2 Introduction to Linguistics

Learning Outcomes

After studying this chapter, you should be able to discuss:

  • the definition of linguistics and what makes it a science
  • the difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language
  • the concept of mental grammar
  • the ways in which English is creative or generative
  • the universal properties of language
  • the connection between language and culture and how power and authority are connected to language
  • the ways that language changes over time

Introduction to Linguistics

Linguistics is one of those subjects that not many people have heard of, so you might well be wondering exactly what it is. The simplest definition of Linguistics is that it’s the science of language.

This is a simple definition, but it contains some very important words. First, when we say that linguistics is a science, that doesn’t mean you need a lab coat and safety goggles to do linguistics.  Instead, what it means is that the way we ask questions to learn about language uses a scientific approach.

The scientific way of thinking about language involves making systematic, empirical observations.  There’s another important word:  empirical means that we observe data to find the evidence for our theories.

All scientists make empirical observations: botanists observe how plants grow and reproduce. Chemists observe how substances interact with other. Linguists observe how people use their language.

A crucial thing to keep in mind is that the observations we make about language use are NOT value judgments.  Lots of people in the world — like your high school English teacher, various newspaper columnists, maybe your grandparents, and maybe even some of your friends — make judgments about how people use language.  But linguists don’t. A short-hand way of saying this is that linguists have a descriptive approach to language, not a prescriptive approach. We describe what people do with their language, but we don’t prescribe how they should or shouldn’t do it.

This descriptive approach is consistent with a scientific way of thinking. Think about an entomologist who studies beetles.  Imagine that scientist observes that a species of beetle eats leaves.  She’s not going to judge that the beetles are eating wrong, and tell them that they’d be more successful in life if only they ate the same thing as ants.  No — she observes what the beetle eats and tries to figure out why:  she develops a theory of why the beetle eats this plant and not that one. In the same way, linguists observe what people say and how they say it, and come up with theories of why people say certain things or make certain sounds but not others.

In the following video, a professor of linguistics ponders the question, “Is linguistics a science?”

In our simple definition of linguistics, there’s another important word we need to focus on: linguistics is the science of human language. There are plenty of species that communicate with each other in an impressive variety of ways, but in linguistics, our job is to focus on the unique system that humans use. It turns out that humans have some important differences to all other species that make our language unique.

First, what we call the articulatory system: our lungs, larynx & vocal folds, and the shape of our tongue, teeth, lips, nose, all enable us to produce speech.  No other species can do this in the way we can, not even our closest genetic relatives the chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans.

Second, our auditory system is special:  our ears are sensitive to exactly the frequencies that are most common in human speech.  There are other species that have similar patterns of auditory sensitivity, but human newborns pay special attention to human speech, even more so than synthetic speech that is matched for acoustic characteristics.

And most important of all, our neural system is special: no other species has a brain as complex and densely connected as ours with so many connections dedicated to producing and understanding language.

Humans’ language ability is different from all other species’ communication systems, and linguistics is the science that studies this unique ability.

Elements of Linguistics

We know now that Linguistics is the scientific study of human language.  It’s also important to know that linguistics is one member of the broad field that is known as cognitive science.

The cognitive sciences are interested in what goes in the mind.  And in linguistics, we’re specifically interested in how our language knowledge is represented and organized in the human mind.

Think about this:  you and I both speak English. I’m writing in English right here in this chapter, and you’re reading the words and understanding me. Right now I’ve got some idea in my mind that I want to express. If I were speaking, I’d be squeezing the air out of my lungs, vibrating my vocal folds, and manipulating parts of my mouth to produce sounds. In response to the sound coming from my mouth, your eardrums would vibrate and send signals to your brain, with the result that the idea in your mind is something similar to the idea that was in my head.

There must be something that your mind and my mind have in common to allow that to happen: some shared system that allows us to understand each other’s ideas when we speak.  In linguistics, we call that system the mental grammar, and our primary goal is to find out what that shared system is like.

