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conversation analysis

The techniques for examining and structuring conversations or any type of social interaction which involves spoken language.



Any structured and principled collection of data from a particular language — usually in electronic form, i.e. on disk — which has been compiled for the purpose of subsequent analysis. The number of corpora available has increased greatly since the spread of the personal computer in the 1980's. The most famous corpus for historical forms of English is the Helsinki Corpus of English.



A reference work which offers varied information — usually arranged in alphabetical order — about words in a language, such as their spelling, pronunciation, meaning and possibly historical origins, additional shades of meaning, typical combinations (collocations) and status vis à vis the standard of the language concerned.


discourse analysis

The investigation of the structure and patterning of discourse (human speech). It contrasts explicitly with analyses of written language or of contrived examples in linguistic works.



A characteristic mistake made by learners of a second language, usually traceable to a structural feature of their native language.



The transfer of certain phenomena from one language to another where they are not considered grammatical. This may happen on an individual level (during second language learning, for example) or collectively in which case it often leads to language change.



An instance of incorrect usage in a foreign language which is apparently random; see Error.


second language teaching

This is probably the main area of applied linguistics. There are many views on how a second language is learned, above all in comparison with the relative perfection of first language acquisition. Research here tends to concentrate on developing models to explain the process and ideally they should be applied to the actually teaching of foreign languages to improve results.



The investigation of the structure and style of texts, of pieces of language which consist of more than a single sentence.

Language change

Language change is the investigation of the manner in which languages change their structure over time.

borrowing The act of adopting some aspect of one language into another. It may be lexical (the most obvious and common type of borrowing) but also syntactic, morphological or phonological. The latter types of borrowing require that some section of the population be in direct contact with the second language. Lexical borrowing can be due to written influence as with the English loanwords in Modern German yielding so-called 'cultural borrowings'. Borrowing is one of the chief means of expanding the vocabulary of a language.

comparative method The method used in comparative philology. The technique involves comparing cognate forms from genetically related languages (such as those of the Indo-European family) with a view to reconstructing the proto-language from which all others can be taken to have derived. Such a method must take regular sound changes and later analogy into account. This allows one to link up forms which are superficially different but which can be traced back to a single form, itself usually non-attested. For instance English heart, German Herz, Latin cordia, Greek kardios can be shown to derive regularly from an Indo-European root *kerd.

contact A term which refers to a situation in which speakers of two languages or varieties are continually in contact with each other, either due to geographical or social closeness or both. The mutual influence which results from such contact can and does lead to changes in the structure — or at least in the lexicon — of one or both languages.

convergence In a general sense a process whereby two languages or varieties come to resemble each other more and more. In historical linguistics the term is often used to refer to a situation whereby two causes are taken to have led to a certain effect, e.g. where a feature in a present-day dialect is taken to derive from both substrate interference and language-internal developments.

drift An imperceptible change in the typology of a language in a more or less constant direction as with the shift from synthetic to analytic in the course of the history of English.

etymological fallacy A common but erroneous opinion, found among lay speakers and historically with many authors before the advent of linguistics as a scientific discipline in the 19th century, that the oldest meaning of a word is the most genuine or correct. Note that the 'oldest meaning' is a fiction in itself as it is usually impossible to trace words back to their initial use, this lying in pre-history.

etymology An area within historical linguistics which is concerned with the origin and development of the form and meaning of words and the relationship of both these aspects to each other.

family tree A model of language development common in the last century (the term derives from August Schleicher) which sees languages as splitting further in a manner reminiscent of genetic relationships. A major alternative to this was the wave model of Johannes Schmidt (1870).

family A group of languages that can be shown to stem from a single proto-language by a process of splitting at various points in the latter's history.

genetic classification The arrangement of languages into groups on the basis of their historically recognisable relationships and not going on any similarity in structure.

grammaticalisation This is an historical process in language which refers to a change in status from lexical to grammatical for certain elements, frequently due to semantic bleaching (loss of lexical meaning). For instance the (archaic) adverb/adjective whilom 'formerly, erstwhile' derives from a dative plural of the Old English word hwīlom 'at times' which was with time not felt to be an inflected noun but a different word class, an adverb or adjective.

historical linguistics The study of how languages develop over time as opposed to viewing them at a single point in time. The major direction in linguistics up until the advent of structuralism at the beginning of the 20th century.

internal reconstruction One of the two major procedures of historical linguistics in which evidence from the internal development of a language is used in reconstructing earlier stages of the language. It contrasts explicitly with the comparative method which relies on evidence from related languages.

language change A process by which developments in a language are introduced and established. Language change is continual in every language and it is largely regular. However, the rate of language change is different among different languages. It depends on a number of factors, not least on the amount of contact and informational exchange with other linguistic communities on the one hand (this tends to further change) and the degree of standardisation and universal education in the speech community on the other hand (this tends to hamper change).

