Linguistics Glossary

This week we examine some terms that used in the field of linguistics and on Wordorigins.org. Like any field, linguistics has its own jargon (see below), used to convey information precisely and concisely. Sometimes this jargon is opaque and daunting to those encountering it for the first time. So, in the interests of better communication, we present this glossary of linguistic terms:

accent, a system of pronunciation used by an individual or group.

argot, slang (see below), esp. that of a socially suspect group.

blend, the fusion of two or more words into one, e.g., motel is a blend of motor and hotel, also known as portmanteau words.

borrowing, the taking of a word or phrase from one language into another, a word or phrase so taken, see loanword.

cant, a jargon (see below) used to mislead outsiders or protect secrets. Cants are ever changing, as the meanings of cant words become widely known the group adopts new terms.

creole, a blend of two dialects. Creoles are more sophisticated than pidgins (see below), being full dialects in their own right. Creoles are often created from pidgins, when a generation grows to adulthood speaking a pidgin as their native language. Some of these creoles bear the name pidgin, although they are actually creoles, such as Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea. Creole is also the name of a French-English blend spoken in Louisiana.

derivation, 1) the process by which a word changes over time, e.g., channel derives from the Latin canalem; 2) a process by which complex words are formed from simpler ones, primarily through the addition of affixes, e.g., handily derives from hand.

diachronic linguistics, the study of the history and patterns of change of and in language, see also synchronic linguistics. 19th century linguistics was largely diachronic, but this has ceded ground to synchronic linguistics.

dialect, a system of communication using structured vocal sounds (or in the case of languages for the deaf, physical signs) and which can be embodied in other media, such as writing. Dialect is synonymous with language, especially one characteristic of a particular region, class, or person. Dialects have distinctive accent, grammar, vocabulary, and idiom. In linguistic jargon, a dialect is not distinguishable from a language. Sometimes the term is used to refer to provincial modes of speech that differ from the “standard.”

etymology, the origin and history of a word, the study of the origins of words.

folk etymology, 1) a process of word change where an unfamiliar word is substituted with a familiar one, e.g., cater-corner becomes kitty-corner; 2) a popular and usually incorrect hypothesis of the origin of a term.

generalization, a process of semantic change where the meaning of a term broadens over time, e.g., to sail once meant to travel over water propelled by the wind and now is often used to refer to any travel via water and even to move through any medium smoothly and effortlessly.

grammar, the set of patterns describing the syntax and morphology of a dialect. Grammar can be implicit and innate, or formal and written. The latter tends to be a subset of the former, consisting of only those patterns and rules that need to be stated for instructive purposes.

idiom, an expression whose sense and usage is not predictable by the normal rules of grammar, syntax, or semantics. An example of an English idiom is neck of the woods, meaning a particular locale. Use of the expression is not particularly related to forested regions or to narrow strips of land (necks). Idioms are usually fixed grammatically; one cannot, for example, refer to the woods’ neck.

inflection, the grammatical form of a word, varying in pronunciation, spelling, or by the addition or deletion of affixes. Going and gone are both inflections of the verb to go. English has relatively few inflections. Other languages may have many more.

jargon, a specialized vocabulary, especially that of a trade, profession, or other activity.

language, a dialect. The concept of languages like English, French, or Chinese are political/social constructs rather than linguistic. For example, Norwegian and Danish are mutually intelligible (for the most part), yet they are popularly considered separate languages, while Mandarin and Cantonese are not intelligible to one another, yet both are considered dialects of Chinese. It is often said, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

loanword, a word that has been taken from another language, see borrowing.

morpheme, the fundamental structural unit of a word. The word dogs, for example, consists of two morphemes, dog and s. There are various morphological systems used in linguistics and not all are consistent.

onomastics, the study of proper names.

orthography, spelling.

phoneme, a discrete sound used in combination with others to pronounce words. The word tooth, for example, consists of three phonemes, the initial consonant t, the oo vowel sound, and the th sound at the end.

phonetic, relating to the vocalization of speech.

pidgin, a contact dialect or lingua franca formed from one or more dialects, usually containing a simplified grammar and a limited, polyglot vocabulary. Pidgins form where there is a need for communication, but no common tongue, frequently in trading ports or similar venues.

portmanteau word, a blend, a portmanteau is a suitcase that opens like a book and the linguistic term comes to us from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, where Humpty Dumpty says to Alice " Well, slithy means lithe and slimy...You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word."

semantic, relating to the meanings of words and phrases. Semantics is the study of such meanings.

semiotics, the study of signs and symbols.

slang, an informal, non-technical vocabulary consisting chiefly of synonyms for standard words and phrases. Slang is usually, but not always, ephemeral.

specialization, a process of semantic change where the meaning of a term narrows in scope, e.g., hound once meant any dog, but has shifted to refer to hunting dogs that pursue live prey.

synchronic linguistics, the study of the state of language at a given time, see diachronic linguistics. 20th and 21st century linguistics has been primarily synchronic.

syntax, the order of words in a phrase, the permissible combinations of words in a dialect and the rules by which they combine. In English, rules of syntax have largely replaced inflectional grammar. Other languages have more flexible syntax, but more rigorous inflection.

usage, how the elements of language are customarily used to produce meaning. Usage includes grammar, semantics, syntax, accent, punctuation, orthography, and idiom.

word, the fundamental unit of a dialect, a vocalization (or sign) with a discernable meaning.

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