LinguaTute

Linguistics at Oxford: a first-year overview

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, the behaviour that sets humans apart from all other animals. It has a short history of scholarship compared to other disciplines, meaning many aspects of linguistics have come into existence relatively recently, and new innovations are being made all the time. Because it is offered at very few schools at the pre-university level, students interested in applying for linguistics may find the unknown aspects a little daunting. In this article, we aim to demystify the study of linguistics at university level and how prospective students can feel prepared, focusing particularly on the first-year course at Oxford.

Prelims in Linguistics at Oxford

The first-year course at Oxford is referred to as Prelims, short for Preliminary Examinations. In Linguistics, you study three papers on the Prelims course:

 

General Linguistics

This paper is designed to give you a whistle-stop tour of the main fields of Linguistics: a kind of tasting menu to help choose what you’d like to study as a finalist. The modules covered in this paper can vary over the years, but those which appear more consistently include: 

Psycholinguistics

Psycholinguistics covers how language exists within the brain: this can include ideas about how children acquire language and how this acquisition changes with age; how we store and process linguistic information and what insights can be provided by speech or comprehension errors. It has grown in popularity as a field over the last century, making notable use of new technologies such as brain mapping. For prospective students interested in psycholinguistics, Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal is an excellent place to start, combining an entertaining and informative tone into a read suitable for beginners.

Sociolinguistics

Sociolinguistics is concerned with the use of language by different groups in a society. This can entail: the differences in how men and women use language; how language changes from one generation to another; or social functions of bilingual communities, such as codeswitching, which involves the use of multiple languages within one speech utterance. Prominent researchers such as William Labov, using scientific data processing, have raised the status of sociolinguistics in the last half a century (see this video for an introduction to Labov and his impact on the field).

Semantics and Pragmatics

Semantics refers to the meaning of words, and pragmatics to contextual features that affect the interpretation of said meaning. For example, in the sentence I bought some laughing cow yesterday, semantics conjures the image of a giggling farm animal, but our pragmatic, contextual knowledge, combined with our understanding of the word bought, lets us know laughing cow in fact refers to cheese. This is one of the most philosophical fields available to students of linguistics: in tutorials and lectures they may consider truth values, metaphor, or the semantics of non-conventional forms of language, such as emojis.

Historical Linguistics

Historical linguistics is the founding field of Linguistics, establishing the discipline as we now know it in the 19th century. It is concerned with the study of the development of languages over time: this can involve researching a single language, such as the progression from Latin to Modern French, or looking at a family of languages such as Indo-European, which ranges from English, to Greek, to Sanskrit. For Prelims, students learn about the techniques that allowed for the establishment of these language family trees: how to prove languages are related to one another, the regularity of sound change, and how we can interpret this from written resources (given that there are no audio recordings of ancient languages!) These skills are especially important to Modern Languages and Linguistics students at Oxford, who must study papers relating to the historical development of their chosen language.

Phonetics and Phonology

Phonetics and phonology are two essential fields of Linguistics: phonetics is the study of the sounds of language, and phonology is the study of how they fit together. In Linguistics, the aim is to study how language actually exists within the speaker’s mind, and with the exception of sign languages, all language is acquired through speech; thus the study of sound is far more valuable to the linguist than using the written form.

For example, plural nouns in written English are usually shown through the addition of a final -s, but the sound can be realised as [s] or [z], depending on the voicing of the final sound of the singular noun: cats is said [kats], as the final /t/ is voiceless (like a whisper), but dogs is realised as [dɔgz], as the final /g/ is voiced (i.e. can’t be whispered). This observation is important to understand how the same plural form can be realised differently depending on the preceding sound, and it cannot be extracted from the written form: a good understanding of phonetics and phonology is therefore indispensable to any linguist.

While studying phonetics and phonology in Prelims, students will learn to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a necessary tool for the spoken representation of language. You will also study: how the articulators (tongue, lips, vocal cords, nasal cavity) form different sounds; how these sounds are strung together in speech utterances; features such as intonation and syllable structure; and even some of the properties of speech acoustics. This is the study of how the sound waves of speech travel from mouth to ear: this can get quite physics-heavy, but it’s useful to see how the theory applies to reality.