The following is a fascinating explanation of language and how it shapes the way we think.


All speakers of all languages have a mental grammar:  the shared system that lets speakers of a language understand each other.  In this text, we devote most of our attention to the five core pieces of the mental grammar of English: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

Creativity of Language

Probably the most fundamental property of human language is creativity.  When we say that human languages are creative, we don’t just mean that you can use them to write beautiful poems and great works of literature.

When we say that human language is creative, we mean a couple of different things:

First, every language can express any possible concept.

That notion might surprise you at first.  I often see magazine articles or blog posts that talk about supposedly untranslatable words that exist in other languages but that don’t exist in English.  A quick search online leads me to these gems:

Kummerspeck is the German word for excess weight gained from emotional overeating.

In Inuktitut, iktsuarpok is that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet.

And in Tagalog, gigil is the word for the urge to squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.

So if you believe that kind of article, it might seem like some concepts are restricted to certain languages.  But think about it: Just because English doesn’t have one single word that means “the urge to squeeze something cute” doesn’t mean that English-speakers can’t understand the concept of wanting to squeeze something cute. As soon as I described it using the English phrase “the urge to squeeze something cute” you understood the concept!  It just takes more than one word to express it!  The same is true of every language:  all of the world’s languages can express all concepts.

The other side of the creativity of language is even more interesting.  Every language can generate an infinite number of possible new words and sentences.

Every language has a finite set of words in it.  A language’s vocabulary might be quite large, but it’s still finite.  And every language has a small and finite set of principles for combining those words.

But every language can use that finite vocabulary and that finite set of principles to generate an infinite number of sentences, new sentences every single day.

Likewise, every language has a finite set of sounds and a finite set of principles for combining those sounds. Every language can use those finite resources to generate an infinite number of possible new words in that language.


Because human languages are all capable of generating new words and generating new sentences, we say that human grammar is generative.

Remember that when we use the word “grammar” in linguistics, we’re talking not about the prescriptive rules that your Grade 6 teacher tried to make you follow, but about mental grammar, the things in our minds that all speakers of a language have in common that allow us to understand each other.  Mental grammar is generative.

One of the tools we can use to get at our mental grammar is to try to access metalinguistic awareness, that is, the conscious knowledge you have about your grammar, not the grammatical knowledge itself. If you’ve studied a language in school you probably have some metalinguistic awareness about it because you got taught it explicitly. But for your first language, the one you grew up speaking, it can be a little more difficult to access your metalinguistic knowledge because so much of it is implicit. It’s a skill that we’ll keep practicing throughout this book.

Here’s an example of accessing your metalinguistic awareness. Say you want to create a new English word for a character in a game. Are you going to call your cute little creature a blifter or a lbitfer? Neither of those forms exists in English, but they both use sounds that are part of English phonetics. You probably have a strong feeling that blifter is an okay name for your new creature, while lbitfer is a pretty terrible name. Notice that your sense that lbitfer is wrong is not a prescriptive sense — it’s not that it sounds rude or you’ll get in trouble for combining those sounds that way. It just … can’t happen. You’ve made a descriptive observation that lbifter is not a possible word in English. From that observation, we can conclude that lbitfer is ungrammatical in English.

Since linguistics uses the word grammar in a particular way, the words grammatical and ungrammatical also have a specific meaning. An ungrammatical word or phrase or sentence is something that just can’t exist in a particular language: the mental grammar of that language does not generate it. Notice that grammaticality isn’t about what actually exists in a language; it’s about whether a form could exist. In this example, both blifter and lbitfer have the same sounds in them, but blifter could be an English word and lbifter couldn’t. In other words, blifter is grammatical in English and lbifter is ungrammatical in English.

It’s often useful to compare similar words, phrases or sentences to try to access our metalinguistic awareness. Let’s look at another example of observing what’s possible. Here are two similar sentences, both of which are possible (or acceptable) in English.