language contact A situation in which speakers of two languages intermingle. The causes of this range from invasion and deportation to voluntary emigration to a new country. The results of this intermingling depend on external factors such as the relative status of the two linguistic groups and on internal factors such as the typological similarity of the languages involved, i.e. whether their grammatical structures are comparable or not.

language death The process by which a language ceases to exist. It is characterised by the switch over to some other language which surrounds the dying language and which is a superstratum to it, e.g. English vis à vis Manx on the Isle of Man in the middle of the present century.

law A formulation of an ordered or predictable relationship between forms. Such laws can be diachronic or synchronic. An example of the former is Grimm's Law which states (simply) that Indo-European voiceless stops changed to corresponding fricatives at the beginning of Germanic. A synchronic law would be the devoicing of obstruents at the end of words (and syllables) in German. A law is taken to be virtually without exception.

lexical diffusion A type of language change in which a certain feature spreads slowly rather than establishing itself at once. Cases of lexical diffusion are characterised by incompleteness, otherwise it is not recognisable afterwards and is a case of normal change which affects the entire vocabulary. The lexical diffusion type of change usually ceases before it can cover all theoretical instances in a language, e.g. the lowering of short /u/ in the Early Modern English period which does not apply to instances before [ʃ] and after a labial stop: bush, push.

metonymy A type of semantic change in which a single aspect of a meaning or an attribute is used for the entire phenomenon, e.g. Whitehall for the English parliament, Paris for the French government, The White House for the American administration.

Neogrammarian hypothesis A view of language change which assumes that it proceeds gradually on a phonetic level but affects all words with the sounds undergoing the change simultaneously. This view was propounded in the 19th century by German linguists starting from Leipzig. It contrasts with the more recent view that change can proceed word by word through the lexicon (see Lexical Diffusion).

palatalisation A common historical process whereby sounds produced at the velum are progressively shifted forward towards the palate. This is usually a change in manner of articulation from stop to affricate and possibly to fricative. Cf. /k/ > /c/ > /tæ/ > /tʃ/ (> /ʃ/) as can be seen in the development of Latin camera to Modern French chambre.

reconstruction A technique for determining earlier forms of a language. This is achieved by analysing and comparing early attestations (first texts) in one or more languages.

substrate A language which is socially less prestigious than another spoken in the same area but which can nonetheless be the source for grammatical or phonological features in the more prestigious language. Substratum influence is often quoted as being instrumental in the formation of pidgins and creoles and as being responsible for many instances of historical change.

superstrate A variety of a language which enjoys a position of power and/or prestige compared to another. It may be a standard form of a language or a different language from that found natively in a specific country or region.

Language typology

Language typology is the study of the synchronic structure of languages for the purpose of classifying them according to recurring patterns and regularities.

analytic A term used for a language which tends to use free morphemes to indicate grammatical categories. Examples are Modern English and French to a certain extent. Other languages, such as Chinese or Vietnamese, are very clearly analytic and approach a relationship of one word per morpheme.

cross-linguistic Refers to phenomena which occur in several different languages or in investigations which draw on data from diverse languages.

isolating language A language type where individual words do not vary in form and where grammatical categories and relations are indicated by separate words and/or by word-order. English is fairly isolating; Chinese much more so.

linguistic area A part of the world in which several genetically unrelated languages are spoken but which nonetheless show structural similarities. Such areas usually form an approximate geographical unit, e.g. the Balkans, the Caucasus, perhaps the eastern Baltic Sea region. The term is a translation of German Sprachbund, lit. 'language federation'.

linguistic universals A postulated set of linguistic features which are common to all languages and which ultimately derive from our psychological make-up and our perception of the world, e.g. the existence of subject, predicate, object or first, second and third pronouns in all languages.

polysynthetic A reference to a language which has large complex words in which several grammatical categories are fused together. See Incorporating.

synthetic A language which is characterised by an extensive inflectional morphology, e.g. Latin and Modern German. This type contrasts with analytic and can be taken to have developed historically from the latter through centuries of change during which words fused together to give compound forms. For this reason new languages, like pidgins and creoles, are never synthetic in type.

typology The description of the grammatical structure of language independently of genetic relationships. There are many commonalities between languages which result from morphological principles so that this view of language structure is just as valid as an historical consideration. Furthermore, languages which occupy a geographically delimited area, for instance the Balkans, may come to share structural properties, irrespective of historical background or genetic affiliation.

typological classification The ordering of language on the basis of shared grammatical structure rather than on historical or genetic grounds.

universal Any feature or property which holds for all languages. These are few and far between though near-universals, i.e. those which are good for the vast majority of languages, are more common and often more interesting in the insights which they lead to concerning the nature of human language in general.


Applied linguistics

Applied linguistics studies the uses to which linguistic insights can be put, especially in second language teaching.