General linguistics

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The General Linguistics (also General Linguistics ) is one of the great main disciplines of linguistics . It is differentiated on the one hand from applied linguistics and on the other hand from historical linguistics , whereby the demarcation between these subject areas and general linguistics is often made differently. The term "general linguistics" can also be understood to mean that it represents the counterpart to the specific linguistics of individual philologies such as German , Romance studies , Slavonic studies , etc. With this more comprehensive understanding, a large part of the applied and historical linguistic subjects are also counted as general linguistics. General linguistics as a subject is classified as a small subject in Germany .

General linguistics is primarily concerned with human language as a whole as a natural system, i.e. it does not deal with individual languages ​​as such, but with general characteristics and functions of language. This includes the creation of abstract models with regard to the structure of human language, but also the description and explanation of general cross- linguistic similarities , general laws of linguistic changes and general characteristics of linguistic usage. Ultimately, research into the biological origin and the biological basis of language and the use of language can also be counted as part of general linguistics.

The subject of general linguistics primarily conducts basic research. However, it is closely related to other branches of science, where the results are of practical use in interdisciplinary work. In addition, general linguistics is an integral part of cognitive science .

Research areas and sub-disciplines

Basically, the terms “linguistics” and “linguistics” are to be understood synonymously. However, there is a conceptual dichotomy insofar as "linguistics" is understood to be this area, especially with regard to research into the theoretical foundations of natural language, whereas the use of the term "linguistics" also and particularly aims at language as a social and cultural phenomenon. The understanding of which sub-areas belong to a “general linguistics” or a “general linguistics” is correspondingly different.

The tasks of general linguistics are the description of the components of the language system (sounds, words, various functional units), their functions and meanings as well as the possibilities and patterns of their compositions (sound combinations, phrases, sentences, texts). This goes hand in hand with the formulation of various grammar models. In this regard, research into a postulated universal grammar - that is, a biologically predetermined, fundamental grammatical structure that is common to all languages ​​- is of major importance. Furthermore, general linguistics u. a. the formulation of general theories of language .

Theoretical subjects

The core areas of theoretically oriented general linguistics do not relate (at least directly) to the language actually uttered and not to existing individual languages. Therefore, these sub-subjects are often referred to as “ theoretical linguistics ” in their entirety . If there is a narrow definition of “general linguistics” and only the core areas listed below are understood, the term “theoretical linguistics” is often equated with “general linguistics”. However, since "applied" and "historical" subjects can also be counted as part of general linguistics, depending on the understanding, this synonymous use is sometimes misleading. These theoretical core areas are:

  • Grammar , the study of the structure, i.e. the forms and regular models of language. The following subjects are assigned to this umbrella term:
    • Phonology (colloquially also: phonology), the study of the phonetic system of a language, i.e. of the smallest phonetic components and their functions and possible combinations ( phonemes , syllables ).
    • Morphology (colloquially also: theory of forms), the theory of the smallest meaningful components of a language ( morphemes ), which u. a. enable the inflection of words and the formation of words. At this level one also speaks of word grammar.
    • Syntax (also colloquially: sentence theory), the theory of the form and structure of word combinations ( syntactic phrases , sentences). At this level it is the sentence grammar.
Many linguistic conditions also show up in the border area of ​​these areas. Therefore, when researching such boundary phenomena, one speaks of “morphonology” or “morphophonology” on the one hand and “morphosyntax” on the other.
Increasingly, the cooperation between these sub-areas under the aspect of describing a comprehensive theory of grammar is also understood as an independent sub-area “grammar theory”.
  • Lexicology , the study of the general structure and existence of the vocabulary of a language.
  • Semantics , the study of the meaning and meaning of linguistic units. A distinction is made between
    • Word semantics: the meaning of words in relation to the things of the world,
    • Sentence semantics: the logical meaning of sentences, and
    • Text semantics: the meaning of texts in relation to topic-related text sequences and extra-linguistic circumstances.
Particularly in the context of "hard core" linguistics, which is currently frequently used, the focus in this specialist spectrum is on sentence semantics. Text semantics in particular hardly plays a role here, since questions relating to these are primarily dealt with under a philological, social or cultural science-oriented “linguistics”.

