Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics

If you are interested in getting a broader overview of the key concepts in linguistics so that you can take your own analysis a little deeper, you're in the right place! Additionally, if you intend on studying English language and linguistics at university, these topics will give you a good idea of what potentially lies ahead.

Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics

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Table of contents

    This article is by no means an exhaustive list of all the key concepts in language and linguistics, but it is a compilation of concepts and theories that will prepare you for your next steps and may also be helpful for you to show off some more in-depth knowledge of language and power, language and technology, and media linguistics in your exams and essays.

    Basic terms and concepts in linguistics

    There are many terms and ideas that are important for you to know in the context of your study of English Language, however, in this article, we'll be focusing on the ones surrounding the Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics.

    What do we mean when we say 'concepts' relating to language and linguistics?

    Linguistic concepts examples

    While there are many linguistic concepts that we could talk about, these are some key ones, and are the ones covered in this article:

    Language and power

    It’s important to remember that language not only comprises words and grammar. Language is also a carrier of meaning, culture, and power.

    Many theorists have examined the ways in which language is used to create or maintain power and influence others within society, and two of the most influential are Michel Foucault and Norman Fairclough.

    According to Wareing (1999), there are three main types of power:¹

    • Political power: power held by people with authority, such as politicians and the police.

    • Personal power: power based on an individual's occupation or role in society. For example, a headteacher would likely hold more power than a teaching assistant.

    • Social group power: power held by a group of people due to certain social factors, such as class, ethnicity, gender, or age.

    These types of power can be categorised as instrumental power, influential power, or both:

    • Instrumental power: this is authoritative power held by those in high-up positions in society. They have power because of who they are. A good example of someone with instrumental power is Queen Elizabeth II.

    • Influential power: this refers to when a person (or group of people) doesn’t necessarily have any authoritative power (yet!) but is trying to gain influence over others. In this case, they might use different language techniques to appear powerful and persuasive.

    Politicians are a good example of people who have both instrumental and influential power – they have authoritative power as members of parliament but are still trying to convince others to continue voting for them and their policies.

    So, how can language be used to create power, exactly? Let’s take a look at some of the language techniques and features used:

    • Lexical choice, e.g., using emotive or figurative language to evoke strong feelings.

    • Grammar, e.g., using imperative sentences to create a sense of urgency and rhetorical questions to connect with the audience.

    • Phonology, e.g., using alliteration and prosodic features (intonation, stress, pauses, and rhythm) to attract the listener.

    Examples of language and power

    To help consolidate this topic, let's look at some examples:

    The company, Nike, famously advertises their products using the imperative sentence, 'Just do it', to create a sense of influential power over potential customers. Imperative sentences are demanding and don't leave much space for questioning. By using imperatives, companies attempt to influence people to act in certain ways that eventually lead to them buying the companies' products.

    This slogan may also make the listener feel as if Nike is talking to them directly. This type of direct communication is what Fairclough (1989) describes as synthetic personalisation, a technique big corporations used to create a sense of 'friendship' with their potential customers.²

    Other places you can see examples of language being used to create or maintain power are:

    • In the media

    • The news

    • Advertising

    • Politics

    • Speeches

    • Education

    • Law

    • Religion

    Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics: Critical discourse analysis (CDA)

    When discussing language and power, we usually want to analyse the discourse (this could be written or spoken text or images) to see what techniques have been used to create a sense of power. This process is called critical discourse analysis (CDA). When conducting CDA, it is important to look closely at the text's context and consider who is saying what and why.

    According to Fairclough, the analysis of language and power can be split into two disciplines:²

    • Power in discourse: the lexicon, strategies, and language structures used to create power

    • Power behind discourse: the sociological and ideological reasons behind who is asserting power over others and why.

    CDA is an approach, not a theory! There is no set way to conduct critical discourse analysis, and your approach will depend on the text you're analysing and what your objectives are.

    When conducting CDA, we should place the text into its wider context and try asking the following questions:

    • Who wrote this text, and who is it intended for?

    • What narrative is being promoted?

    • Who benefits from this text? Who is marginalised by it?

    • Is the evidence credible?

    • What ideas are normalised by this discourse?

    • Where is the power in the discourse? Where is the power behind the discourse?

    Language and technology

    You're likely already aware that language and technology are pretty intertwined! But, how exactly does technology shape the language we use, and is it impacting our identities?

    Think about the language you use when you’re instant messaging someone; does it differ from your writing in real life? Come to mention it, when was the last time you wrote something that didn’t involve technology somehow?

    The discipline of language and technology looks at how technology has shaped and influenced our language. It also considers the social practices surrounding language use in technology, such as phone etiquette or even emoji etiquette. I’m sure many of you have received an emoji from an older relative that was a little questionable because they didn’t know the generally accepted meaning for that emoji. Linguists examining language and technology would be interested in why emojis take on specific meanings, why these change over time, and how we use emojis to express ourselves and our identities.

    Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics Emojis StudySmarterFig. 1 - Emojis can be used to express ourselves online.

