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Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It endeavours to answer the question--what is language and how is represented in the mind? Linguists focus on describing and explaining language and are not concerned with the prescriptive rules of the language (ie., do not split infinitives). Linguists are not required to know many languages and linguists are not interpreters.
The underlying goal of the linguist is to try to discover the universals concerning language. That is, what are the common elements of all languages. The linguist then tries to place these elements in a theoretical framework that will describe all languages and also predict what can not occur in a language.
Linguistics is a social science that shares common ground with other social sciences such as psychology, anthropology, sociology and archaeology. It also may influence other disciplines such as english, communication studies and computer science. Linguistics for the most part though can be considered a cognitive science. Along with psychology, philosophy and computer science (AI), linguistics is ultimately concerned with how the human brain functions.
Below are several different disciplines within linguistics. The fields of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and language acquisition are considered the core fields of study and a firm knowledge of each is necessary in order to tackle more advanced subjects.
Phonetics is the study of the production and perception of speech sounds. It is concerned with the sounds of languge, how these sounds are articulated and how the hearer percieves them. Phonetics is related to the science of acoustics in that it uses much the same techniques in the analysis of sound that acoustics does. There are three sub-disciplines of phonetics:
Phonology is the study of the sound patterns of language. It is concerned with how sounds are organized in a language. Phonolgy examines what occurs to speech sounds when they are combined to form a word and how these speech sounds interact with each other. It endeavors to explain what these phonological processes are in terms of formal rules.
Morphology is the study of word formation and structure. It studies how words are put together from their smaller parts and the rules governing this process. The elements that are combining to form words are called morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning you can have in a language. The word cats, for example, contains the morphemes cat and the plural -s.
Syntax is the study of sentence structure. It attempts to describe what is grammatical in a particular language in term of rules. These rules detail an underlying structure and a transformational process. The underlying structure of English for example would have a subject-verb-object sentence order (John hit the ball). The transformational process would allow an alteration of the word order which could give you something like The ball was hit by John.
Semantics is the study of meaning. It is concerned with describing how we represent the meaning of a word in our mind and how we use this representation in constructing sentences. Semantics is based largely on the study of logic in philosophy.
Language acquistion examines how children learn to speak and how adults learn a second language. Language acquistion is very important because it gives us insight in the underlying processes of language. There are two components which contribute to language acqusition. The innate knowledge of the learner (called Universal Grammer or UG) and the environment. The notion of UG has broad implications. It suggests that all languages operate within the same framework and the understanding of this framework would contribute greatly to the understanding of what language is.