Linguists traditionally analyse human language by observing an interplay between sound and meaning.Phonetics is the study of speech and non-speech sounds, and delves into their acoustic and articulatory properties. The study of language meaning, on the other hand, deals with how languages encode relations between entities, properties, and other aspects of the world to convey, process, and assign meaning, as well as manage and resolve ambiguity. While the study of semantics typically concerns itself with truth conditions, pragmatics deals with how situational context influences the production of meaning.
In the early 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure distinguished between the notions of langue and parole in his formulation of structural linguistics. According to him, parole is the specific utterance of speech, whereas langue refers to an abstract phenomenon that theoretically defines the principles and system of rules that govern a language. This distinction resembles the one made by Noam Chomsky between competence and performance in his theory of transformative or generative grammar. According to Chomsky, competence is an individual's innate capacity and potential for language (like in Saussure's langue), while performance is the specific way in which it is used by individuals, groups, and communities (i.e., parole, in Saussurean terms).
The study of parole (which manifests through cultural discourses and dialects) is the domain of sociolinguistics, the sub-discipline that comprises the study of a complex system of linguistic facets within a certain speech community (governed by its own set of grammatical rules and laws). Discourse analysis further examines the structure of texts and conversations emerging out of a speech community's usage of language. This is done through the collection of linguistic data, or through the formal discipline of corpus linguistics, which takes naturally occurring texts and studies the variation of grammatical and other features based on such corpora (or corpus data).
Stylistics also involves the study of written, signed, or spoken discourse through varying speech communities, genres, and editorial or narrative formats in the mass media. In the 1960s, Jacques Derrida, for instance, further distinguished between speech and writing, by proposing that written language be studied as a linguistic medium of communication in itself.Palaeography is therefore the discipline that studies the evolution of written scripts (as signs and symbols) in language. The formal study of language also led to the growth of fields like psycholinguistics, which explores the representation and function of language in the mind; neurolinguistics, which studies language processing in the brain; biolinguistics, which studies the biology and evolution of language; and language acquisition, which investigates how children and adults acquire the knowledge of one or more languages.
Linguistics also deals with the social, cultural, historical and political factors that influence language, through which linguistic and language-based context is often determined. Research on language through the sub-branches of historical and evolutionary linguistics also focus on how languages change and grow, particularly over an extended period of time.
Language documentation combines anthropological inquiry (into the history and culture of language) with linguistic inquiry, in order to describe languages and their grammars. Lexicography involves the documentation of words that form a vocabulary. Such a documentation of a linguistic vocabulary from a particular language is usually compiled in a dictionary. Computational linguistics is concerned with the statistical or rule-based modeling of natural language from a computational perspective. Specific knowledge of language is applied by speakers during the act of translation and interpretation, as well as in language education – the teaching of a second or foreign language. Policy makers work with governments to implement new plans in education and teaching which are based on linguistic research.
Related areas of study also includes the disciplines of semiotics (the study of direct and indirect language through signs and symbols), literary criticism (the historical and ideological analysis of literature, cinema, art, or published material), translation (the conversion and documentation of meaning in written/spoken text from one language or dialect onto another), and speech-language pathology (a corrective method to cure phonetic disabilities and dis-functions at the cognitive level).
Before the 20th century, the term philology, first attested in 1716, was commonly used to refer to the study of language, which was then predominantly historical in focus. Since Ferdinand de Saussure's insistence on the importance of synchronic analysis, however, this focus has shifted and the term philology is now generally used for the "study of a language's grammar, history, and literary tradition", especially in the United States (where philology has never been very popularly considered as the "science of language").
Although the term "linguist" in the sense of "a student of language" dates from 1641, the term "linguistics" is first attested in 1847. It is now the usual term in English for the scientific study of language, though linguistic science is sometimes used.
Linguistics is a multi-disciplinary field of research that combines tools from natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Many linguists, such as David Crystal, conceptualize the field as being primarily scientific. The term linguist applies to someone who studies language or is a researcher within the field, or to someone who uses the tools of the discipline to describe and analyse specific languages.