Branches of Linguistics (with Definitions, Explanations and Examples)

Branches of Linguistics (with Definitions, Explanations and Examples)

This post, Branches of Linguistics (with Definitions, Explanations and Examples), sheds light on what linguistics, as a field of study, is. Linguistics is the scientific study of language. In order to study language at a closer level, scholars have broken down linguistics into various branches for easy study. We also refer to this as levels of language study.

This post defines language, discusses its nature as advanced by George Yule, it differentiates between language and a language and it finally looks at the various branches of linguistics or levels of language study with definitions of each and various illustrative examples. Remember to share this all-important post with your friends and colleagues. Let us see what language is…

Definitions of Language by Different Scholars

Various definitions have been given by different scholars on what language is. We shall examine some of these definitions:

Henry Sweet submits that “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.” The American linguists Bernard Bloch and George L. Trager define language thus: “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.” John Milton opines that language is the instrument conveying to us things useful to be known.”

Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his dictionary, asserts that language is “the instrument of science [knowledge]” and words are “the signs of ideas.” In his Life of Cowley, Johnson called language “the dress of thought.” Yet, while language can obviously be used to express thoughts, it can do more than that. Merriam-Webster defines language as “a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings.” Oxford Dictionary defines language as “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way; a system of communication used by a particular country or community.”

Definitions of Language (Contd)

Wikipedia says this: “Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so; and a language is any specific example of such a system.” Robinson’s definition of language says “Man’s ability to make noise with the open organ and marks in papers or some other materials by means of which groups of people speaking the same language are able to interact and cooperate as a whole.” Wale Osisanwo sees language as “Human vocal noise or the arbitrary graphic representation of this noise used systematically and conventionally by members if speech community for the purpose of communication. A. C. Gimson submits that language is “A system of conventional signals used for communication by a whole community.” He stresses that the pattern of convention covers a system of significant sound units otherwise called phonemes; the inflection and arrangement of words called grammar and the association of meaning with words, that is, semantics. What can be gathered from all these definitions is that language is: “A system of arbitrary symbols that are conventionally structured by members of a speech community where a particular language is used. In other word, a language is a system of signs (e.g. gestures, vocal sounds or written symbols) that encodes information.”

Let us proceed to see the nature, characteristics or featured of language…

The Nature and Characteristics of Language

The characteristics of language discussed below are sometimes called the “design features” of Language. These features include the following:

  • Mode of acquisition – Language is acquired by learning
  • It is conventional
  • It is systematic; that is, it possesses structure.
  • Language is systematic, structured, patterned – it has rules and principles.
  • We use language in the process of interaction: it is a unique attribute of man (it is exclusively human), it is human-specie specific.
  • Language makes use of arbitrary symbols: language is a matter of personal opinion. It is arbitrary. There is no connection or relationship between the signified (object) and the signifier (symbol)
  • Semanticity – language is meaningful because words have meanings.

Design Features of Language – C. F. Hockett

Tecumseh Fitch, in his paper, Unity and diversity in human language, highlights C. F. Hockett’s 16 design features of language which the latter presented in his paper titled, Logical considerations in the study of animal communication. Some features in the list are similar to the ones we discussed above. Let us see each of Hockett’s features:

  • Vocal-auditory channel—signal modality involves vocalization and sound perception.
  • Broadcast transmission—everyone in earshot can hear what is said.
  • Rapid fading—signals fade quickly, and do not ‘clog the airwaves’.
  • Interchangeability—any speaker can also be a listener and vice versa.
  • Total feedback—speakers can hear everything that they say.
  • Specialisation (speech as ‘trigger’)—linguistic signals accomplish their results not via raw energy (as in pushing or biting) but by their fit to the receiver’s perceptual and cognitive systems.
  • Semanticity—some linguistic units have specific meanings (words or morphemes).
  • Arbitrariness—meanings are generally arbitrarily related to signals, rather than iconic.
  • Discreteness—each utterance differs from all others discretely (by at least a distinctive feature).
  • Displacement—meanings about past, future or distant referents can be encoded and understood.
  • Productivity/openness—new utterances can be readily coined and understood.
  • Duality of patterning—meaningless units (phonemes) are combined into meaningful ones (morphemes), which can then be combined into larger meaningful units (sentences).
  • traditional (cultural) transmission—languages are learned, not genetically encoded
  • Prevarication—it is possible to lie.
  • Reflexivity—it is possible to use language to talk about language.
  • Learnability—it is possible for a speaker of one language to learn additional languages.

