Linguistics is the scientific study of both the phenomenon of language in its most general sense (as a uniquely human capacity and activity) and of individual languages.

Synchronic linguistics is concerned with the structure of language and individual languages at a particular, fixed point in time: for example 20th century English or 17th century German. Historical linguistics, in contrast, is concerned with how language changes over time. For instance, a thousand years ago, speakers of English, instead of saying What do you say?, would say Hwæt sægst ðū?, where the æ indicates the sound of a in the Modern English word hat, the ð the sound of th in the Modern English word that, and the ū indicates the “oo” sound in Modern English food. Basically, a historical linguist would want to know by what pathways and what mechanisms did Old English become Modern English. Not only did words change – with the word ðū later becoming thou and then being replaced by you – but also whole structures changed. In Modern English we use the word do to ask questions: What do you say? The Old English tense Hwæt sægst ðū . – “What say thou? What say you?” – does not have do. (Neither do the cognate Modern German and Modern Dutch sentences: Was sagen Sie? Wat zegt u? A historical linguist would want to know how and why do came to be used in English. Historical linguists of German and Dutch would similarly be interested in how Old High German became Middle High German and then Modern German, or how Old Low Franconian became Modern Dutch and Modern Afrikaans.

Whether one does historical or synchronic linguistics, linguistics has many subdisciplines concerned with the different components of language and languages. Phonetics is concerned with how people produce and perceive speech sounds. Phonology is concerned with how speech sounds are organized into patterns distinctive of each language. Morphology is concerned with how words are built up from smaller units. Syntax is concerned with how words are combined into larger units such as phrases and sentences. In English we say He has read a book, but in German, Dutch, and Afrikaans we say “he has a book read,” with the word “read” at the end of the sentence: Er hat ein Buch gelesen , Hij heeft een boek gelezen, Hy het ’n boek gelees.

Semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, and conversational analysis are all concerned with the way words and sentences are used in actual speech to communicate messages. Semantics deals with that part of the communication which actually comes from the language itself – the meaning of words and structures. For example, in some cases it seems that to redden and to turn red “mean the same thing.” Betsy’s face turned red and Betsy’s face reddened seem to be interchangeable. On the other hand, you can say Just as I got to the intersection, the traffic light turned red but not Just as I got to the intersection, the traffic light reddened. A semantician would want to why both sentences are possible in the first case but not the second. How does redden differ from the phrase turn red. A semantician of German might want to know how the German verbs cognate with English must, and shall, namely müssen and sollen, differ from each other, especially since the Dutch verb moeten appears to do duty for both of them.

Pragmatics deals with language as used by people, taking into account everything else that people know besides language when they talk to one another. For example, the sentence Can you speak French? asks whether you know how to talk French but does not actually invite you to go and start speaking French. In contrast, Can you turn down the television? is not really concerned with whether you have the physical ability to turn off the set every now and then but is requesting that you do so. And right now.

Discourse analysis and conversational analysis all deal with how language (phrases, sentences) is put together to form larger entities such as texts and discourses and conversations. For example, one can conclude a lecture with the word therefore (as in Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I am against my opponent’s proposal) but one would not begin a lecture with it (Ladies and gentlemen! Therefore I am glad to be here this afternoon). Moreover, German and Dutch and other Germanic language have many puzzling little words (called “discourse particles”) like mal or ja or eben or eens or maar which are analogous to English then or y’know and which can only be learned when one understands precisely what the social rules are for using them in discourse or conversational contexts.

As might be expected in fields as complex as linguistic behavior, linguistic knowledge, and linguistic structure, there are various competing theoretical approaches to the study of language. Formal linguistics adopts a relatively mathematical and logical approach to language and languages, with the goal of integrating all the parts of language mentioned above into a comprehensive system of rules and constraints interacting with one another. It is best represented on the UCLA campus by Generative Grammar, originated by Noam Chomsky, and taught in the UCLA Linguistics Department. Though Generative Grammar is mentioned in some courses taught in the Department of Germanic Languages, the emphasis is on less formal, functional and discourse-based approaches. These include Grammaticalization Theory, Cognitive Grammar, and what could be a kind of intellectual mirror-image of Cognitive Grammar known as the Columbia School.

Within the UCLA Department of Germanic Languages, most linguistics courses are given by Professor Stevens and cover such fields as German phonetics and phonology, different views of German grammar, dialectology, sociolinguistics, and historical linguistics (See the Catalogue pages for more detailed listings). Professor Kirsner’s German c172/c238: Linguistic Theory and Grammatical Description presents a comparison between Cognitive Grammar and the Columbia School with analytical exercises on Dutch, German, and other non-Germanic languages.