Linguistics studies various aspects related to language

Linguistics is often thought of as a serious study that studies the history and grammar of words, but the study subjects are very diverse.

For example, onomatopoeia, which expresses imitative sounds or mimicry through simple combinations of sounds, has been considered a childish language, but in recent years, it has been the subject of linguistic study.

For example, “tokotoko” and “kotokoto” consist of the same vowel and consonant combination but are used for different meanings. Why?

In fact, a word in which the “ko” sound comes first and a word in which the “to” sound comes first give a different impression. The impression is common to many people, and it is from this that these words are used for different meanings.

It is thought that the impression a person has according to what sound is positioned where can actually be regularized to some extent.

However, there are some facts that cannot be explained by rules. For example, it is said that Japanese people cry by adverbs and English people cry by verbs. When expressing the state of crying, different verbs are used in English such as “sob”, “moan”, “bewail” and “whimper”, as well as “cry”.

In Japanese, expression is made by using onomatopoeia as an adverb before the same verb “naku (cry)” such as “shikushiku naku (cry quietly),” “mesomeso naku (cry whimperingly)” and “susurinaku (cry sobbingly).” This way, it’s easy to imagine how a person is crying.

It is also being studied whether there might be a cultural background behind this difference between Japanese and English expressions.

There are many other ways of using words that we have naturally learned and used unconsciously without being taught.

For example, when “kori (ice)” and “kashi (confection)” are combined, it becomes “korigashi.” “Kashi” turns into “gashi.” However, even if “kaji (fire)” is combined with “yama (mountain),” it does not become “yamagaji” and remains “yamakaji.

This kind of distinction is not written in grammar books, but we use it as a matter of course because it is considered to have some regularity.

By intentionally breaking this regularity, we sometimes create new expressions.

For example, the words “ureshimi (happiness)” or “hiromi (width)” are used among young people these days. These are what we call youth language, but from a linguistic point of view, it is a phenomenon called lexical gap.

In Japanese, a noun is formed by adding “sa” or “mi” to an adjective. “ureshii (happy)” becomes “ureshisa (happiness),” “hiroi (wide)” becomes “hirosa (width)” and “takai (high)” becomes “takasa, takami (height).”

But there is no noun like “ureshimi” or “hiromi.” Here, it can be said that there are rules that all Japanese native speakers unconsciously use properly.

However, there is no reason not to say “ureshimi.” It is a phenomenon that just happened. So, when we hear the word “ureshimi,” we can imagine what it means even though we feel uncomfortable.

Furthermore, the “mi” sound gives a soft impression and is comfortable to hear. Therefore, by using “mi” with a word that it is not allowed to be used with, I think that such expression is perceived as an interesting one.

Clarifying such regularity that is not written in grammar books also falls under the field of linguistics.

There are common regularities in languages around the world

Grammatical examination can lead to interesting discoveries. For example, Japanese and English tend to be thought of as completely different grammars, but if we look more closely, we can see that there are common grammatical rules.

For example, in Japanese there is an interrogative “doshite (why)” asking for a reason. If you are asked, “Doshite terebi wo tsuketa no (Why did you turn on the TV)?,” you would answer, “Tenisu no shiai wo mitakattakara (because I wanted to see a tennis match).”

But when you are asked, “Doshite terebi wo tsukeru mae ni hanbaagaa wo tabeta no (Why did you eat a hamburger before turning on the TV)?,” you would not answer “Tenisu no shiai wo mitakattakara (because I wanted to see a tennis match).” The target differs with the same “doshite (why).”

The same rule exists in the English “why.” Furthermore, this is a rule that is universally applied to various languages around the world such as Korean and German.

In addition, it is said that there are about 7,000 languages in the world, and in any language, a sentence is basically made up of a combination of subject (S), verb (V) and object (O).

There are six different word orders, and many languages have the same SOV word order as Japanese although it tends to be thought of as surprising. The second most common is SVO such as English, and OSV and OVS are known to be rare.

It is said that you can also say “Onigiri wo watashi wa tabeta (A rice ball I ate)” because there are case particles in Japanese such as “wa” and “wo,” so even if you change the word order, the meaning will be easily understood. In a language without case particles, it could mean “Onigiri ga watashi wo tabeta (The rice ball ate me).”

For this reason, Japanese is said to be a language with relatively free word order, but basically it is a language of SOV word order, which is the most common word order in the world. In the above case, O is considered to have been moved.

In this way, it has been found that there are common rules in languages that are even far apart in terms of both the region they are used and the pronunciation of the languages. Why does that happen? When we think about it, we come to the fact that only humans can use language at a high level among all creatures and animals on earth.

For example, on an intelligence level, dolphins should be able to use more language. Monkeys and orangutans should be able to speak more skillfully, considering the structure of the jaw and muscles for pronunciation. But only humans can do that.

Moreover, everyone acquires a native language at a similar level when he/she reaches the age of four to five. It’s the same as anyone who has no inherent disability can learn to walk, hear, and see.

In other words, using an advanced language can be considered as an innate ability for humans, just as a bird can fly, for example.

If manipulating language is considered to be a common ability integrated into the genes of humans, we can understand that there is a common regularity in the grammar even though the language differs from region to region.

If we capture the wonders that are all around us and look at them…

For those of us who study linguistics like this, it is very unfortunate that languages are going to disappear.

For example, the Ainu language has almost no speakers left. The Ryukyu language has also become difficult to speak unless the speakers are elderly people.

Even if speakers disappear, we can leave the language as letters or a grammar book to be read. But, as I mentioned earlier, there are many rules in languages that don’t appear in grammar books.

For those who speak the language now, the rules are the things that go without saying or that speakers are even unaware of.

Therefore, researchers of the Ryukyu language and others are interviewing elderly people who speak the Ryukyu language and trying to leave data and materials by recording their conversations.

Languages are being lost from the world at a faster pace than we think. It is a great loss from the perspective of sustaining human diversity and multicultural coexistence.

In addition, for linguistics, studying the commonalities and differences of languages around the world is to study what humans are. Also, for the sake of linguistics, I think it is necessary to do what linguistics can do for the languages that are in danger of extinction.

As I mentioned at the beginning, linguistics tends to be thought of as a serious and difficult field of study, but the study subjects are close to us, and what we take for granted without even having any doubts.

But if we think a little more deeply about what we take for granted, we find that there are wondrous and interesting things there.

So, take a look at things that are very common because they are always around you, like an advertisement, for example. If you read it carefully, you may wonder why it’s written like this or why it’s not grammatically correct.

And if you think about the reason, you might notice the richness of Japanese expressions or be less likely to be influenced by the impact of advertisements.

It is for science, including linguistics, to capture the wonders that are abundant around us and look at them, and anyone can do it according to his/her own level without a deep level of expertise. I believe it will enrich your sensitivity and life.

* The information contained herein is current as of July 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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