Distinction between Language and a Language

You may wonder if there is any distinction at all; but there is! Language is a general notion, an abstract concept in the mind and a universal phenomenon. A language, on its own part, is a specific instance or manifestation of the phenomenon known as language.

Levels of Language Study

Language, as a very complex phenomenon, has been broken down into more manageable components for easy study. We can see these components from three (3) broad categorisations: Phonology, Grammar and Semantics. Embedded in these 3 major categorisations of the level of language study are the forms and functions of language. Under phonology, we study phonetics and other speech-related disciplines; under grammar, we consider syntax, morphology and other related fields while under semantics, we deal with meaning of utterances in their various shades. Lexical relations (antonymy, synonymy, hyponymy, etc.) come under semantics. Other concepts such as intentional meaning, conventional meaning, connotation, denotation, etc. all come under semantic. In addition, applied linguistics falls into this category also. Let us see each of these branches of linguistics or levels of language study as shown below:

Branches of Linguistics (with Definitions, Explanations and Examples)


Psycholinguistics, one of the branches of linguistics, as a branch of cognitive science, investigates how we acquire language, how we produce language and how we acquire language. In other words, Psycholinguistics examines language acquisition, language production and language comprehension. It is the study mental aspects of language and speech. It looks critically into how we represent and process language in the brain.

Alan Garnham, in his book Psycholinguistics: Central Topics, defines Psycholinguistics as “the study of the mental mechanisms that make it possible for people to use language. It is a scientific discipline whose goal is a coherent theory of the way in which language is produced and understood.” Psycholinguistics is a branch of both linguistics and psychology. The American psychologist, Jacob Robert Kantor introduced the term ‘Psycholinguistics’ in his book, An Objective Psychology of Grammar, published in 1936.

The two key questions that Psycholinguistics seeks to answer are:

  • What knowledge of language do we need to use language?
  • What are the cognitive processes (perception, memory, and thinking) involved in the ordinary use of language? (See Psychology of Language by David Carroll)


Semantics, one of the major branches of linguistics, is the study of meaning. This branch of linguistics has a lot of definitions as many scholars have advanced; but basically, Semantics has to do with the functions of signs in language. Semantics differentiates between two major concepts on which meaning rests. These are Sense and Reference. According to linguists, sense has to do with the how a word relates to other words in a language while reference deals with how a word relates to real word concepts. In other words, the sense of a word has to do with its linguistic boundaries in a particular language and the reference of a word has to do with which concepts it refers to in the real world. Sometimes, it is problematic to distinguish between sense and reference because of the biases in languages and the varying linguistic boundaries between conceptual features of language. One of the interests of Semantics is the study of meaning in terms of words and sentence relationships. We refer to this as lexical relations. Some semantic relationship between words include the following:


(See Linguistic and Stylistic Concepts You Should Know)


This is a type of synonym. It has to do with words associated with meanings which also have great similarities in form. For example:


Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning. They are words that mean the opposite of another word.  When we talk of oppositeness, we are talking about logical category.  Antonyms have 3 types:

Complementary pairs

These are antonyms in which when one quality is present, it means the other quality is absent. The two qualities involved are mutually exclusive. There can be no middle ground or an intermediate state. For example:

  • male/female
  • single/ married
  • not pregnant/pregnant
  • off/on

Gradable pairs

These are antonyms that give room for gradual transition between two poles. In this case, there is a possibility of making a comparison such as:

  • a little/a lot
  • good/bad
  • hot/ cold
  • wet/dry

Relational opposites

For these antonyms, they share the same semantic features but the focus or direction are in reversion. For example:

