Theoretical linguistics is a term in linguistics that,[1] like the related term general linguistics,[2] can be understood in different ways. Both can be taken as a reference to the theory of language, or the branch of linguistics that inquires into the nature of language and seeks to answer fundamental questions as to what language is, or what the common ground of all languages is.[2] The goal of theoretical linguistics can also be the construction of a general theoretical framework for the description of language.[1]

Another use of the term depends on the organisation of linguistics into different sub-fields. The term theoretical linguistics is commonly juxtaposed with applied linguistics.[3] This perspective implies that the aspiring language professional, e.g. a student, must first learn the theory i.e. properties of the linguistic system, or what Ferdinand de Saussure called internal linguistics.[4] This is followed by practice, or studies in the applied field. The dichotomy is not fully unproblematic because language pedagogy, language technology and other aspects of applied linguistics also include theory.[3]

Similarly, the term general linguistics is used to distinguish core linguistics from other types of study. However, because college and university linguistics is largely distributed with the institutes and departments of a relatively small number of national languages, some larger universities also offer courses and research programmes in 'general linguistics' which may cover exotic and minority languages, cross-linguistic studies and various other topics outside the scope of the main philological departments.[5]

Fields of linguistics proper

When the concept of theoretical linguistics is taken to refer to core or internal linguistics, it means the study of the parts of the language system. This traditionally means phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Pragmatics and discourse can also be included; delimitation varies between institutions. Furthermore, Saussure's definition of general linguistics consists of the dichotomy of synchronic and diachronic linguistics, thus including historical linguistics as a core issue.[4]

Linguistic theories

See also: Theory of language

There are various frameworks of linguistic theory which include a general theory of language and a general theory of linguistic description.[6] Current humanistic approaches include theories within structural linguistics and functional linguistics. In addition to the humanistic approaches of structural linguistics and functional linguistics, the field of theoretical linguistics encompasses other frameworks and perspectives. Evolutionary linguistics is one such framework that investigates the origins and development of language from an evolutionary and cognitive perspective. It incorporates various models within generative grammar, which seeks to explain language structure through formal rules and transformations. Cognitive linguistics and cognitive approaches to grammar, on the other hand, focuses on the relationship between language and cognition, exploring how language reflects and influences our thought processes.[6]

See also


  1. ^ a b Hamp, Eric P.; Ivić, Pavle; Lyons, John (2020). Linguistics. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. ISBN 9783110289770. Retrieved 2020-08-03.
  2. ^ a b Graffi, Giorgio (2009). "20th century linguistics: overview of trends". Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier. pp. 780–794. ISBN 9780080965017.
  3. ^ a b Harris, Tony (2001). "Linguistics in applied linguistics: a historical overview". Journal of English Studies. 3 (2): 99–114. doi:10.18172/jes.72. Retrieved 2020-08-03.
  4. ^ a b de Saussure, Ferdinand (1959) [First published 1916]. Course in General Linguistics (PDF). New York: Philosophy Library. ISBN 9780231157278. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-08-08. Retrieved 2020-08-03.
  5. ^ "General linguistics". University of Helsinki. 2020. Retrieved 2020-08-03.
  6. ^ a b Linguistic Theory ScienceDirect. Retrieved 19 May 2023.