learners and expedite language learning. Specifically for second language (L2) learners, this can prove useful in seeking transfer of linguistic knowledge when the L2 is morphologically similar to the first language (L1); or conscious efforts of inhibiting when the L2 is distinctively different from the L1. 

For language educators, it also gives us the confidence to construct teaching and learning strategies to facilitate linguistic experimentation (e.g. play with words) and to plan our feedback and guidance where hypotheses fail (e.g. adding wrong suffixes).

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4. Syntax

Photo from Adobe Stock / An abstraction of patterns

Where most people are concerned, the talk about grammar is synonymous with the talk about syntax. When I have casual conversation with many of my non-linguist friends, some of whom are language educators, most assume that all linguists study syntax in focus. Syntax is also the prominent focus of one of the most canonical language teaching approaches, Grammar-Translation method.

Morphology deals with rules governing structures at the word-level. In syntax, a word is the smallest independent unit with distinctive meaning. Words can combine with other words to form phrases, which in turn can combine with other words or phrases to form clauses and sentences. Some words can become single-word sentences (e.g. Help! Run!). Syntacticians purpose in discovering the rules that govern the combination of words to form grammatical phrases, clauses and sentences, or in simpler words “the study of sentence structures”.

As mentioned, morphology can be closely linked to syntax. For example, the inflected forms of the root word “love” (e.g. loved, loving, loves) can be dependent on the position of the word in the sentence or the syntactic role played by the word in question.

In summary, the central interests of syntax can include word order (e.g. possible positions of nouns and verbs in a sentence), grammatical relations (e.g. whether a word is a subject, direct object or indirect object), hierarchical structure (e.g. the sequence to which words combine to form constituents before combing with other units to form the sentence) and the relationship between form and meaning (interface with semantics).

One important point about the philosophy of syntacticians in describing grammatical rules, as I have also briefly mentioned in an earlier article, is that they are usually descriptive rules that are consolidated from observations on collected data (e.g. actual conversations, writings or corpus data). What syntacticians aim to present as “rules” are what they have generalised from the observed data. In simpler words, these are rules according to how people have produced language, and not how language teachers have taught to produce them (e.g. not prescriptive rules). 

Should we adopt the grammatical rules presented by syntacticians in our practice then? This is a rather tricky question. The content and standards to be taught and maintained in language education, especially in institutionalised settings, can interface with other intricate issues such as politics and identities (i.e. not solely the decision of professionals). Our work as language educators are hardly just within the realm of education and linguistics, but an inevitable interdisciplinary arena of power interfaces.

Notwithstanding that, syntacticians offer us insights to possible generative strategies we can guide our learners to adopt. Note that I am not suggesting to teach these rules explicitly (such a pedagogy needs another thesis), but that deep expertise in syntax can provide us the professional confidence in the purposeful selection of models to nurture the infinite capacity in our learners to produce sentences in the target language.

5. Semantics

Photo from Adobe Stock / A dictionary in display

One of the common definitions of language is that it is a meaning-making entity (link). In other words, language is characterised by meaning-making properties that allow meanings to be constructed, conveyed and connected. As such, it is by no means a surprise that a theory of language must deal with “meaning”.

In linguistics, semantics seeks to identify the property and relationship patterns between linguistic forms and meaning, and establish the system of how we derive meaning in communication through language. To be more specific, semantics pays close attention to the inherent meaning expressed by words and sentences, in and of themselves.

At the level of words, semanticists aim to study and explain the relationships between words and define their properties accordingly. In the teaching and learning of words, generally under the frame of vocabulary acquisition, we probably would have engaged terms like “synonyms” (group of words with similar meanings) and “antonyms” (group of words with opposite meanings). This can indeed bring to attention certain words for our learners and expand their vocabulary.

Another category of relationships pertains to two or more related meanings for a single word:

  • Polysemy is used to refer to the situation when a word has two or more related meanings (e.g. bright light vs bright person, dull image vs dull diet);
  • while homophony happens when a word possess two or more completely different meanings with no relation to one another (e.g. financial bank vs river bank, flying bat vs baseball bat).

Both polysemy and homophony can lead to lexical ambiguity, and can sometimes cause confusion for children and beginning L2 learners.

Semanticists also study how the meaning changes when words combine to become phrases, and when words and phrases combine to become sentences. At the sentence level, semantic relations between sentences are also examined by semanticists:

  • When sentences have similar meanings, they are said to be “paraphrases” of one another;
  • When the meaning of one sentence inherently implies the meaning of another, this is called “entailment” (e.g. Charlie pokes Jason with a stick arrow pointing right Jason has been poked); and
  • When the meaning of one sentence contradicts another, then this is “contradiction” (e.g. Charlie is alive vs Charlie is dead).