  • tie/untie
  • buy/sell
  • give/receive
  • teacher/pupil
  • father/son
  • mother/daughter
  • dependent/independent


A homonym is a word that has the same spelling and the same pronunciation as another word but which has a meaning different from it. In other words, a way to identify a homonym is to look out for words with the same spellings and same pronunciation but which usually have different meanings. (Read more on homonyms)


A homophone is a word that has the same pronunciation with another word but which has a different spelling and meaning. (See Homophones in English)


A homograph is a word that has the same spelling as another word but which has a different meaning and a different pronunciation. (See Homographs in English)

Other lexical relations include: polysemy, hyponymy, taxonyms, holonyms, meronyms, figures of speech or tropes, etc. it is important to note that we can describe all semantic relationships in all languages based on similarity or contiguity.


Pragmatics, which is one of the interesting branches of linguistics, has to deal meaning beyond the surface level; that is, it engages meaning beyond the literal level. Pragmatics highlights the study of meaning in the interactional context. As language is an instrument of interaction, Pragmatics focuses on what implied meanings, that is what people mean when they make use of language. Semantics deals with what a word means while Pragmatics deals with what is meant by a word. Pragmatics has more to do with what a speaker means by a word rather than what the word means in itself.

This is why Pragmatics concerns the negotiation of meaning between the speaker and the listener. It takes into consideration the context of utterance. In essence, Pragmatics is the study of the aspects of meaning and language use that are dependent on the speaker, the addressee and other features of the context of utterance, such as the following:

  • principles of communication
  • speaker’s goals
  • presupposition
  • deixis
  • speech acts
  • implicature

Without Pragmatics, it would be difficult to understand language and responses to it; without Pragmatics, we would not have a holistic understanding of what people mean and their intentions. Let us consider this popular sentence:

  • ‘Can you pass the salt?’

If we consider this question on the surface, the speaker is asking the listener if they have the ability to pass the salt through the use of the modal auxiliary, ‘can’ which deals with ability. But the pragmatic import of this interrogative sentence is beyond the ability to pass the salt. It means:

  • ‘Will you pass the salt?

So in asking the question, the speaker is simply directing the listener to pass the salt. This is what J. L. Austin deals with in his seminal book, How to do Things with Words.


This brach of linguistics has to do with the study of signs and sign-using behaviour. One of its founders, Ferdinand de Saussure, defines it as the study of ‘the life of signs within society’. Another major proponent of Semiotics is Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce defines a sign as “something which stands to somebody for something”. He believes that a sign can never have a fixed meaning because we have to constantly qualify what meaning means. (See the Meaning of meaning).

Peirce’s Categorisation of Signs

Peirce categorises signs into 3 major types. These are:


An icon is that which looks almost exactly (if not exactly) like what is refers to. It is a picture or symbol which we recognise universally to be representative of something. It is a word or sign which stands for something else. Examples includes pictures in different forms, a road sign for falling rocks, the Roman numeral ‘II’ representing the number two (2), etc.


An index is an indicator or sign of something. We associated an index with its referent. For instance, smoke is a sign of fire, dark clouds are indexical of imminent rainfall, a signpost or signboard is pointer or an index of a particular location.


A symbol is something that stands for or represents something else, especially an object representing an abstraction or a concept; it is a sign with a specific meaning: a written or printed sign or character that represents something in a specific context. Note that a symbol relates to its referent only by convention (this is why we say language is conventional because there is no relationship between the signified (the concept or idea behind the sign) and the signifier (a set of speech sounds or marks on a page); it is a matter of convention. Socio-cultural contexts also determine what is symbolic and what is not. Modern semioticians who have applied Peirce and Saussure’s principles to a variety of fields, such as aesthetics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, communications, semantics, etc. include these leading scholars: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and others.


