It’s a big, complicated word, “linguistics,” stuffed with technical concepts and broad theories. If writing is your craft, though, this particular study could well be your best friend.
1. Linguistics is the study of language structure and use. It is not full language acquisition.
Don’t ask a linguist how many languages he or she speaks, because you’ll get the stink-eye in return. The purpose of linguistics is not to learn multiple languages. It is to study and define the patterns that occur within a language and across multiple language families. This makes it is the perfect discipline for any writer who wants to get elbow-deep into the craft.
2. Linguistics is a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one.
It never ceases to amaze me how prescriptive “creative writing” can be: Don’t use this. Don’t do that. Write this way, not that way. These days, creative writing instruction seems to focus on the “how,” the rigid application of language use. In contrast, Linguistics focuses on the “why,” the doctrine. It teaches the underlying principles that govern language use and, as such, can cue a writer on when it’s appropriate to ignore prescriptive counsel or to flout a general rule.
3. Linguists are not Grammar Nazis.
Again, linguistics aims to describe language use, not prescribe it. Because of this, linguists might exude a somewhat smug moral superiority over the petty grammar “advocates” that pepper the Internet and elsewhere. Linguists know the rules (quite intimately, in most cases) and love to observe when and why those rules get broken. They don’t want you to check your grammar usage around them, which is probably the most convincing reason that you should.
Where a Grammar Nazi will correct your every little flaw and dictate which words you should or should not use, the linguist’s outlook is more a “live and let live,” stress-free state of mind. And because no one, not even the most stringent of Grammar Nazis, gets language 100% right all the time, the laissez-faire approach is much more logical.
Besides, who doesn’t love exuding smug moral superiority? Put down your brickbats, Grammar Nazis, and delve into true language proficiency.
4. Linguistics has multiple fields that can be useful to a writer, especially a fiction writer.
- Phonology/Phonetics: the study of the different sounds in language. Every language has its own phoneme inventory, and phonetic environments create variations called allophones. This field includes regional and foreign accents as well as speech impediments and slurring, and can be an incredible tool to show characterization. Additional writing tools: stress, alliteration, assonance, metathesis, onomatopoeia.
- Morphology: the study of the smallest units of meaning in language, called morphemes. These are the building blocks for word creation and include affixes, roots, and grammar markers (such as the ‘s on a possessive noun). Writing tools: wordplay, portmanteaus, nonce words; J.R.R. Tolkien uses an aberrant morphology pattern in Gollum’s speech to reinforce his disconnect from society; Louis Carroll combines morphemes from separate words to create new ones (e.g., “chortle” from “chuckle” and “snort”). Morphology can also serve well in world-building, particularly when it comes to place names.
- Syntax: the study of sentence structure and parts of speech. Seriously, what can I say about this? You can’t write without syntax. Writing tools: verbing, word order, parataxis vs. hypotaxis vs. embedding, fragments and run-on sentences. If you’re a writer, syntax is your bread and butter, and you’d be well served to delve into its depths.
- Semantics: the study of meaning. Writing tools: metaphor, ambiguity, malapropisms, double-entendres. Semantics takes nuance into consideration and helps create the atmosphere associated with any work of literature. Is your narrative dry or lush? Purple prose or objective sparseness? Semantics can introduce multiple layers of meaning and set the tone of the piece.
- Pragmatics: the study of communication. Writing tools: the big word with Pragmatics, insofar as I’m concerned, is DIALOGUE. But it’s not just character-to-character dialogue. Writers create a dialogue with their readers. Pragmatics includes intent vs. result, whether a message was properly received, and whether the speaker even meant for that message to be properly received. Politeness, deception, relevance, the meaning behind a certain intonation or inflection: all of these fall into the field of Pragmatics. This is the garden path where all aforementioned fields come together to play. I cannot say enough about the usefulness of pragmatics in creative writing.
- Typology: the study of patterns across multiple languages. Writing tools: foreign language structures and features; those really ambitious writers who want to create a new language entirely can look to typology as an apt starting point.
- Language Acquisition: the study of language learning. Writing tools: speech patterns of children (first-language learners) and speakers of other languages (secondary-language learners), including phonetic approximation and vocabulary acquisition. We’ve all read that story where the supposedly normal 2-year-old speaks with unnatural distinction, or the foreigner stumbles with simple vocabulary but pulls out complex verb tenses. Don’t be that writer. Language acquisition is systematic and predictable.
- Historical Linguistics: the study of language change over time. Writing tools: etymology, archaic case endings and speech patterns. This is my favorite field of linguistics. It provides such a nice template for creation, and it softens one’s inclinations toward prescriptivism. It’s difficult to demand that language use be kept to one specific pattern when you’ve glimpsed all the other cycles it’s passed through to get there.
5. Linguistics can shine light on the otherwise nebulous “Show, don’t tell.”
In fact, it can do so from multiple angles. In Syntax, “showing vs. telling” involves the theta-roles assigned by verbs. Pragmatics highlights “showing” through manner and relevance of communication. Instead of the narrow, “do this, not that, use this verb not that one” instruction that occurs with creative writing classes, these linguistic fields provide the inner workings of the language, thus allowing writers to self-identify “tell” prose and “show” prose and strike a balance accordingly.
6. Linguistics has a steep learning curve, but it’s worth the climb.
The discipline is rife with jargon, a “restrictive code” to talk about restrictive codes (among other phenomena). This is nothing more than language used to describe language. Terms and usage will be unfamiliar at first, but don’t get discouraged.
Syntax is probably the easiest place to start, because most people are at least familiar with parts of speech. Hardest place to start would be Pragmatics, where “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” And yet, from a creative standpoint, Pragmatics is probably the best field to tackle, simply for how it broadens one’s concept of language and its endless possibilities.
7. As a writer, you’re already using linguistic principles. You’re probably using many of them subconsciously.
Ultimately, as language users, the principles of linguistics are already written in our brains. It’s just a matter of identification. Do you have a character that spouts off $5 words to assert personal authority/intelligence? That’s Pragmatics with a dash of Historical Linguistics. Foreign accents? Phonology and Language Acquisition. Deceptive double-speak? Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics. None of these fields exists in a vacuum, and no literature exists without them.
In closing, I leave you with this quote from the wonderful Ludwig van Beethoven:
Also, as an apology for the click-bait title on this article, a bonus!
8. Linguists love puns and other corny language jokes.
It’s true. The worse the pun, the more they adore it. Check out the Linguistics Llama for undeniable proof. If you think that’s clever, or you want in on the jokes, Linguistics might be the discipline for you!