What is linguistics?

Linguistics is the study of language -- but there are many approaches to the study of language.

One might study language as a cultural phenomenon that binds people together or divides them, as a tool for social interaction, or as an artistic medium. One might take a historical perspective and study the familial relations among languages or how languages have changed over time.

There is also an approach which sees language as interesting because it is structured and accessible product of the human mind. As such, language offers a means to study the nature of the mind that produces it. This is the approach taken by the linguists in the Program in Linguistics at Princeton. More specifically, our work is carried out within the framework of generative grammar. So...

What is generative grammar?

Linguists who work within the framework of generative grammar strive to develop a general theory that reveals the rules and laws that govern the structure of particular languages, and the general laws and principles governing all natural languages. The basic areas of study include phonology (the study of the sound patterns of language), morphology (the study of the structure and meaning of words), syntax (the study of the structure of sentences), and semantics (the study of linguistic meaning).

A signature feature of generative grammar is the view that humans have an innate "language faculty" and that the universal principles of human language reflect intrinsic properties of this language faculty. In learning their native languages, children acquire specific rules that determine the sound and meaning of utterances in the language. These rules interact with each other in complex ways, and the entire system is learned in a relatively short time and with little or no apparent conscious effort. The most plausible explanation for the success of human language learners is that they have access to a highly restrictive set of principles which does not require (or permit) them to consider many alternatives in order to account for a particular construction, but instead limits them to a few possible rules from which a choice can be made -- if necessary, without much further evidence. Since there is no evidence that the principles that define the class of possible rules and systems of rules are learned, it is thought that these principles serve as the preconditions for language learning, forming part of the innate capacity of every normal child. Viewed in this light, the principles we are attempting to discover are part of the genetic endowment of all humans. It follows that an understanding of these principles is necessary to an understanding of the mental makeup of the human species.

Only after extensive parts of the grammars of different languages have been formulated is it possible to ask questions concerning the ways in which various languages differ or the ways in which all languages are the same. Consequently, a large part of our effort is devoted to the study of linguistic detail (for example, the interpretation of English verb phrase ellipsis, the morpho-semantics of the Greek perfect, the syntax of multiple questions, or prosodic phrasing in Korean). The ultimate goal is not merely to understand these details, but to use them as a bridge to understanding the human language faculty in general.