The discussions on branches of linguistics will not be complete without grammar. Grammatical level deals with the morphology and the syntax of a language. The traditional grammar is the earliest form developed by Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. They invented the Parts of Speech and came up with definitions, they are the Prescriptive School. They defined grammar as a body of prescribed rules which is aimed at guiding the use of a language. A school later came up, the empiricist movement, which gave birth to the Structural grammar who based their argument on what is observed and not what is defined. They were averse to prescribing and favours describing descriptive grammar as against prescriptive grammar.

They define grammar as a body of descriptive statements about a language. For instance, the grammar of English is a description of its word classes: the stringing of words together in acceptable sequence such as phrases, clauses, sentences, etc. Their emphasis is on form and function of a word and not what a rule says about the word. Consider this sentence, for example:

  • The disbursements have started.

‘Disbursement’ is a noun but it is not a place, person, animal, or thing as prescriptive grammarians have defined nouns. (See the post: What is a Noun?)

Grammar is also a body of instructions that can be studied in schools. (See What is Grammar?) Grammar examines how words or morphemes combine to form meaningful sentences. It is a set of constraints on the possible sequences of symbols expressed as rules or principles. Syntax is the basic ingredient of grammar. Grammar tells us the difference between sets of sentences. We can identify five basic units of grammatical structure. These are: morphemes, word, phrase, clause and sentence. There are posts dedicated to each of these 5 aspects. See them here:


Morphology is a branch of linguistics which deals with the study of words; precisely the study of the internal structure of words. The term originates from the Greek and it deals with ‘morph’ which means ‘shape’ or ‘form’. Morphology is a branch of linguistics that came into existence in 1859. The German linguist, August Schleicher, first made use of the term to describe the study of the form of words. Morphology deals with word formation out of morphemes. It is the study and description of word formation (such as inflection, derivation, and compounding) in language; it is the system of word-forming elements and processes in a language. Morphemes are the building blocks of morphology and they are the smallest meaning-bearing units of language (O’Grady, 1997). Read more in this post on Morphemes.


Edward J. Vajda informs us that ‘Syntax’ is a derivative of the Greek word syntaxis, which means arrangement.  Syntax deals with phrase and sentence formation out of words. Syntax is the study of the arrangement of words in sentences, clauses, and phrases; it is also the study of the formation of sentences and the relationship between their component parts. A major concern of syntax is ‘word order’ which is a main device for showing the relationship among words. Usually, the subject comes first in a sentence; the verbs follows and the object or complement follows the verb. (See Patterns of the English Sentence) and (The Syntactic Elements of the Clause Structure). When the order changes, it may affect the meaning of the utterance. Syntax is the grammar, structure, or order of the elements in a language statement. In essence, syntax is the way in which we put linguistic elements together to form constituents such as phrases or clauses. We also refer to the part of grammar dealing with this as syntax. In a sentence, syntax tells us which word comes before and after another word. Syntax deals with arrangement of words to form meaningful sentences.


Sociolinguistics is an interface between sociology and linguistics or language and the society. This accounts for the definition of sociolinguistics as the study of patterns and variations in language within a society or community. Sociolinguistics, another branch of linguistics, focuses on the way people use language to express social class, group status, gender, or ethnicity, and it looks at how they make choices about the form of language they use. It also examines the way people use language to negotiate their roles in a society and to achieve positions of power. Sociolinguistics also deals with the assignment of roles to various languages that exist in a speech community such as First Language, Official Language, National Language, etc.

Discourse Analysis

This branch of linguistics is the study of language of sentences; the analysis of features of language that extend beyond the limits of a sentence. A scholar suggests that the term discourse analysis is very ambiguous. According to him, Discourse Analysis “refer mainly to the linguistic analysis of naturally occurring connected speech or written discourse.” Explaining further, discourse analysis “refers to attempts to study the organisation of language above the sentence or above the clause, and therefore to study larger linguistic units, such as conversational exchanges or written texts.” Discourse Analysis takes linguistic enquiry beyond the clause-bound ‘objects’ of grammar and semantics to the level of analysing ‘utterances’, ‘texts’ and ‘speech events’. It engages itself with meaning that cannot be located in the ‘linguistic system’. Discourse Analysis deals with language use in social contexts; and in particular with interaction or dialogue between speakers.