  1. Sam compared the forged painting with the original.
  2. Sam compared the forged painting and the original.

Let’s try to make questions out of these sentences:

  1. Did Sam compare the forged painting with the original?
  2. Did Sam compare the forged painting and the original?

Observing those two questions, we can see that both (c) and (d) are acceptable in English. Now let’s try a different kind of question:

  1. What did Sam compare the forged painting with?
  2. *What did Sam compare the forged painting and?

Comparing these two sentences gives us a really clear finding: (e) is possible, but (f) is not. We use an asterisk or star at the beginning of sentence (f) to indicate that it just can’t happen. These acceptability judgments (also sometimes known as grammaticality judgments) are our empirical observations: these two similar sentences are both possible as declarative statements (a-b) and as yes-no questions (c-d), but when we try to make a wh-question out of them, the result is acceptable for the first one (e) but not for the second one (f). Having made that observation, now our job is to figure out what’s going on in the mental grammar that can account for this observation. Why is (e) grammatical but (f) isn’t?

The final, and possibly the most important thing to know about the creativity of language is that it is governed by systematic principles. Every fluent speaker of a language uses systematic principles to combine sounds to form words and to combine words to form sentences. In this text, we’ll use the tools of systematic observation to discover what these systematic principles are.

Check Your Understanding

Fundamental Truths about Language

Because everybody speaks a language, just about everybody has opinions about language. But there are lots of things that are commonly believed about language that just aren’t true.

You might have heard someone say that a given language has no grammar.  I’ve heard people try to argue that Chinese has no grammar, that English has no grammar, that the languages spoken by Indigenous people who live in what is currently Canada have no grammar, even that Swiss German has no grammar.

When people say this, they might mean a few different things.  Sometimes they just mean that there’s not much variation in the forms of words, which is true of Chinese, but the grammar of Chinese has lots of complexity in its sound system.

But sometimes people who argue that a language has no grammar are actually trying to claim that that language is inferior in some way.

The truth is that all languages have grammar. All languages have a sound system, a system for forming words, a way of organizing words into sentences, a systematic way of assigning meanings. Even languages that don’t have writing systems or dictionaries or published books of rules still have speakers who understand each other; that means they have a shared system, a shared mental grammar.

When we’re investigating mental grammar, it doesn’t matter whether a language has a prestigious literature or is spoken by powerful people. Using linguists’ techniques for making scientific observations about language, we can study the phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics of any language.

Another opinion that you might have heard about language is that some languages are better than others. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I don’t speak real Italian, just a dialect,” implying that the dialect is not as good as so-called real Italian.  Or maybe you’ve heard someone say that Québec French is just sloppy; it’s not as good as the French they speak in France.  Or maybe you’ve heard someone say that nobody in Newfoundland can speak proper English, or nobody in Texas speaks proper English, or maybe even nobody in North America speaks proper English and the only good English is the Queen’s English that they speak in England.

The truth is that all languages are equally valid. Just as we said that all languages have grammar, it’s also the case that there’s no way to say that one grammar is better or worse than another grammar.  Remember that linguistics takes a scientific approach to language, and scientists don’t rate or rank the things they study.  Ichthyologists don’t rank fish to say which species is more correct at being a fish, and astronomers don’t argue over which galaxy is more posh. In the same way, linguists don’t assign a value to any language or variety or dialect.

It is the case, though, that plenty of people do attribute value to particular dialects or varieties, and sociolinguistic research tells us that there can be negative or positive social consequences for people who speak certain varieties. When people say that British English is better than American English, for example, they’re making a social judgment, based on politics, history, economics, or snobbery.  But there is no linguistic basis for making that value judgment.

Universal Properties of Language

One of the common misconceptions about language arose when scholars first started doing linguistics. At first, they focused on the languages that they knew, which were mostly the languages that were spoken in Europe. The grammars of those languages had a lot in common because they all evolved from a common ancestor, which we now call Proto-Indo-European. When linguists started learning about the languages spoken in other parts of the world, they thought at first that these languages were so unfamiliar, so unusual, so weird, that they speculated that these languages had nothing at all in common with the languages of Europe.