In addition to these subjects, which are currently seen as core areas of general linguistics, this discipline also includes the following sub-areas:

  • Text linguistics , the study of the structure, functions and effects of texts. Either treated together with it or at least closely related to it
    • Conversation analysis (also: conversational linguistics), which deals with verbal utterances, and the
    • Discourse analysis that examines (written and oral) texts in their thematic contexts and under their production and reception conditions. Since numerous social and other extra-linguistic factors play a role in practice and the language actually used is also examined in these subjects, these two sub-areas are also counted among the subjects of applied linguistics.
  • Philosophy of language , the study of the relationship between language, thought and reality and of the general functions of language. This subject is closely related to
  • Semiotics , the general doctrine of signs, and with the
  • Pragmatics , the doctrine of the general principles and conditions of linguistic utterance and linguistic communication.

Two other subjects have a special position:

  • The graphic arts , also: writing linguistics, examines the writing systems of natural and artificial languages. However, it is not concerned with the language system itself, but with a form of medial implementation of language.
  • The Phonetics is the study of the articulation, perception and the physical properties of speech sounds. It therefore deals with a medial form of language in the same way as graphic arts. Phonetics is generally considered part of general linguistics, is closely related to phonology and is sometimes also treated together with it. Phonetics, however, has little relation to language systematic description, but rather to subjects such as psycholinguistics, language pathology or clinical linguistics, which are considered disciplines of applied linguistics, especially with regard to speech therapy procedures.

General comparative subjects

With reference to another main field of general linguistics - besides the structural description of language - namely the description of general cross-language commonalities, further linguistic subjects of general linguistics can be assigned.

  • The universals tries, going beyond the exploration of a universal grammar by comparison of syntax, morphology and phonology of many individual languages general similarities of language to determine.


  • Language typology that tries to group the languages ​​of the world into types according to certain criteria, as well as the
  • Contrastive linguistics , which explores similarities and differences between certain individual languages; likewise the
  • Area typology , which u. a. determines whether languages ​​of specific geographic regions form language alliances .

All of these subjects, which are dedicated to the comparison of languages, are, depending on the conception and orientation of a research institution (mostly a university institute), often seen as subject areas complementary to general linguistics and summarized together with historical-comparative subjects under the umbrella term comparative linguistics . This is then also understood as an independent main linguistic discipline alongside general linguistics. In addition, common linguistic features are described in these subjects not on a purely theoretical basis, but on the basis of studies of existing individual languages. That is why they are often not ascribed to general linguistics.

Applied subjects

Due to the very different conceptions of “language” and different approaches to language as a research object, and because of the strong interdisciplinary character of linguistics in general, there is no common distinction between general and applied linguistics everywhere.

On the one hand, general linguistics can be defined as the subject that, in addition to the theoretical basics, also deals with the biological and psychological or cognitive requirements for language and language use, which are the same for all individuals ( language acquisition , possible language pathological states, neural processes in language production, biological origin of language in general, etc.). General linguistics can also be regarded as the subject that deals with the general characteristics of spoken language depending on social, sociodemographic and cultural factors (language in political and societal institutions, gender-specific language use, language of young people and language use in old age, Use of language depending on cultural conditions and circumstances, etc.). With this understanding, the corresponding linguistic subjects that deal with it ( biolinguistics , psycholinguistics , sociolinguistics , neurolinguistics , ethnolinguistics , etc.) are then also seen as sub-areas of general linguistics.

On the other hand, all these subjects, which examine language under the conditions of its use, can also be defined, on the contrary, as those that do not deal with language as an abstract system, but rather presuppose and examine the language actually expressed, i.e. a language “in use” . Defined in this way, these subjects are then to be counted as sub-areas of applied linguistics.

Applied linguistics generally also includes those linguistic disciplines that deal with the application of linguistic research results and are related to other scientific fields (medicine, computer science, didactics, etc.). If, however, it is also about the practical application of research results from theoretical subjects in general linguistics, then with a comprehensive understanding of "general linguistics", practice-oriented subjects such as computational linguistics or clinical linguistics and language pathology , but also subjects such as language didactics or translation theory, at least in part General linguistics.

Ultimately, linguistic methods such as quantitative linguistics or corpus linguistics , which have recently expanded into independent sub-disciplines, either belong to general or to applied linguistics, depending on the view, application or research area.

