What is Linguistics?

A person standing at a whiteboard in a linguistics seminar.

The field of linguistics explores the nature of languages, seeking to describe what human languages are like, how languages develop and change, and how people learn and use language.

Linguistics is a problem-solving oriented discipline, sharing much with the sciences. It is the study of how languages are structured, how they are used, and how they change through time.

Unlike courses in a language, where the point is to gain an automatic, unconscious ability to use the language, courses in linguistics attempt to develop a fully explicit, scientific theory of how language works. Linguistics thus offers a unique combination of humanistic and scientific concerns.


Since language is central to so many arenas of human endeavor, the study of linguistics makes substantial contact with a number of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, including:

  • Cognitive science
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Education
  • Anthropology
  • Language studies
  • Classics
  • Computer science
  • Philosophy

As a result of its diversity, linguistics offers exciting fields of study for students with varied inclinations and backgrounds, so long as they have a deep intellectual curiosity about language.

Upon graduation, students pursue careers in a variety of wide ranging fields, from law to forensics to library science.

Questions Addressed by Linguistics

Among the questions addressed by linguistics are the following:

  • What features do all languages have in common? In what ways do different languages differ from one another?
  • How are languages learned? Why are children so much better at learning languages than adults?
  • How is it that words carry meaning? How can the meaning of a sentence be calculated from the meanings of the individual words of which it is composed?
  • How do languages change through time? In the absence of written records, how can we determine what earlier stages of a language were like? How did English and other modern languages develop?
  • In what ways are the signed languages of the Deaf different from spoken languages? In what ways are they the same?
  • What principles underlie the construction of words, phrases and sentences?
  • How are the sounds of language produced? Does the sound system of a language form a coherent pattern?

The Department of Linguistics offers courses on these and related topics. For additional information about studying linguistics, please see LSA: Studying Linguistics, LSA guide: Why Major in Linguistics?  and these FAQs. More information about trends in linguistics can be found in LSA's 2019 Annual Report