Contact Information

General Linguistics
Department of Modern Languages

P.O. Box 24 (Unioninkatu 40)
00014 University of Helsinki

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General linguistics studies natural languages (i.e., languages used by human communities). Its focus areas of research include

  • The general (i.e., universal) structural properties of human language
  • The structural (i.e., typological) similarities and differences between the world’s languages
  • Linguistic processing (i.e., the process whereby individuals produce and understand linguistic messages)
  • Regional, social, situational and stylistic linguistic variation
  • Historical linguistic change and its reasons
  • The relationship between language and thought
  • The differences between human language and other sign or communication systems

Fundamentally, general linguistics is about theory formation and methodology. Its aim is to formulate theories and methods for describing the general structure of natural language independently of any individual language. This aim is necessarily linked to a critique based on philosophy of science and methodological considerations of the proposed theories as well as to issues related to philosophy of science, such as the nature of linguistic explanations.

In contrast to philosophy of language, linguistics usually approaches research questions supported by concrete empirical material. This material may be based on one or more languages – comparative typological research may even focus on hundreds of languages from around the world. It may have been compiled by the researcher himself or herself in the field, or it may come from large electronic corpora. In the case of extensive typological studies, in turn, researchers may compile their material by comparing existing descriptions of languages, such as grammars.

It has been customary to differentiate between theoretical and applied linguistics. This difference, however, is becoming increasingly blurred because of the interdisciplinary requirements of modern linguistics.

On the one hand, research conducted in linguistics can be divided into fields such as the following in accordance with the levels of linguistic structure:

  • Phonology (how the sounds of a language are utilised to distinguish between different meanings)
  • Morphology (what kinds of linguistic units words are composed of)
  • Syntax (how words are used to form acceptable sentences)
  • Semantics (how the meaning of a word relates to the meaning of other words in a language, how the meaning of a sentence is formed)
  • Pragmatics (how language is used to achieve communicational objectives)

On the other hand, depending on the perspective, the field of linguistics is divided into several specialties, including

  • Language typology (a worldwide comparative perspective)
  • The documentation and description of languages (often through fieldwork)
  • Historical linguistics(linguistic change and family relations between languages)
  • Sociolinguistics (language in a speech community, social variation)
  • Conversation analysis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Stylistics
  • Text linguistics
  • Psycholinguistics (the processing of language in the brain)
  • The study of language learning
  • Aphasiology and the study of other language-pathological conditions
  • Translation theory

General linguistics is thus a discipline that responds to an extremely wide range of challenges.