That’s Linguistics (Not logistics)

Linguists really need a catchy tune to match those in logistics. Any takers?

I always remember when one of my former lecturers said he was surprised by how little the average person will know about linguistics. For me, this was best exemplified when, upon enquiring about my degree, my friend paused for a brief moment and said: “Linguistics. That’s like logistics, right?” Indeed. Not really being in the mood to bash my friend’s ignorance into a bloody pulp of understanding, I decided to take a swig of my beer and simply replied: “No, not really. But it doesn’t matter.” Feeling guilty for not gathering the entire congregation of party-goers, sitting them down and proceeding to explain the fundamentals of linguistics, I have instead decided to write a series of 101 posts.

With that said, a good place to start is by providing some dictionary definitions highlighting the difference between linguistics and logistics:

Linguistics /lɪŋˈgwɪs.tɪks/ noun

the systematic study of the structure and development of language in general or of particular languages.

Logistics /ləˈdʒɪs.tɪks/ plural noun

the careful organization of a complicated activity so that it happens in a successful and effective way.

Arguably, linguistics is a logistical solution for successfully, and rigorously, studying language through the scientific method, but to avoid further confusion this is the last time you’ll see logistics in these posts. So, as you can probably infer, linguistics is a fairly broad term that, for all intensive purposes, simply means it’s a discipline for studying language. Those who partake in the study of language are known as linguists. This leads me to another point of contention: a linguist isn’t synonymous with a polyglot. Although there are plenty of linguists who do speak more than one language, many of them are quite content just sticking to their native language. It is, after all, possible for linguists to study many aspects of a language without necessarily having anything like native-level competency. In fact, other than occasionally shouting pourquoi when (drunkly) reflecting on my life choices, or ach-y-fi when a Brussels sprout somehow manages to make its way near my plate, I’m mainly monolingual.

Those quibbles aside we can now focus on the matter at a hand. As you now know, linguistics is the study of language, but the buck doesn’t stop there. Like any other discipline, linguistics is divided up into major categories, sub-categories and intersections between multiple disciplines. Even within a sub-discipline, like evolutionary linguistics, there is plenty of scope for variety into approaches, methodologies and perspectives. This will be apparent to most of you who regularly read this blog. I’ll quote wikipedia on the subject as it provides a straightforward enough overview:

An important topical division is between the study of language structure (grammar) and the study of meaning (semantics and pragmatics). Grammar encompasses morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the rules that determine how words combine into phrases and sentences) and phonology (the study of sound systems and abstract sound units). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds (phones), non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.

Other sub-disciplines of linguistics include the following: evolutionary linguistics, which considers the origins of language; historical linguistics, which explores language change; sociolinguistics, which looks at the relation between linguistic variation and social structures; psycholinguistics, which explores the representation and functioning of language in the mind; neurolinguistics, which looks at the representation of language in the brain; language acquisition, which considers how children acquire their first language and how children and adults acquire and learn their second and subsequent languages; and discourse analysis, which is concerned with the structure of texts and conversations, and pragmatics with how meaning is transmitted based on a combination of linguistic competence, non-linguistic knowledge, and the context of the speech act.

Hopefully, I’ll dedicate a post to each of these topics in the near future, even though I don’t claim to be an expert in any one particular field, and some I would probably struggle to hold a conversation in (meaning this will be of use to me as well). With these definitions out of the way, I’ll now move onto what I think is a good place to start: an overview into the historical development of field. (On reflection, I don’t think the history of linguistics is a good place to start, primarily for the reason that most lay people won’t understand the importance of the developments. However, as I’m already in the process of writing part one of this history, I might as well finish it.)

A (Brief) History of Linguistics pt. 1

The study of language dates back to at least antiquity, where it was primarily driven by liturgical concerns. A notable example of this is in the Old-Babylonian tradition. Here, the language which made up the majority of religious and legal texts, Sumerian, was gradually being displaced by Akkadian:

This grammatical tradition emerged, by about 1900 BC and lasted 2,500 years, so that Sumerian could be learned and these texts could continue to be read. Most of the texts were administrative lists: inventories, receipts, and rosters. Some early texts for use in the scribal school were inventories (lists) of Sumerian nouns and their Akkadian equivalents. From this, grammatical analysis evolved in the sixth and fifth centuries BC; different forms of the same word, especially of verbs, were listed in a way that represented grammatical paradigms and matched them between two languages (Campbell, 2002).