Linguists have now studied enough languages to know that in spite of the many differences between languages, there are some universal properties that are common to all human languages. The field of linguistic typology studies the properties that languages have in common even across languages that they aren’t related to. Some of these universal properties are at the level of phonology, for example, all languages have consonants and vowels. Some of these universals are at the level of morphology and syntax.  All languages make a distinction between nouns and verbs.  In nearly all languages, the subject of a sentence comes before the verb and before the object of the sentence.  We’ll discover more of these universals as we proceed through the chapters.

A very common belief that people have about language is something you might have heard from your grandparents or your teachers. Have you heard them say, “Kids these days are ruining English! They should learn to speak properly!”  Or if you grew up speaking Mandarin, maybe you heard the same thing, “Those teenagers are ruining Mandarin! They should learn to speak properly!” For as long as there has been language, there have been people complaining that young people are ruining it, and trying to force them to speak in a more old-fashioned way. Some countries like France and Germany even have official institutes that make prescriptive rules about what words and sentence structures are allowed in the language and which ones aren’t allowed.

The truth is that every language changes over time. Languages are spoken by humans, and as humans grow and change, and as our society changes, our language changes along with it. Some language change is as simple as in the vocabulary of a language: we need to introduce new words to talk about new concepts and new inventions. For example, the verb google didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate student, but now googling is something I do every day. Language also changes in they we pronounce things and in the way we use words and form sentences.  In a later chapter, we’ll talk about some of the things that are changing in Canadian English.

Another common belief about language is the idea that you can’t learn a language unless someone teaches you the rules, either in a language class or with a textbook or a software package. This might be partially true for learning a language as an adult: it might be hard to do it on your own without a teacher.  But think about yourself as a kid. Whatever language you grew up speaking, whether it’s English or French or Mandarin or Arabic or Tamil or Serbian, you didn’t have to wait until kindergarten to start speaking. You learned the language from infancy by interacting with the people around you who spoke that language. Some of those people around you might have taught you particular words for things, but they probably weren’t teaching you, “make the [f] sound by putting your top teeth on your bottom lip” or “make sure you put the subject of the sentence before the verb”.  And by the time you started school you were perfectly fluent in your language. In some parts of the world, people never go to school and never have any formal instruction, but they still speak their languages fluently.

That’s because almost everything we know about our language — our mental grammar — is unconscious knowledge that’s acquired implicitly as children. Much of your knowledge of your mental grammar is not accessible to your conscious awareness. This is kind of a strange idea:  how can you know something if you’re not conscious of knowing it? Many things that we know are indeed conscious knowledge. For example, if I asked you, you could explain to me how to get to your house, or what the capital of Canada is, or what the difference is between a cow and a horse. But our mind also has lots of knowledge that is not fully conscious. You probably can’t explain very clearly how to control your muscles to climb stairs, or how to recognize the face of someone you know, or how to form complex sentences in your native language, and yet you can do all of these things easily and fluently, and unconsciously. A lot of our job when we study Linguistics is to make explicit the things that you already know implicitly.  This is exactly what makes linguistics challenging at first, but it’s also what makes it fun!

The Power of Language

Language and communication are embedded in cultural power systems. For example, in American English, those who use the phrase “I ain’t” instead of “I am not” are judged for not speaking “properly” and using standard American English. In many languages, how people speak can be a marker of which social group they belong to, as speech is influenced by gender, age, class, and ethnicity.  Those who use the phrase “I ain’t” are generally thought of as being less educated, belonging to a lower social class, than those who say “I am not.”

Here’s a clip from the Hallmark movie, The Makeover (a take on Singing in the Rain), in which Elliot Dolittle must change his accent in order to be acceptable as a political candidate:

We see many examples of ways in which people are empowered, or diminished, because of how they speak English in literature, as well as in film. For example, consider Amy Tan’s essay, “Mother Tongue,” which discusses how her mother was perceived due to her perceived proficiency with English.

