The Linguistic Elephant in the Room

January 7, 2010 / by Kimberly Cortes

There is a famous parable of six blind men and an elephant that originated from India. In one version of the story the six blind men were brought together and asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a snake; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a spear.

The field of Linguistics has its own elephant- human language. Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Similar to the blind men, linguists examine different areas of language and therefore describe language in different ways.
1. Syntax (contrary to what it sounds like, it is not an increase in the price of beer or gambling) is a subfield of linguistics which focuses mainly on the grammar of language. Syntacticians study the structure of sentences and try to answer the question, “What are the underlying rules and principles that govern the construction of sentences?”
2. While syntax studies the structure of sentences, morphology focuses on the structure of words.
3. Phonology is another subfield of linguistics. Phonology analyses the way sounds function in languages.
4. Related to phonology is another subfield of linguistics, phonetics. However, phonetics does not concentrate on the combination or function of sounds but rather on the actual production or articulation and physical properties of all possible human speech sounds.
5. Another perspective of language is the relationship between words and meaning. This is the focus of semantics, another branch of linguistics. Yet other linguists examine language as it affects and is affected by social relations. This perspective is referred to as sociolinguistics. There are still even more branches of linguistics, i.e., psycholinguistics, historical linguistics, neurolinguistics, etc.

So you see, there are many different perspectives and ways to describe language. Many times we think of human language as simple and easy - pretty much everyone speaks their native tongue by around age three without having ever been read a grammar book or been explicitly taught the rules of sound production and function, or of word and sentence structure. However, the reality is that human language is a huge complex “elephant” and viewing its different parts and from different perspectives has been the direction taken in the field of linguistics. But, this does not mean that these branches are in complete disagreement about what language is or the principles that govern its creation, acquisition or usage. Rather, each subfield gives a different description because it focuses on a different part of the “elephant”. In order to best describe human language linguists analyze its different parts but must not forget the whole – that language isn’t just the long tusk, flat ear, or coiled trunk. It’s the whole elephant.

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Kimberly Cortes

Written by Kimberly Cortes

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