The Four Areas of the Study of Language

The study of language is divided into four areas: phonology, semantics, grammar, and pragmatics.

1. Phonology

Phonology, the system of sounds that a particular language uses, includes not only the language’s basic unit of sounds, phonemes, but rules about how we put phonemes together to form words and rules about the proper intonation patterns for phrases and sentences. Phonemes are considered basic units of sounds because they are the smallest sound units that affect meaning. Changing a phoneme changes the meaning of a word. For example, by changing the initial phoneme in the word bat, we can make the very different word cat. By changing the middle phoneme in the word bat, we can make vet another word bit.

2. Semantics

Semantics is the study of word meanings and word combinations. Comprehension of written as well as spoken language requires not only a knowledge of specific words and their definitions but an understanding of how we use words and how we combine them in phrases, clauses, and sentences. Thus, as children continue to mature intellectually throughout their school years, their semantic knowledge continues to grow. Even adults continue to expand their vocabularies to encompass new knowledge. For example, first year psychology student must learn a whole new vocabulary of psychological terms.

3. Grammar or Syntax

Grammar describes the structure of a language which consists of two major parts: morphology and syntax Morphology is the study of the language’s smallest units of meaning, called morphemes – prefixes, suffixes, and root words – and of how these units are properly combined rules for altering root words to produce such things as plurals, past tenses, and inflections are parts of a language’s morphological system. Syntax specifies how words are combined into sentences. For example, each language has syntactic rules for expressing grammatical relations such as negation, interrogation, possession, and juxtaposition of subject and object. The rules of syntax allow us to vary word order so that we are not limited to one way of saying what we mean. For example, “After class I went to the library to listen to some music.” This is syntactically correct, but “I listened to some music after class and I went to the library” is syntacticallv incorrect because it is ambiguous and unclear.

4. Pragmatics

Pragmatics, the fourth component of language, consists of rules for the use of appropriate language in particular contexts. Thus pragmatics is concerned not only with speaking and writing but with social interaction, and if directly addresses the issue of effective communication. For example, the child learns that she has a better chance of getting what she wants if she asks a classmate, “May I have one of your crayons?” rather than demand, “Gimme a crayon.” The pupil also learns to take turns in speaking, to remain silent while others speak, and to speak differently in different settings such as the classroom and the playground (Hetherington and Parke, 1999).