Linguistics has five core branches, and several interdisciplinary branches. The core branches are phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Interdisciplinary branches draw from linguistics and another field of knowledge. These interdisciplinary branches include sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, computational linguistics, lexicography, clinical linguistics, and forensic linguistics, to count but a few. In what follows, I will briefly define the core branches of linguistics.
Phonetics is the study of articulation, transmission and perception of speech sounds. Of all the sounds that the human vocal cords can produce, only the meaningful sounds which are critical to language are considered by phonetics. Phonetics studies sounds in all languages. Click here to join our phonetics course.
Phonology is the study of the sound patterns of a given language. Unlike phonetics, phonology is confined to a specific language, e.g. English, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Spanish and so on. Interesting issues in phonology is the constraints which are imposed on the sound system of a given language. For instance, English permits /kr/ word initially, as in “cry”, but it cannot allow /kp/ word initially. Click here to join our phonology course.
Morphology is the study of word structure, i.e. how words are formed from morphemes. Morphemes are the building blocks of words, and they can be roots, prefixes, suffixes, infixes or circumfixes. Words are formed in a battery of ways, e.g. blending, coinage, clipping, backformation, compounding, and borrowing. Click here to join our free morphology course.
Syntax is the study of the structure of language. It begins where morphology ends. That is, syntax examines the structure of sentences. It does not stipulate how you should construct a sentence. No, that is the work of grammar books. Syntax examines how sentences are generated in the human brain. A very influential theory of syntax is that of Generativism, proposed and advocated by the well-known American linguist Noam Chomsky.
5. Semantics and pragmatics
Semantics is the study of meaning in language. It is involved with the surface meaning of words, sentences, passages, and texts. A sentence may be syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless. The famous sentence invented by Noam Chomsky is the best example of this:
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
You can see that the above sentence is an accepted English sentence in terms of structure. However, it is meaningless. How come something is colorless and green in the same time? Semantics does not investigate the hidden meaning. For example,
You are very smart.
For semantics, it means that someone is very smart, and it is you and someone is asserting that you are very smart. However, think of this situation when you speak sarcastically to someone and you mean the opposite. In this case, you are leaving semantics to pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of the hidden meaning in language.
In conclusion, these core fields of linguistics may look independent. However, they are inter-related. Phonetics and phonology are closely related to each other. Morphology and syntax are also related to each other, and the term morpho-syntax denotes such relation. Semantics and pragmatics are closely related too. Things keep dwindling between the surface meaning and the hidden meaning.