1.1 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: What does the term “language” mean in the context of linguistic theory?

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Chapter 1

1.1 Define Language. Describe the features of a language and the linguistic theory



This course covers key areas in syntax and morphology from a theoretical perspective. In syntax, two approaches have been adopted: the formal and the functional. Issues in morphology are handled within generative grammar. However, as an entry point into the course, we begin by asking some basic questions about the study of language. Some of them you have encountered before but they appear here for recapping purposes.



Linguistics is defined as the scientific study of language. In this definition, there are two key words that we must consider before we proceed. One is ‘scientific’ and the other is ‘language’. Let us begin with ‘language’.



Recall from earlier courses that language is defined as: a system of arbitrary vocal symbols (signs) used for human communication (Brinton, 2000:3).

Language is said to be rule-governed, creative, universal and innate. It is also said to be a distinctly human phenomenon. Let us remind ourselves of each of these features briefly.

  1. Rule- governed – At all levels of language, there are restrictions on what is allowed and what is Phonologically for example, individual languages place restrictions on the sounds that can be combined to form words in that language. In English, we can tell that ‘strum’ could be a possible word but not ‘tpenr’. Morphologically, ‘strumish’ is possible while ‘ishstrum’ is not. Syntactically, ‘very strumish’ is possible while ‘strumish very’ is not.
  2. Creative -The reality is that some of the utterances we make on any given day have never been uttered by anyone else. As a matter of fact, language is designed in such a  way that it is possible for us to produce and understand an infinite number of new sentences. This shows that it has plenty of room for
  3. Universal -All languages are similar in many For example, they have a discernable word order in terms of how the subject, the verb and the object follow one another. The commonest word order is SVO (English, Kiswahili). Others are SOV (Japanese, Turkish), VSO (Maasai, Irish) and VOS (Kalenjin). They all have ways of giving and asking for information and can express the notion of number (singular and plural). These universal features make language learning much easier.
  4. Innate – This means that we have an inborn capacity to learn language (Recall language acquisition device (LAD) in an earlier unit)). It is a genetic trait that we are endowed with and it enables us to acquire any language that we are exposed It is no wonder then that by the age of four, children are fairly proficient in their first language.
  5. Human – Language is said to be what basically distinguishes human beings from other They can only communicate about their present circumstances in response to particular stimuli. On the contrary, human beings can talk about the past, present and future. They can also talk about abstract things that have no physical existence.


The study of language is said to be scientific because it follows the methods of investigation used in the pure sciences. These involve the following steps: collection of  the data to be studied, forming of hypotheses or assumptions about the data, analysing the data, making generalizations and predictions and finally, testing more data in order to confirm, modify or reject earlier findings.

To illustrate, we might want to find out whether using English outside the classroom (for example in the school compound and at home) necessarily improves one’s performance in English. We could start by identifying students who fall into that category and others who don’t. Our data would be their written or spoken language or even both. We could start from the assumption that those who do will register better performance in school.

The next step is to analyse the data. After that, we can claim that our findings are applicable to other similar situations. For verification, we, or someone else, could collect and analyse more data of a similar nature.


Linguistic theory is a scientific enquiry into language and its functions. According to Chomsky, a leading linguist, a linguistic theory should achieve the following goals:

  • Provide precise characteristics that essentially define language thereby distinguishing it from other forms of Such characteristics could be unique to a particular language or they could apply across languages.
  • Provide insights on how language is In this connection, a linguistic theory should seek to answer the following questions:
  1. What is language?
  2. What is it that you know when you know a language? In other words, what sort of phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic knowledge do you have of that language?

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