Historical subjects

There are also some unclear demarcations between general and historical linguistics. If general linguistics is understood as the subject area that is also intended to describe the general principles, rules and regularities of linguistic change over time, certain subjects, which are usually considered part of historical linguistics, must at least partially also relate to areas of general linguistics to be determined. These include primarily

  • the investigation of phonology, morphology and syntax as well as the lexicon and (mainly) lexical semantics from a diachronic point of view (sound change, grammatical change, lexical and semantic change), which in its entirety is called diachrony ; such as
  • the exploration of general principles of word formation and word history ( etymology ), language formation and development, language decay and language death.

Linguistics as a discipline

In addition to the research subjects listed, General Linguistics also deals with topics that concern you. This includes primarily

The concept of language in general linguistics

The dichotomous language concept

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), most important exponent of linguistic structuralism

The Geneva linguist and semioticist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) had a profound and lasting influence on the view of “language” . He assumed that a distinction had to be made between a language that exists as a formal construct - he called this " Langue " - and a language that is actually expressed - he called it "Parole". “Langue” sees itself as a theoretical system conventionalized in a speaker community that is present in the minds of the members of a language community. The “parole”, on the other hand, is the language that is updated by the speakers at a specific moment, whereby linguistic elements can have different meanings depending on the usage situation. Therefore “Parole” is also apostrophized as the “content” and the “Langue” as the “form” of language.

Hermann Paul (1846–1921), important representative of the young grammarians

De Saussure wasn't the first to come up with this idea of ​​the "two sides" of language. Hermann Paul (1846–1921) had previously had a similar situation in his main work “Principles of the History of Language Formulated” where, on the one hand, he assumed a “usual meaning” of the words, that is, a meaning that the words usually and “in themselves” and, on the other hand, determined an "occasional meaning" of the words, i.e. a meaning that they can assume depending on the individual language opportunity.

Both the historical linguist Paul and the structuralist De Saussure established that the occasional or updated language has an effect on the usual meaning or on the theoretical language system of the langue and can lead to changes in it, which ultimately explains language change.

Noam Chomsky (* 1928), founder of generative grammar

This dichotomous consideration of language is continued in the conception of language in generative grammar , namely in the generative transformation grammar originally founded by Noam Chomsky (* 1928) . One difference to the other concepts is that, as with Paul, the individual word or, as with De Saussure, the linguistic system as such is not used. Rather, Chomsky starts from the biological factor and differentiates between “competence” and “performance”. “Competence” is to be understood as the ability to use a specific language system, which is gained in the course of acquiring the mother tongue. The acquisition of this ability is biologically predetermined, as fundamental linguistic parameters are innate, which are specified in the course of the linguistic development of the toddler depending on the individual language to which the child is exposed. The “competence” of a speaker thus forms the ideal language system that a person can dispose of after the final language acquisition. The “performance”, on the other hand, represents the language that is actually implemented during the speaking process, which is also subject to errors and is therefore more or less identical to the Saussure “parole”. “Competence” and “Langue” also differ insofar as “Langue” is a fixed system of patterns and rules, while “Competence” is dynamic in a certain way, as this model allows it to be with a finite number of rules and linguistic Elements to make an infinite number of utterances. (The fact that, in fact, not all word combinations permitted by the rules in a language - statistically speaking - are uttered to the same extent, but that there are preferences for using certain words at the same time as certain others, is a finding of corpus linguistics.)

Chomsky modified this model introduced in 1965 around 20 years later. In view of the fact that the language actually realized, because of its flaws, is not suitable for studying biologically predetermined linguistic structures, Chomsky now sees "competence" as a purely mentally and (largely) unconsciously represented structure and henceforth speaks of "i-language" , the "internal language". This is opposed by the “e-language”, the “external language”, which subsumes everything that is not i-language, i.e. not just speaking that is actually realized, but also specific properties of a language that one can discuss within a speaking community has agreed. (For example, a certain dialect of a language counts as part of the collective category “e-language” and no longer as part of “competence” (or the “langue” according to De Saussure), since it is not a subsystem of a natural language , that has developed solely through biologically predetermined factors, but because it is a system that exhibits changeable language habits that are not based on innate language characteristics.)

At the moment there are few attempts in general linguistics to overcome this split paradigm of language system versus language usage, of pattern versus application. Corpus linguistics offers an approach to this. Based on representative corpora of the language actually used, this attempts to identify structural (syntactic, lexical, etc.) features of a "language system" (such as German, English, etc.), but also subsystems (such as Austrian or Swiss German, etc.) ) to determine. At the same time, however, corpus linguistics can use such language corpora z. B. Properties of certain classes of texts (such as sociolects , political and journalistic texts, etc.), i.e. characteristics of language in use and thus also factors of language use to be determined. The observation of children's language at the early stage of language acquisition, which makes valuable contributions to research into innate grammar, is also carried out on the basis of recorded children's language corpora.