    The linguists Caroline Tagg and Philip Seargeant (2014) examined communication on social media, focussing on the relationship between language use online and identity perception.³ Tagg and Seargeant found that, because of the rise of social media, it is now easier than ever to communicate with people from all over the world, which inevitably influences our speech and the ways we perceive ourselves and others. They also found that social media makes it easier for us to adapt and change our identities according to how we wish to present ourselves to the rest of the world.

    Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics: Multimodality

    Multimodality refers to the use of more than one mode of communication to create meaning.

    An online blog would likely use written text, images, different colours, videos, and links to external websites.

    When we talk about multimodality, we take two things into account: modes and mediums.

    • Modes: how we communicate ideas and meaning with others, e.g., through text, images, colours, videos, layout.

    • Mediums: this refers to where meaning is communicated or, in other words, the places in which modes can be seen by people, e.g., books, newspapers, blogs, movies etc.

    In terms of language and technology, it is vital to recognise multimodality and how different modes of communication work together to create meaning, as technology has made it easier than ever to integrate and use multiple different modes.

    Although multimodal communication isn’t new, multimodal discourse analysis is a relatively recent concept. Multimodal discourse analysis examines all the different modes used within a medium and how they interact with each other to create meaning.

    Media linguistics

    Media linguistics is closely related to the previous two disciplines: language and power, and language and technology. However, the focus of media linguistics is on the language used in mass media and its influence on our language.

    Mass media: a collective term for all the different media outlets that reach a large audience in a reasonably short period of time, e.g., TV, newspapers, and blogs.

    Media linguistics is a new discipline, but it is growing rapidly thanks to the vast expansion of media we now consume. In the past, people would likely read the newspaper, see some adverts here and there, and choose what to watch from 4 different TV channels. Today, most of us use social media daily, see adverts pretty much everywhere we look, and have thousands of TV shows and movies available to us with only the touch of a button.

    Media linguistics is primarily centred around the critical analysis of media text.

    Media text comprises the traditional linguistic definition of text (written and spoken language), as well as things such as images, videos, colours, symbolism, music, and non-verbal communication such as hand gestures.

    The analysis of media text requires a critical and semiotic approach, which takes multimodality into account.

    When analysing media text, semiotic analysis is pretty important! Semiotic analysis is a critical analysis of text, imagery, sound, and symbolism. Semiotic analysis considers the meaning that is created as a result of the combination of all the different modes, considering the denotative (literal) meaning and the connotative (inferred or associated) meaning.

    The colour blue:

    • Denotative meaning: a primary colour.
    • Connotative meaning: feelings of sadness.

    So, why would people want to analyse media texts critically? Mass media can be used to create or maintain ‘common knowledge’ that benefits certain members of society and marginalises others. Analysing media texts could expose this and help us as a society understand how and why this is happening. One example of this would be analysing a film to examine the use of negative stereotypes.

    Differentiate the basic concepts of language and linguistics

    Although the terms 'language' and 'linguistics' are often used synonymously (and do have some similar applications), they are not the same thing, so let's look at each definition:

    • 'Language' refers to a mode of communication used by people to interact socially as well as express our needs, desires, and thoughts. 'Language' can also refer to 'languages' such as English, French, Thai, and Zulu (etc).

    Whereas:

    • 'Linguistics' refers to the branch of study and research that looks at languages, how they are used, and what effects different factors can have on them.

    Similarities between language and linguistics

    • Both terms refer to and deal with human communication.
    • The fact that the two concepts are so closely intertwined means that your knowledge of one will facilitate your understanding of the other.
    • It is important that you understand both terms throughout your study of A-level English Language.

    Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics - Key takeaways

    • Studying language and power involves analysing how language is used to create or maintain power within society. Key theorists include Michel Foucault and Norman Fairclough.
    • Studying language and technology involves analysing how technology has shaped and influenced our language use and considering the social practices surrounding language and technology, such as emoji etiquette.
    • Media linguistics is a fairly new discipline interested in the language used in mass media and its influence on our language.
    • Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is an approach used to critically examine the use of language in the creation of power.

    References

    1. L. Thomas & S. Wareing, Language, Society and Power: An Introduction, 1999.
    2. N. Fairclough, Language and Power, 1989.
    3. P. Sergeant & C. Tagg, The Language of Social Media, 2014.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics

    What are the key concepts of linguistics?

    There are many different concepts within the field of linguistics, these include language and power, language and technology, media linguistics, and many more!

    What are the linguistic levels of language?

    Key 'levels of language' include syntax, semantics, pragmatics, morphology, phonetics and phonology.

    Why is the concept of language important?

    Language is an important tool for communication. It’s important to remember that language not only comprises words and grammar, but is also a carrier of meaning, culture, and power.

    What are the 6 components of language?

    Key components of language include:

    • syntax
    • semantics
    • pragmatics
    • morphology
    • phonetics
    • phonology


    These components can be used for various reasons including to express ourselves online, create power, create multimodal texts, and much more. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose the best definition of discourse in accordance with Foucault.

    Fairclough believes that a language is a form of _______?

    What is instrumental power?

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