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Linguistic Tips

Aspects of Language
IPA Chart
Aspects of Language
The -logy Suffix
Binomial Collocations
As Idiomatic As English

Adapted from Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia


Monira M. Hassan

English Dep.

University of Derna

There are many different ways to examine and describe individual languages and changes in languages. Nevertheless, each approach usually takes into account a language's sounds (phonetics and phonology), word structure (morphology), and sentence structure (syntax). Most analyses also treat vocabulary and the semantics (meaning) of a language.

Phonetics is the study of all speech sounds and the ways in which they are produced, transmitted, and received. Phoneticists looking at the articulation of a sound take into account the flow of air used to produce a sound, the state of the vocal cords at that precise moment, whether it is nasal or oral (that is, the position of the soft palate), the point of articulation (lips, teeth, hard palate), manner of articulation (at the point of articulation), and the position of the lips (for example, open, closed, rounded). Phonology, on the other hand, is the study and identification of the meaningful sounds of a language (not every possible sound in a language). The smallest units of sound that carry meaning in a language are labelled phonemes. Phonological researchers use a system of minimal pairs to establish the phonemes in a language. For example, the words should and would in English are minimal pairs (as are should and shed, and should and shook): by substituting sh for w the meaning of the word is changed, implying that the sounds sh /S/ and w /w/ are phonemes in English.


Morphology is concerned with the smallest grammatical units, called morphemes, that carry meaning in a language. These may be word roots (as the English cran-, in cranberry) or individual words (in English bird, ask, charm); word endings (as the English -s for plural: birds, -ed for past tense: asked, -ing  for present participle: charming); prefixes and suffixes (for example, English pre-, as in preadmission, or -ness, in openness); and even internal alterations indicating such grammatical categories as tense (English sing-sang), number (English mouse-mice), or case. Morphology is a branch of grammar, as is syntax. In contrast to morphology, syntax refers to the relations among word elements in a phrase or sentence, the smallest unit of analysis usually being a word. For example, English word order is most commonly subject-verb-object: Mary baked pies. The order pies baked Mary is not meaningful English syntax.

The study of semantics addresses meaning in language. Other approaches (philosophical, logical) also study semantics and have an influence on the linguistic approach, but the latter is less restricted and takes an objective and systematic view of meaning in all languages. In the past, there were three main schools of thought as regards meaning and language. The first reflects Plato’s view that words directly refer to things, although it is easy to find many words that do not obviously relate to things. Another theory disputes a direct relationship between words and things, and instead argues the link between words and things is in our minds: a concept. This theory was promoted by Charles Ogden and I. A. Richards in the 1920s. The behaviourist outlook on semantics was developed by American linguist Leonard Bloomfield in the 1930s, who said that the meaning of language can only be known if the situation of an utterance is taken into consideration, that is, if a stimulus and response for each utterance is identified. Modern linguistics however, rather than concentrating on what meaning is, analyses the way utterances are used in specific contexts.

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