Introducing the Elements

A: Why should we not trust atoms?
B: I don’t know… because we can’t see them.
A: No, because they make up everything. 

Atoms form the basis of everything. They are the basic building blocks of the universe. In that sense, they make up everything becuase everything is made of atoms. But in the joke above, Speaker A changes the meaning of “make up.” He does not mean “put together “or “compose the whole.” He means “make up” a story that is not true. Therefore, in this joke, atoms are liars because they make up everything they say. Ha ha! Huh?

In the physical world, atoms form the basic elements of the universe.  But what about the world of languages? While chemists and physicists study atoms, linguists study languages and the elements of language. Therefore, for us to understand the elements of language, we need to do linguistics.

Linguistics is the systematic and scientific study of language. And because there are many different elements of language, there are also many different kinds of linguists. For example, some linguists mainly study the sounds of language. This is called phonetics. But when most people talk about language, they think about grammar. Grammar gives us the rules for word order and the structure of phrases and sentences. We call this structure syntax.

In this way, we can say that phonetics and syntax are two elements of linguistics. But there are many more elements. Linguistics is big, and there are many smaller areas of study within the big field of linguistics. In the following chapters, we will look briefly at many important areas of linguistics.

Each chapter is just an introduction to an element. For each element, linguists have written many books. But as we look at these short introductions, I hope we can begin to see the benefits of doing linguistics. Linguistics can help us to improve our communication skills. It can help us better know how to learn and teach languages. It can help us appreciate the art in words in songs, poetry, and drama. Simply put, linguistics helps us understand the special human gift of language. And I’m not making this up!

Key Words

Linguist: 言語学者

Atom: 原子

Element: 元素

Phonetics: 音声学

Syntax: 統語論

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.