Welcome to the wide world of linguistics and languages, foreign and native. Languages are exciting and hilarious at the same time with innocent faux pas creating memorable moments. In spite of—or perhaps because of this—some fear the difficulties and complexities of languages. Does the statement "I can't learn foreign languages" seem familiar? Linguistics—the study of human languages—has gotten a bad rap among many people because the term has often been identified with a limited number of topics, particularly grammar, which many people hate.
The average person spends almost all of his or her day not noticing all the complicated calculations that go into daily speech, only pausing to reflect on the difficulty of languages when faced with the uncertain choice of whether to use "lie" or "lay" in a sentence. So why is it that languages still have the power to baffle, anger, even terrorize us? One leading journalist, Russ Rymer, went so far as to call linguistics a study "soaked with the blood of poets, theologians, philosophers, philologists, psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, and neurologists, along with whatever blood can be got out of grammarians."
Sounds scary, right? Linguistics is a far-reaching topic extending into societal debates that drive individuals and groups to defend the innocence of their native language against invasion by vocabulary from other, more pervasive ones. It affects us any time we unwittingly pass judgments and make assumptions about someone with a heavy accent.
But linguistics also covers many other topics we fret over every day. Call yourself an "average person" and know that you've got a good start. You're already an expert on the grammar of your native language. From that expertise onward, much to do with linguistics is fun and helpful, especially for someone with even just a passing curiosity in another language. Have you ever asked the question, "Why can’t I translate ‘keep it real’ [or any other phrase you liked] from English into Italian for my tattoo?" or "Why doesn’t this automated telephone menu understand what I’m saying?"
So fear not. Like any other area of study, linguistics can be broken down into bite-sized pieces. The two largest of these are the umbrella categories of theoretical and applied linguistics. Under theoretical linguistics, you might find questions like the one about getting a tattoo. This field encompasses a wide range of other topics from diachronic (or historical) linguistics, synchronic (or comparative) linguistics, prescription, description, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and on and on. Within the division for applied linguistics, for example, would be a question such as the one about those automated telephone menus we all love to hate. As the name implies, this area handles how to apply linguistics in practical uses of every day lives such as foreign language instruction, translation, speech therapy, and language software development.
There are many riddles that come with learning a second language, and some misconceptions can arise. In fact, many of them relate to lack of knowledge about our native tongue. To break it down, I've chosen a few interesting and relevant topics from those listed previously—phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics—as well as other topics specific to the Italian language (after all, this is About Italian Language and not About Linguistics). These discussions are for the layperson and they’ll deal with the handy, fun, manageable parts of linguistics.
Phonology is the science behind the system of sounds of languages. It’s often closely linked with a sister topic, phonetics, which deals with how we perceive and produce these sounds. Working together, these two areas can answer questions about spelling and accent, two very important subjects in the fine-tuning of acquiring a foreign language.
Morphology studies word formation and variation. It’s actually easier to see how morphology works in a language such as Italian where every verb must be conjugated to match the person doing the action. In English, the task is simple: I speak, you speak, they speak, we speak and he speaks. One change. Simple. In Italian, things get a little more complicated: io parlo, tu parli, lui parla, noi parliamo, voi parlate, loro parlano. This is morphology's charge.
The next discussion will focus on syntax, which is a close relative of that dreaded subject, grammar. Though it does deal with how linguistic bits (such as words) are combined to form higher elements (such as phrases or clauses), it’s much broader. Questions such as why "Dog bites man" may not have differed so greatly from "Man bites dog" in Latin, or why you can't always translate word-for-word that catch phrase you thought would make a great tattoo, fall under syntax.
The last section I will touch upon is semantics, which is occupied with the study of meaning. One of the first and most important questions you teach yourself to ask in a foreign language (after "Where do I eat and sleep?") is "What does that mean?" Semantics is the study that helps answer that question.
Solving The Riddles
Understanding the quirks of a foreign language makes it easier to remember the rules and to come closer to achieving native fluency. Even those who are just curious about Italian but don’t intend to study the language will find answers to questions that baffle us all.
So sit back and let’s have some fun.
About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.