“Mother Tongue”

Mother Tongue” (online location)

Correct citation: Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The Threepenny Review, no. 43, 1990, pp. 7–8. CUNY Academic Commons, https://engl110ccny1.commons.gc.cuny.edu/content/tan/. Accessed 2 May 2021.

Many students may be able to read the essay as originally published in JSTOR (you may have to login to your institution first): https://www.jstor.org/stable/4383908.

Sometimes languages are used to create a sense of intimacy among a certain group, as Richard Rodriguez describes in the clip below:

Even if we don’t speak a different language than English, no one speaks the same way all the time in every social setting. When I am in the South for long periods of time, my speech changes, and my accent becomes more pronounced. Similarly, you probably do not speak to your grandparents the same way you speak to your peers. This is called code-switching. The study of these different ways of speaking and connections to power relations and social groups is called sociolinguistics.

Although society may stigmatize some forms of speech, (think about the overuse of “like” by teenage girls influenced by the way girls in the Valley of California began speaking in the 1980s)…

…there’s not a scientific sense in which one grammatical pattern or an accent is better or worse than another. Communication is about relaying messages. If the message can be understood, then it is an effective form of communication. If you say, “I ain’t going to read no linguistics chapter,” I know what you are trying to convey.

Languages are spectrums. All forms of language are equally functional and equally valid forms of communication. This isn’t a political statement, but it has political implications because of the power systems embedded in language. Consider the way some New Yorkers’ speak, not pronouncing the “r” in words (“fourth floor” sounds like “fawth floah”). This way of speaking is found primarily among working-class New Yorkers and would not be considered Standard American English (think about how newscasters speak) (Labov, 1972). But, the same practice of not pronouncing the “r” is considered posh and the standard in the United Kingdom. Called “Received Pronunciation,” this is the way the Royal Family and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) newscasters speak (Light, 2018).

Language Changes: Descriptive vs Prescriptive

Every part of a language’s grammar can change, but some of these changes are faster than others, and some are more noticeable. The lexicon is the vocabulary of a language — what words are in the language. New words enter English all the time as new technologies and concepts emerge, and dictionary editors like to publish lists of the new words they’ve added. This list shows a handful of words that were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020: beardo, awesomesauce, mentionitis, self-isolate, PPE (for personal protective equipment), and, thirsty? Surely the word thirsty was in the Dictionary before 2020!? Yes, it was, with the meaning of “wanting something to drink”, but a new meaning was added in 2020 — if you don’t know that new meaning you might want to look it up.

Jack Chambers, a linguist at the University of Toronto, conducted a large-scale study of Canadian English and how it has changed over time. One part of his study asked people to say words that started with a “wh”: words like where, whine, whale, wheel. Then he analyzed his findings according to how old his participants were. When Chambers was doing his research, people who had been born before 1920 were in their 80s. For this age group, more than half of them have the voiceless [ʍ] at the beginning of these wh-words. So for this group, whine sounds different from wine. For the next younger group, the pattern is about the same, but for each successively younger group, the proportion of people who pronounce a wh-word with a voiceless [ʍ] drops off. So for the people who were in their late teens and early twenties when Chambers interviewed them, only about 10% pronounced whine differently from wine. By looking at this snapshot across different age groups, we can get a picture of how Canadian English has changed over time.

Languages might also change in their morphology and syntax, though these changes tend to happen very slowly indeed. Let’s look at a couple of changes that are in progress right now. The first one I want to look at has to do with the word because. Suppose I start a sentence like this, “Alex took an umbrella because…” and I ask you to finish it. You might finish it by appending another whole sentence, “because it was raining”. Or you might choose a prepositional phrase that starts with of, “because of the rain”. Both of these options have been available in English syntax for centuries. But a new option is emerging. If you’re young, or if you spend a lot of time online, you might finish this sentence just, “because thunderstorm”, with just a plain old noun phrase. This change seems to have started on Craigslist in 2011, with an ad for a car that was “completely stripped inside because race car,” and now forms the title of the book Because Internet, in which linguist Gretchen McCulloch documents the ways that the internet has changed how we use language.