Structural structure of language

From a structuralist point of view - a point of view of language that is still used today - language is analyzed and broken down into elementary components, and their function and the type of composition of these elements are examined.

The normal case of speech is assumed to be spoken language , which is basically seen as a sequence of speech sounds . The individual sound sequences, consisting of individual sounds ( phone ), form the functional units phoneme and syllable at the level of phonology . At a higher level (morphology), these are combined to form morphemes and words . Again building on this - on an even higher level - the sentence is understood as a basic unit of a linguistic utterance , which is formed according to certain syntactic rules.

The components of a single sentence can be determined from different perspectives. In addition to partial clauses (main clause, subordinate or subordinate clauses), other, less extensive word combinations can be defined as sentence-forming units (so-called syntagms ). With the generative transformation grammar, the term “ phrase ” was redefined in this regard . Thus belong together set elements are referred to, the "head" of a word a certain part of speech such as a noun or a verb forms and other elements (ie associated Words) are subordinate. As a rule, such phrases can be recognized by the fact that they can only be moved within a sentence in their entirety. However, you can also define phrases that are more abstract in nature, such as a negation phrase.

For a long time the sentence was viewed as the highest level of linguistic analysis, until the view prevailed that the design of sentences is also conditioned by the interplay of several sentences. The text is therefore placed on a level above the sentence. Texts can be structured in a certain way and different parts are related to each other in different ways. Texts are typologically grouped into classes and thus belong to certain types of text .

At the highest level, the discourse has been seen for some time , which represents an ensemble of several texts and takes its shape through the references in one text to others. The ambiguous term “discourse”, which is also used in related sciences, is also defined inconsistently within linguistics, and can be understood to include anything from a one-to-one conversation to the entirety of all texts produced in a speaker community.

Function of language

The majority of people see language as the most important and efficient communication medium. In this regard, there are several models in which a differentiation is made into individual sub-functions of language. One of the most basic is the Organon model of Karl Buhler . For Noam Chomsky's school, on the other hand, in which language is treated as a biological object in the form of a predisposition to an ability, the communicative function of language is secondary and not the primary content of their research.

Well-known linguists

Some of the most important linguists who are mainly assigned to the subject of general linguistics include: a .:


Reference books:


  • Adrian Akmajian et al .: Linguistics. An Introduction to Language and Communication. Fifth edition, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2001, ISBN 0-262-51123-1 .
  • Piroska Kocsány: Basic Linguistics Course: a workbook for beginners. Fink, Paderborn 2010, 226 pp. ISBN 978-3-8252-8434-3 , (UTB L (large format); 8434).
  • Angelika Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1991, 1996, ISBN 3-484-31121-5 .
  • John Lyons : Introduction to Modern Linguistics. 8th edition .CH Beck, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-406-39465-5
  • Heidrun Pelz: Linguistics, an introduction. Hoffmann & Campe, Hamburg 2002, ISBN 3-455-10331-6 .
  • Geoffrey Sampson: Schools of Linguistics. Hutchinson, London 1980, ISBN 0-8047-1084-8 .


  • Clemens-Peter Herbermann et al .: Language and Languages ​​2. Thesaurus for general linguistics and language thesaurus. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2002, ISBN 3-447-04567-1 .
    • Subject classification of general linguistics and classification of the languages ​​of the world, including a list of authors
  • Peter Koch: Why linguistics? In: Florian Keisinger (Ed.): Why humanities? Controversial arguments for an overdue debate. Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York 2003, ISBN 3-593-37336-X .
  • Boris A. Serébrennikow (Ed.): General Linguistics , 3 volumes, Fink, Munich / Salzburg 1974.
    • Manual; Volume 1: Forms of Existence, Functions and History of Language; Volume 2: The Inner Structure of Language; Volume 3. Methods of Linguistic Research

Web links

Wiktionary: General linguistics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. see also the page of the Small Subjects Unit on General Linguistics
  2. ^ Hermann Paul: Principles of Language History , Niemeyer, Tübingen 1920, chap. 4, § 51; first published in 1880.
  3. ^ Noam Chomsky: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax , MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1965.
  4. ^ Noam Chomsky: Knowledge of Language , Praeger, New York 1986.