It can be hard for prospective students to know where to start with pre-reading for phonetics and phonology, as most are unfamiliar with the field before studying it at university. For students who are applying to study Linguistics, a good resource for beginners to become familiar with the terminology of this topic is Ashby and Maidment’s Introducing Phonetic Science. For a more casual investigation into phonetics, the University of Glasgow’s Seeing Speech page has a clickable IPA chart that displays MRI scans of the mouth and tongue movements that accompany each sound.

Grammatical Analysis

Grammatical analysis is the study of the rules of a language – not as taught in language textbooks, but as they’re understood intuitively by native speakers of a language.

In the Prelims course at Oxford, students focus on syntax and morphology, and establishing their toolkit for further language analysis. This includes learning about grammatical categories (nouns, verbs, clauses, etc.), functional categories, and getting to grips with creating tree structures – see this video for an introduction to this important syntactic skill. If these seem daunting, don’t worry – by the end of the course you’ll be able not only to understand them, but to create them yourself.

Syntax concerns the study of how words exist within a sentence to create meaning. Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, explained its importance through this example sentence:

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

Even though this sentence makes no sense semantically, a native speaker of English can see immediately that it is an acceptable, well-formed sentence, whereas this sentence, consisting of the same words in a different order, is not:

Sleep green colourless furiously ideas

Thus, one can presume that all speakers have an innate understanding of syntax, which can help reveal how language exists within the speaker’s mind. In your Prelims syntax study, you will learn about how sentences are broken down into constituents, the importance of word order, case systems, and much more.

Morphology is the study of the structure of words. Students will learn about morphemes: these are the smaller units that can be combined to form words. For example, with the root morpheme desire, we can add extra morphemes to create new words, with different meanings or in different grammatical categories, as shown below. 

Word

Morpheme added

Grammatical category

Desire

N/A

Noun

Desirable

-able

Adjective

Desiring

-ing

Verb

Desirability

-able + -ity

Noun

Undesirability

-un + -able + -ity

Noun

Word

Morpheme added

Grammar category

Desire

N/A

Noun

Desirable

-able

Adjective

Desiring

-ing

Verb

Desirability

-able + -ity

Noun

Undesirability

-un + -able + -ity

Noun

Students will learn how to analyse the morphology of both English and unfamiliar languages. Those who are familiar with the Linguistic Olympiad or the Oxford Language Aptitude Test will recognise the kind of morphological puzzles, based on rare or fabricated languages, analysed in the Prelims course: see here for a breakdown of how to approach morphological questions.

How to prepare for studying Linguistics

Linguistics is a fascinating field of study, even if it may seem technical and inaccessible at first glance. Here are our top recommendations for the best ways to prepare for linguistic study at university level:

Familiarise yourself with linguistic topics

The YouTube channel CrashCourse has an excellent video series explaining various linguistic topics: they cover a good level of detail, building on what has been covered in previous videos, and require no prior linguistic knowledge to understand. It can also be useful to look at introductory books such as Limits of Language by Mikael Parkvall, which explains different interesting linguistic phenomena in bitesize sections. 

Have a go at linguistic puzzles

It can be helpful to practice linguistic analysis before starting at university, especially for institutions such as Oxford that have entrance exams; the puzzles in themselves can also be an enjoyable pastime. The UK Linguistic Olympiad has an archive of past questions students can practice with, which require no prior linguistic knowledge.

Find out which aspects of linguistics interest you

During their study of linguistics, students will likely find they are passionate about areas they had never previously heard of. However, it can be useful to get an idea of the parts of language that interest you before you begin your course. Here are some easy-to-read articles that highlight some fascinating aspects of language:

Language: a feminist guide – though a little tricky to navigate, this blog contains a collection of interesting articles from a feminist sociolinguist

The most important thing to remember as a beginner linguist is to enjoy the process: don’t worry if you come across something that seems too technical at the moment – follow your interests, and the terminology can wait until university!

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