Deborah Tannen, in explaining Discourse analysis, defines it as “the analysis of language ‘beyond the sentence’. She submits that this analysis contrasts with the typical analysis by modern linguistics which mainly deals with the study of grammar: the study of smaller bits of language, such as sounds (phonetics and phonology), parts of words (morphology), meaning (semantics), and the order of words in sentences (syntax). According to her, “Discourse analysts study larger chunks of language as they flow together.” Discourse analysts examine larger discourse context so that they ca determine how it affects the meaning of a sentence. For instance, let us look at the example of two signs/sentences at a swimming pool given by Charles Fillmore:

  • Please use the toilet, not the pool.
  • Pool for members only.

If these two sentences are read separately, they might seem reasonable; but when we take them together as a single discourse, we will have to check again the interpretation of the first sentence having read the second sentence. This is what discourse analysts do. Rechecking the first sentence to properly determine its meaning is known in Discourse Analysis as Reframing.


This is one of the most interesting branches of linguistics that explores the linguistic choices available to users of language in a particular language. We cannot talk about stylistics without talking about style. Stylistics is the study of textual meaning. It arose from the Russian formalist approach to literary meaning. Stylistics deals with style and its consequent meaning. Stylistics is the study of linguistic styles in a language. It is the use of linguistic tools to arrive at the meaning of an utterance or a text. Stylistics explores how readers interact with the language of (mainly literary) texts in order to explain how we understand, and how texts affect us when we read them. Stylistics is also the study of the devices in languages (such as rhetorical figures and syntactical patterns) that are considered to produce expressive or literary style. Modern stylistics makes use of the tools of formal linguistic analysis alongside methods of literary criticism and the goal is to try to isolate characteristic uses and functions of language and rhetoric rather than advance normative or prescriptive rules and patterns.


Phonology, a major branch of linguistics, deals with sounds of a language. It is the study of the patterns of sounds in a language. It deals with how speech sounds are organised and used in a language; especially how the sounds are organised in the mind and how they are used to convey meaning. The phonological system of a language has to do with two basic foci: the inventory of sounds and their features and the rules which govern how sounds interact with one another. Phonology is related to other branches of linguistics like phonetics, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Phonology is different from phonetics. Phonetics analyses the production or articulation of speech sounds irrespective of the language, but phonology analyses the sound patterns of a particular language. Phonetics is concerned with the physical properties of sounds while phonology deals more with how the sounds function in a language. There are some other aspects to Phonology which study specific things. These include: Generative Phonology, Auto-segmental Phonology, Metrical Phonology, Lexical Phonology, etc. The person who specialises in Phonology is a Phonologist.


Phonetics, closely related with phonology, is another important branch of linguistics that studies speech sounds. It deals with how we produce speech sounds and how we perceive speech sounds. There are three major aspects to the study of phonetics: articulatory phonetics (the exploration of how the human vocal tract or apparatus produce speech sound, the way the articulators or speech organs interact together to produce sounds); acoustic phonetics (studies the sound waves the human vocal apparatuses produce; it deals with the physical or acoustic properties of speech sounds) and auditory phonetics (this studies or determines how the human ear perceives speech sounds which the articulators produce). There are other posts on this site that focus specifically on some of these branches of linguistics in a more detailed manner. You can check them out.


This post, Branches of Linguistics (with Definitions, Explanations and Examples), considers various aspects and branches of linguistics; core linguistics and applied linguistics alike. It focuses on what language is and its features and the various levels at which we study it. Do someone a world of good by sharing this post with them. Many students of English will need this post; do share it with them. I am sure you have learned something definite in this post. Check out other educative posts on Akademia. See you around.


Hockett C. F. (1960). Logical considerations in the study of animal communication. In Animal sounds and communication (eds. Lanyon W. E., Tavolga W. N., editors.), pp. 392–430 Washington, DC: American Institute of Biological Sciences.

O’Grady, W., (1997). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. London: Longman

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