EL1102 Studying English in Context

Lecture No. 13 (Part 1)

What else happens in English Language studies?

(Please note that I will not lecture on this part of the lecture in Semester 1 00/01. The contents of this web page will not be crucial for exam purposes. You can, of course, email me if your have any questions or concerns about this. I will, however, deal with Part 2 of the lecture.)

Ways of looking at language and schools of linguistics

The larger picture: how does everything fit together?

There are several ways of thinking about the English language as an object of study. We can study it as:

What do we call the discipline?

The word linguistics (Latin lingua = tongue) refers to the academic study of language. Much of what we do in English Language therefore constitutes English linguistics (as opposed to, say, French linguistics or Chinese linguistics).

Sir William JonesSometimes, you might encounter the term philology (Greek philo = love; logos = word), ‘the branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages’. This has given way to ‘linguistics’ in most situations, where the ‘development’ and ‘relationship’ aspects are less emphasised.

Ferdinand de SaussureThis was very much a nineteenth-century concern. The prevailing climate in the 19th century was that linguistics was ‘mainly a historical study’ (Robins 1997: 190). The 20th century has seen the rapid rise of descriptive (synchronic) linguistics as opposed to historical linguistics. (We mentioned the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in the first lecture.)

A term that is used in continental Europe is Anglistics ‘the study of the English language or literature’, but this is a rare term in English-speaking countries. (Compare this with: Sinology or Egyptology.) The equivalent terms in the UK is English Studies (this is the name of the Department in the University of Nottingham), and this is the name of the MA coursework programme in the English Department.

Diagrammatic representations

A model of the structure of language (after Crystal)

Structure of language

This diagram emphasises the notion of (the English) language as a structural object. Dr Rubdy has already mentioned the in praesentia and in absentia relationships. These notions were also raised by Saussure. Two fundamental aspects of structural linguistics are its 

Remember that we applied these in relation to lexis. These also work when we think about

Example from grammatical structure (subject + predicator + adverbial)







all night

for an hour


Example from phonological structure (assuming RP-compatible pronunciation: caught/court, cart, kite; bought, Bart, bite/bight; fought/fort, fart, fight)








(Note: You can view the above chart only if you have the Times New Roman Phonetics font installed. Otherwise, please click here to view the graphics version.)

Example from graphological structure








Noam ChomskyThe central position of descriptive linguistics means that this forms an important part of English Language as a discipline. Note that there might be competing or complementary models of description (eg a formalist grammar v. a functional grammar). (The picture on the right is of a prominent American linguist Chomsky (1928– ), who represents the formalist school of linguistics.) There will be a number of modules in English Language that try to tease out these elements of structure (including EL1101 Analysing English, the other 1000-level module). This module introduced you to some aspects of lexical, grammatical and phonological structure.

English in the abstract v. English texts (discourse)

It is possible to describe English in the abstract (and use mainly introspective data). Linguists like Chomsky defend this by saying that linguists should be interested in the abstract language facility available to all speakers. He calls this competence, to be distinguished from performance.

Saussure used a similar pair of terms as well. He talked about langue to refer to the abstract system, and parole to refer to the actual instances of language use. (His conception of  langue’ is, however, slightly different from Chomsky’s, in that he considers it the property not of the individual but of the collective community.)

In this module, we have been keen to provide examples of real texts. Some linguists have gone on to develop grammatical descriptions based on real uses. We discussed Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy’s description of the grammar of spoken English based on a corpus (Latin corpus = body) of English texts. Modern lexicographic (‘dictionary production’) methods also emphasise the use of corpora (the plural of corpus). (At the moment, there is an honours module that deals with this.)

There are also linguists that describe texts or discourse, rather than just sentences (syntax refers to sentence structure, and cannot easily be used beyond the level of the sentence). In other words, there are those concerned with larger levels of structure and how these interact with features of the context. This is normally referred to as discourse analysis. There are a number of modules at the 3000-level devoted to this. Some modules focus on particular kinds of English texts, eg stylistics which focuses on literary texts.