Language change was also influential in establishing the Hindu tradition. A notable, and long-lasting influence, being the Sanskrit grammarians during the Vedic period; eventually culminating in Pāṇini’s Ashtadhyayi — a formulation of 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology. Some concepts now familiar with linguists originated in this earlier work, including the phoneme, the morpheme and the root. Such depth of scholarship should not be understated: Pāṇini’s systematic and technical achievements in describing Sanskrit morphology meant the study of grammar was cemented as a serious scientific endeavour in India. Even Chomsky acknowledged Pāṇini’s influence on modern linguistics, when he said: “The first generative grammar in the modern sense was Pāṇini’s grammar”.

Besides the Old-Babylonian and Hindu traditions, there are several other important historical traditions. The Greek philosophers, for instance, discussed two concepts relevant to this blog: the origins of language and the relationship between language and thought. They also investigated the etymology of words by looking at their creation and structure. Plato offered some interesting contributions in his division of the sentence into ónoma (name) and rħêma (utterance). Later on, the Roman linguistics continued along similar tracks, emphasising morphological approaches that largely focused on noun declensions and verb conjugations. Arabic grammatical traditions also took inspiration from the Greeks, particularly the works of Aristotle. The main emphasis for Arabic grammarians tended to start with the erroneous question: why was the Arabic language apparently sacred and immutable as stated in the Qur’ān? (But see the comment below as this statement may be bunk). Hebrew linguistic tradition also had its roots in religion. The emphasis here was to establish the correct Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Using descriptive methods derived from Arabic scholars, they developed a system of analysis for the morphology, as Cambell notes:

Between 900 and 1550, 91 authors composed 145 works on grammar that we know of. Saadya ben Joseph al-Fayyūmī (a.k.a. Saadya Gaon) (882–942) is generally held to be the first to produce a Hebrew grammar and dictionary (Téné 1995: 22). Ibn Janā of Cordova’s Kitāb al-Luma’, written in Judeo-Arabic, was the first complete description of Hebrew. For Ibn Janā (born 980 AD), Hebrew, Arabic, and all other languages had three parts of speech: noun, verb, and particles (as in the Arabic tradition, inherited from Aristotle). The tradition reach its peak in David Qimi’s (ca. 1235) grammar, Sepher mikhlol, whose main features were analysis of verbal forms with a set of affixes and roots. This kind of analysis came to have a strong impact on European linguistics.

The Tower of Babel: The place where all languages did not originate from

As with the Greeks, early Christian writers returned to the origin of languages. Perhaps induced by the multilingual nature of the Christian world, questions were being asked as to why there were multiple languages. One solution, albeit unedifying, was the Tower of Babel story. Here, it was that interfering Old Testament God who, not being content with us humans having one language (which according to most scholars was originally Hebrew), proclaimed: “Come, let us go down and confound their speech.”

Besides ‘solving’ the origin of language, Christian writers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries developed a body of theoretical work that would give rise to speculative grammar: “a belief that language reflects the reality underlying the physical world”. It is here, in medieval scholarship, where we begin to see the rise of what would later be known as Universal Grammar. Under this paradigm a group of 30 authors, known as Modistae, set about compiling lists that distinguished between essential modes (universals) and accidental modes:

For example, “predication” (verb) was essential to communication, but “tense” was accidental, since its function could be signified by something else, for example by temporal adverbs. “Noun” was the most essential (echoing Aristotle).

Moving on somewhat, and in the seventeenth century the study of language was greatly influenced by the works of René Descartes and John Locke (not the fictional character from Lost). The general consensus among scholars held that the underlying grammatical systems of existing languages were mere approximations of some universal ideal, corrupted by neglect in usage. Another feature of this period was the growing variety of languages Europeans were being exposed to, be it through conquest, trade or colonisation, allowing for comparisons and classifications through the use of word lists, grammars, dictionaries and religious texts. It is the rise of this comparative method with which I shall begin the next post.


Lyle Cambell (2002). The History of Linguistics The Handbook of Linguistics : 10.1111/b.9781405102520.2002.00006.x

6 thoughts on “That’s Linguistics (Not logistics)”

  1. > “The main emphasis for Arabic grammarians tended to start with the erroneous question: why was the Arabic language apparently sacred and immutable as stated in the Qur’ān?”