At a more abstract and complicated level, semanticists also attempt to codify the process in determining the concept which the linguistic form aims to represent (e.g. what we are specifically referring to or want to refer to when we say “the dog”). Some related concepts to this are:

  • connotations”: certain association(s) with a word that goes beyond the literal meaning of the word;
  • denotations”/ “referents”: the exact tangible or intangible entities the word denotes/refers to;
  •  “intension”: the inherent meaning of the word (e.g. “President of the United States of America” will refer to the person holding the position which we identify to be “President” of the country we know to be “United States of America”);
  • extension”: the set of referrents that are engaged in the real world by use of the word (e.g. President of the United States of America in 2018 refer to Donald Trump, but refer to Joe Biden in 2022).

For language educators, insights from semantics are most relevant for things related to vocabulary and comprehension. The explicit understanding of lexical ambiguity and semantic relations are powerful references when we want to check for understanding in our learners on utterances or texts which exhibit such properties. It can also be the go-to when we are finding means to assess our learners.

6. Pragmatics

Photo from Adobe Stock / Actual communication in action

While semantics deal with inherent meaning, pragmatics is defined as the study of meaning in contexts – meaning that is dependent on contextual factors such as the communicative situation, the identities and intentions of the speakers in question or the use of rhetorical and figurative devices. Such meanings are usually inferred and may not be directly relevant to the semantic meaning of the words, phrases or sentences.

Not all schools of linguistics may categorise pragmatics as part of THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS. In some traditions, pragmatics is in the realm of sociolinguistics. Nevertheless, this article seeks to be encompassing and still provide a brief introduction since certain traditions do include it.

The central topics of inquiry in pragmatics include, but not limited to, the following:

  • speech acts: verbal communication that accomplishes certain practical functions, where pragmaticians generally study how the forms of speech acts achieve (or fail to achieve) their intended function;
  • presuppositions: assumptions relating to an utterance or text where the truth is taken for granted (e.g. Joe has graduated from college –> Joe was once studying in college);
  • implicatures: things that speakers or writers imply without literally expressing the things in question (e.g. Jane read some books –> Jane did not read all the books);
  • deixis: relation of the use of words, phrases or sentences to specifically refer to a time, person or place within the context of the utterance or text (e.g. those boys slept on this bed –> the boys in question are physically or psychologically further from the speaker than the bed)
  • reference: use of linguistic expressions to enable the identification of a specific referent by the listener/reader.

We hardly communicate only with semantic meanings. Most of the time, the way we use language is so dynamic that it can be a wonder how meaning is constructed in the real world. As such, expertise in pragmatics can sometimes help us understand how language communications work (or not work), thus enabling us to guide our learners accordingly to make them more effective communicators in the target language.

7. Discourse

Photo from Adobe Stock / A concept of people engaging in different discourses

Similar to pragmatics, this last component of the language system which I am introducing here may not be studied under THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS in some institutions (usually studied by sociolinguists). Some may also group this under pragmatics, and not frame it as a separate component. However, the field of discourse is such an extensive one that I feel it deserves to be recognised as one component.

While sentence is the largest linguistic unit of syntax, it is the smallest linguistic unit where discourse is concerned. Discourse is usually defined as a series of coherent sentences, utterances, or texts; while the study of discourse (otherwise known as Discourse Analysis) aims to discover the systematic rules governing the formation and organisation of the discourse(s) and how coherence is achieved. A discourse is defined to be coherent, and thus a set of unrelated random strings of words will not be recognised as a discourse.

One key topic of inquiry for discourse analysts is the text-structure, which has an inextricable link with theoretical linguistics as the components of syntax, semantics and pragmatics are well situated within. Many issues within these three components can be illuminated within a larger space of a text, where we can then observe how sentences interact with one another and influence the choices of words, phrases and clauses across sentences (e.g. variation of tenses in a text, existence of ellipsis, use of discourse markers for transition).

As the construction of a discourse can transcend the realm of linguistics into other disciplines, discourse analysis is also inevitably interdisciplinary even when linguists focus on linguistic issues. However, it is also within such constraints that insights from discourse analysts can provide many descriptions and strategies of effective language use in actual communicative contexts which are hardly purely linguistic in nature.

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Conclusion: Grounding ourselves in the fundamentals within the field of linguistics

In this article, I have attempted to provide an INTRO TO THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS and briefly illustrate some of its relevance to language education. Moving on, I will zoom in to the specific issues that may lead to more concrete examples and tips for our reference.

That being said, I am not suggesting for all language educators to become professional linguists – that would probably be highly impractical and unnecessary. However, heightened awareness of linguistic problems studied by linguists and the wisdom gathered thus far can really help us be more skilful in identifying opportunities in our practice and addressing linguistic challenges of our learners.

Thank you for reading! If you like what you are reading, do subscribe to our mailing list to receive updated resources and tips for language educators. Please also feel free to provide us any feedback or suggestions on content that you would like covered.


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