Another diagrammatic representation, including interdisciplinary fields  

The description above shows the emphasis on structural aspects of the English language - English as a structural object. But we also use language to mark a whole lot of other things: it can be considered some kind of cultural heritage, or some kind of marker of identity, so we get areas like sociolinguistics or psycholinguistics.

Branches of linguistics

Language as a cultural object

If we interpret the label ‘culture’ in a broad way (and not include include elements of ‘high culture’), it will be clear that language issues are tied on to the way we interact and behave. We use language to do things for us.

Language has been used to define communities and identities. Many governments, including the Singaporean government, take an active interest in the way the language is developing in their countries. The 3000-level module on Language policy and planning attempts examine these issues. 

For example, a lot of the work in sociolinguistics and dialectology was carried out to show that sometimes people are put down because of the variety of language they used. Quite often, varieties that are undervalued are investigated:

English as entrapment or construal of being

In the modern world, we use language much more to negotiate our relationships with each other. Think of the kinds of professions which we engage in now. As an administrator, educator, civil servant, lawyer, etc. - or even as a consumer confronted by advertisements - language plays a central role in our professional life. We have come a long way since the time when our work is mainly muscle based - farming the land, tapping rubber, fishing. We need, more than ever, to be sensitive to and aware of language use.

This module discussed Sapir and Whorf, and suggests that language can also be a form of entrapment that we need to be aware of, as students of the English language.

The Russian linguist V N Volosinov states that There is no such thing as experience outside of embodiment in signs ... It is not experience that organises expression, but the other way round - expression organises experience. Expressions is what first gives experience its form and specificity of direction’ (Marxism and the philosophy of language, 1929). 

This also means that we construe each other’s being through our discourse. Or, as put by Mikhail Bakhtin, another Russian linguist/critic, ‘We do not separate discourse from the person speaking it’ (Discourse in the novel, 1934)

By focusing on the sign, we can become more self-aware. (The science of signs is called semiotics or semiology, and linguistics can be seen as part of this.) The modules on Critical Discourse Analysis and Feminist Theory and Discourse focus on some aspects of how language reinforces particular ways of organising experience.

This module has focused on some aspects of linguistic determinism. Some of the discussion of academic writing, for example, focused on how the English language can have a hegemonic potential. Nominalisations, passivisations or metaphorical expressions can hide some aspects of the message.

Societal v individual language development

This module has discussed how some aspects of societal development can be seen through language. Many linguists are also interested in individual language development - child (first language) language development, and also second- and foreign-language development. There is a 3000-level and honours year module that focuses on this.

What are some theories about how children learn language?

There are some who suggest that first-language learning is through imitation and reinforcement (behaviourism) - children just imitate what they hear, they say.

However, children construct sentences that they’ve never heard before (droppen, holden). They understand sentences that they’ve never heard before

Innateness theory


Chomsky's LAD

Halliday’s Learning how to mean

The child’s language development is seen in the need to fulfil certain functions:

The first functions

9-month old child's language

More on Halliday’s Learning how to mean

[The mathetic function] is language enabling the child to learn about his social and material environment, serving him in the construction of reality. (p. 75)]

A quick model of the English Language world


English-language teaching

The whole enterprise of language learning is big business now, and a lot of resources are now allocated to this. This is partly in recognition of the important role English-language communication plays in today's world. Therefore, educational linguistics or pedagogical linguistics is an important area within English Language studies. Theories of teaching and learning - including materials (eg textbook) production and testing - are important areas. 

Theory of reading and writing

A related area would be reading and writing, and some of the research here would feed into practical modules on professional communication.


Nancy Bonvillain (1993), Language, Culture, and Communication (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall)

M A K Halliday (1975), Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language (London: Arnold)

R H Robbins (1997), A Short History of Linguistics, 4th edition (London: Longman)

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2000 Peter Tan