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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Linguistics

Linguistics

Linguistics, the study of language, gives us a window into the way we communicate.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

English Language Arts, Social Studies, World History

Image

Noam Chomsky

American linguist Noam Chomsky theorizes the reason human languages have many commonalities is because the brain is “pre-wired” to understand language in a specific way.

Photograph by David Corio/Redferns

It is in the books we read. It is in the messages we send. It is on the signs we see and in the private thoughts we think every day. It is language, one of the most essential components of human community, communication, and daily life. Linguistics is the study of language. Linguistics involves examining aspects of language like structure, nature, and evolution.

Linguistic study goes back at least as far as fifth century B.C.E. to an Indian scholar named Panini, who recorded the rules of Sanskrit grammar. Citizens of ancient Greece also studied language structure in order to strengthen understanding and expression of philosophy and criticism.

The study of linguistics in the modern sense is believed to have begun in the 19th century. It was then that one of the brothers behind Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob Grimm, built upon work done by Danish scholar Rasmus Rask to write a study of the Indo-European origins of the German language. Future linguists further added to these studies in order to learn how a single language gave birth to languages spoken throughout Europe and parts of Asia. This language of origin, or protolanguage, was called Indo-European, and over the years linguists have identified and organized several hundred Indo-European languages into branches of a vast linguistic family tree, all originating in the Indo-European protolanguage.

In the second half of the 20th century, the theory that most languages have numerous, significant similarities became increasingly popular. The famed American linguist Noam Chomsky suggested that this might be because the human brain is specifically “pre-wired” to understand language in a common way. Chomsky’s theories as well as the work of other linguists continue to shape how we understand the evolution of language and the relationship between human brains and the diverse languages we speak.

In essence, linguists are scientists. They use the scientific method to conduct research to determine the history and functions of language. They direct formal studies that examine the sounds of speech, grammar, and vocabulary, and identify similarities and common characteristics. They use these characteristics to trace human language back to its origins to get a sense of its history and development over time and space. They then classify languages into various families based on their shared history and characteristics. By helping the world understand how language has evolved over the millennia and how the many languages of the world are interrelated to each other, linguists help us better understand human history, culture, and development.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Producer
Clint Parks,
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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