Linguistics is commonly defined as a science of language. A scientific description is one that is carried out systematically based on objectively verifying observations and within the framework of some general theory appropriate to the data. It is often said that linguistics properly so-called is of relatively recent origin and that the investigation of language as practised In Europe and America before the nineteenth century was subjective, speculative and unsystematic. Linguistics, as we know today, was developed in conscious opposition to the more traditional approaches to the study of language characteristic of earlier centuries. This deliberate break with the past was sharper and more definitive in America than it was in Europe.

Characteristics of Modern Linguistics

The first of these, which is often regarded as a direct consequence of the scientific status of linguistics is its autonomy or independence of other disciplines. Traditional grammar, originated in Greece of the fifth century B.C., has since its beginning been intimately connected with philosophy and literary criticism. When the linguists claim ‘autonomy’ for his subject he is asking to be allowed to take a fresh and objective look at the language without a prior commitment to traditional ideas and without necessarily adopting the same point of view as philosophers, psychologists, literary critics or representatives of other disciplines. This does not mean that there is not, or should not be, any connection between linguistics and other disciplines concerned with language.

Reference has been made to the literary bias of traditional grammar. That bias, which derived from the fact that the earliest Western grammarians were mainly concerned with the preservation and interpretation of the texts of the classical Greek writers, manifested itself in various ways. Scholars tended to concentrate upon written language and to ignore the difference between speech and writing.

By contrast, most linguists today take it as axiomatic that speech is primary, and that the written language is secondary and derived from it: in other words, that sound is the medium in which language is ’embodied’ that written languages result from the transference of speech to a secondary visual medium. Every known language existed first as a spoken language, and thousands of languages have never or only very recently been committed to writing.

It should be emphasized that adherence to the principle of the primacy of speech overwriting does not imply a lack of interest in, still less contempt for, written languages. Nor does it necessarily imply that the written language is wholly derivative. Traditional grammarians were concerned more or less exclusively with the standard, literary language; and they tended to disregard, or to condemn as ‘incorrect’, more informal or colloquial usage both in speech and writing.

Also, they often failed to realize that the standard language is from a historical point of view, merely that regional or social dialect which has acquired prestige and becomes the instrument of Administration, education and literature. Because of its more widespread use, by a greater number of people and for a wider range of activities, the standard language may have a richer vocabulary than any of the co-existent ‘sub-standard’ dialects, but it is not intrinsically more correct. The distinction between language and dialect is commonly drawn on political grounds.

Traditional grammar was developed based on Greek and Latin, and it was subsequently applied with minimal modifications and often uncritically to the description of a large number of other languages. But there are many languages which, in certain respects at least, are strikingly different in structure from Latin, Greek and the more familiar languages of Europe and Asia.

One of the principal aims of modern linguistics has therefore been to construct a theory of grammar which is more general than the traditional theory – one that is appropriate for the description of all human languages and is not biased in favour of those languages which are similar in their grammatical structure to Greek and Latin.

It should also be mentioned at this point that linguistics provides no support for those who believe that there is a fundamental difference between ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ languages. The vocabulary of a language will, of course, reflect the characteristic pursuits and interests of the society which uses it. The vocabulary of one language cannot be described as richer or poorer than the vocabulary of some other language in any absolute sense: every language has a sufficiently rich vocabulary for the expression of all the distinctions that are important in the society using it. We cannot, therefore, say that one language is more primitive or more advanced than another.

Noam Chomsky

All human societies of which we know speak languages of roughly equal complexity, and the differences of the grammatical structure that we do find between languages throughout the world are such that they cannot be correlated with the cultural development of the people speaking them and cannot be used as evidence for the construction of an evolutionary theory of human language.

What are the features of human languages, then, which distinguish them from the systems of communication used by other species? Two particularly striking properties of human language may be mentioned here. The first of these is the duality of structure.

Every language so far investigated has two levels of grammatical structure. There is, first of all, what we make all the ‘primary’, or syntactic, level of analysis, at which sentences can be represented as combinations of meaningful units: we will call these words. There is also a ‘secondary’, or phonological, level at which sentences can be represented as combinations of units which are themselves without meaning and serve for the identification of the ‘primary’ units. The ‘secondary’ units of language are sounds, or phonemes.

If we take as an example the sentence, He went to London, we can say that sentence is composed of four words and that the first of these ‘primary’ units are identified by the combination of the ‘secondary’ units H and e, the second of the primary units by the combination w, e, n and t and so on.

Granted that every language manifests the property of duality of structure, we may expect that the description, or grammar of every language will consist of three interrelated parts. The part which accounts for the regularities governing the combination of words is syntax. It is using syntactic rules, for example, that we specify that He went to London, by contrast with went to he London, is a grammatical sentence. That part of grammar which describes the meaning of words and sentences is semantics. And the part of grammar that deals with the sounds and their permissible combinations are phonology. Thus the term ‘grammar’ refers to the whole of systematic description of life including both phonology and semantics as well as syntax.

The second general property of human language to be mentioned is its creativity or ‘open-mindedness’. By this is meant the capacity that all native speakers of a language have to produce and understand an indefinitely large number of sentences that they have never heard before and which may indeed never have been uttered before by anyone.

The native speaker’s ‘creative’ command of his language is in normal circumstances unconscious and unreflecting. He is generally unaware of applying any grammatical rules or systematic principles of the formation when he constructs either new sentences or sentences he has previously encountered. And yet the sentences that he utters will generally be accepted by other native speakers of the language as correct and will be understood by them. This creative command of language is unique to human beings: it is species-specific. Systems of communication employed by other species than man are not ‘open-ended’ in the same way.

Modern linguistics claims to be more scientific and more general than traditional grammar. It assumes that the ‘natural’ medium for the expression of language is sound -as produced by the speech organs -and that written languages are derived from speech. The grammar of any language will comprise at least the following three interrelated parts: syntax, semantics and phonology; and it should, among other things, account for the ability native speakers have to produce and understand an indefinitely large number of ‘new’ sentences.



The father of Modern Linguistics, Noam Chomsky holds special regard to Kerala. Recently, Kerala started a conversation on development. Titled as ‘Kerala Dialogue’, it aims to bring together leading thinkers, policy-makers, professionals, scientists and the general public to a shared space where they could rethink and reimagine development for a world disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This nonagenarian was a part of the inaugural episode of this series. We Keralites are indeed lucky to have him in.

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, H.H. The Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.