    I can’t imagine where you got this idea from. Actually, even the earliest Arabic grammarians showed a remarkably clear awareness of variation and change in Arabic, describing the disappearance of case endings in the towns and giving us practically all surviving data on differences between the Arabic spoken by different tribes (and you will search in vain for a passage of the Qur’an claiming that Arabic is “sacred and immutable”, because none exists.) Among later Arab linguists, Ibn Hazm (11th century), stated explicitly that Arabic and other languages must have emerged through a process of gradual change, although Ibn Hazm, like others, mistakenly took the original source of Arabic and Hebrew to be Syriac.

  2. Well it’s fairly straightforward where I got the idea from: the author cited above. I’ll quote from the source: “For Arabic grammarians, the Arabic language was sacred and immutable as enshrined in the Qur’ān, and they were concerned with explaining why Arabic was perfect. For example, the system of inflectional endings was believed to be proof of the symmetry and logicalness of the language. The major impetus for grammatical study came from linguistic change and the desire to preserve the integrity of the holy language of the Qur’ān. While no change was acknowledged in formal Arabic after the eighth century, the realization that the spoken Arabic of the eighth and ninth centuries was changing stimulated the development of Arabic grammatical study.”

    But I know, from having previously read your blog via gnxp comments, that you are obviously far more knowledgeable on the topic. So I’ll defer to you on this.

  3. I read the posts in Jabal al-Lughat a long time ago and I found Ibn Hazm’s ideas really interesting, and ‘modern’. It took a couple more centuries for European scholars, e.g. Dante, to start reflecting on the similarities between European languages and their possible classification into families.

    The funny thing is that I discovered Ibn Hazm’s linguistic ideas quite by chance, as I was looking for references about his famous poem “The Ring of the Dove”, which he wrote in my home town of Xàtiva in about 1023 when he was in exile from Córdoba. Maybe the world of classical Arabic erudition can still provide some more surprises like this.

  4. About the song for linguists … well, you did ask.

    With deep and surface grammatical thanks to David Bowie here is the Linguistic Genius:

    Ling Genie

    A keen linguist Genie snuck off to the study
    Strung out on lexis and slash back deixis
    Ate all your phrases while hawking semantics
    Talking bout Saussure and stalking on parole
    La Langue’s like Plato where everything sounds whole

    Poor Lean Genie

    The Ling Genie lives on syntax
    The Ling Genie loves corpus facts
    He’s courageous, he scribes and transcribes
    Keen linguist let data flow!

    Sounds like a phoneme but shifts like a morpheme
    She loves him, she loves him but just for a grapheme
    She’ll scratch in the book, won’t let go his hook
    He says he’s a logician and sells you partition
    And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear*

    Poor Lean Genie

    The Ling Genie lives on …

    He’s so language minded he counts all his syllables
    He bites on the noun and devours the improbable
    Words to be loved, words to be loved

    The Ling Genie …

    *Didn’t change this line: even linguists need a hobby.

  5. I was working on research of linguistic tools and found your post. This page contains a really great information and I want to say thanks for it! Also, I want to suggest a one more link to a definition dictionary which I use frequently (Apart from definitions it provides rhymes, quotes and idioms).

    Linguistics [l_ɪ_ŋ_ɡ_w_ˈɪ_s_t_ɪ_k_s], [lɪŋɡwˈɪstɪks], [lɪŋɡwˈɪstɪks]
    Definitions of linguistics:
    The humanistic study of language and literature
    The science of languages in their relations and affinities.
    The science of languages, or of the origin, signification, and application of words; glossology.
    The science of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and historical linguistics. ( Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2d ed)
    The science of languages; the general study of languages for the purpose of classification.

    Logistics [l_ə_dʒ_ˈɪ_s_t_ɪ_k_s], [ləd͡ʒˈɪstɪks], [ləd‍ʒˈɪstɪks]
    Definitions of logistics:
    That branch of the military art which embraces the details of moving and supplying armies. The meaning of the word is by some writers extended to include strategy.
    The planning and managing of programs, services, and resources.
    A system of arithmetic, in which numbers are expressed in a scale of 60; logistic arithmetic.
    A system of arithmetic in which numbers are expressed in a scale of sixty.
    Logistic logarithms. handling an operation that involves providing labor and materials be supplied as needed.

    I see that you already have a link to the related service on this page, so adding – probably would be a good new opportunity for your visitors to find more information.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.