The last change I want to talk about is also happening in the morphosyntax of English, in the pronoun system. But first we need to look at a change that happened hundreds of years ago. In the 16th century, English used to have two ways of saying “you”. If you were talking to a group of people, you’d say you just like we do now. But if you were talking to just one person, you’d address them as thou or thee, as in, “What classes art thou taking this term?” or “I really like thy new haircut”. By the 17th century, thou and thee had all but disappeared and were only reserved for conversations with people you’re very close to. So the word you was used for both singular and plural. In modern English, we don’t have thou or thee at all unless we’re trying to be funny or old-fashioned. But it can be pretty useful to have a way of distinguishing between singular and plural, so some varieties of spoken English have other plural forms, like y’all or you guys or youse….or even all y’all. Maybe your variety of English has one of these.

So that change in the pronoun system happened hundreds of years ago without incident. These days a different change is happening, this time to the third person pronoun they. For centuries, they has been used as a plural pronoun, to refer to a group of people, as in, “The children said they played soccer all afternoon”. And it’s also very common to use they when we don’t know how many people are involved. You might hear someone say, “Whoever was in here, he or she or they made a big mess” but it would sound very formal and stuffy. The same is true if you’re talking about one person whose identity you don’t know, or if it just isn’t relevant — maybe I’m telling one of my colleagues, “One of my students told me they were locked out of their email”. There’s only one student, but their identity isn’t relevant to the story, so I just refer to them as they. This so-called singular they has also been in English for centuries — you can see that it’s documented as far back as the fifteenth century, in contexts that are really clearly singular: each of them, a man, a person. The change that’s in progress right now is to use they for a single person whose identity we do know, either because they’re non-binary and use they/them pronouns or because we’re choosing not to specify their gender. When I poll students, that is, people in their 20s, I usually find that about half of them have this specific-singular-they in their mental grammar, and about half don’t. So it’s a change that’s unfolding right now.

As always, when language changes, some prescriptivists get quite uptight about it. The Chicago Manual of Style tells people “it is still considered ungrammatical”, and the AP Stylebook tells you it’s “acceptable in limited cases,” but they’d really prefer if you didn’t use it. And then there are the extremely crabby folks like one author who claimed it hurt her ears and burned her eyes, poor thing! But no matter how much the prescriptivists yell, specific-singular-they is getting used more and more widely. In 2015 the American Dialect Society voted it the Word of the Year; the Globe & Mail added it to its style guide in 2017; and it was the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2019. And linguists are paying attention to how this part of English grammar is changing. Bronwyn Bjorkman found that English-speakers with a conservative grammar didn’t use they in this way, but those with an “innovative” grammar did. Kirby Conrod found in their dissertation that older people were less likely to use it and younger people were more likely, and Lex Konnelly just published a paper tracking the three stages of grammatical change that are unfolding.

While your composition instructor might have been very prescriptive because their job was to help you become a better writer for academia, in linguistics, we focus on describing language, not determining what is correct. The following video contains a great description of the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism.


I said earlier that this change is happening no matter how much it bothers the prescriptivists. No one can stop language from changing. But can we make it happen faster? After all, grammar is people — if everyone woke up tomorrow and started calling a dog a “blimlimlim,” the dictionaries couldn’t stop us! The way that language changes is for people to change how they use it.

Check Your Knowledge


This chapter demonstrates the importance of language–from its impact on our brain’s development to the ways language can influence perceptions about other human beings. It also demonstrates the relationship between language and culture, showing us how both how our use of language can represent power dynamics in society and how shared language can bring people together and create a shared sense of community.


This chapter is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Content adapted from the following:

Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi licensed under a CC BY NC SA 4.0.

Language and Communication by Taylor Livingston licensed CC BY NC.


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Introduction to Linguistics Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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