What Is Descriptive Linguistics? - Purpose & Process

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  • 0:08 Descriptive Linguistics
  • 1:14 Phonology
  • 3:10 Morphology
  • 4:18 Syntax
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the field of descriptive linguistics. In doing so, it will highlight the terms phonology, morphology, and syntax while discussing examples from around the globe.

Descriptive Linguistics

I'm guessing most of us have heard the phrase, 'Well, it's Greek to me!,' the thing we say when something is new or confusing and we just don't get it at all. Being a lover of ancient history, I've always liked the phrase. However, I never really got it until I visited Greece, when as soon as my feet stepped off the plane, my ears were met with a language that was completely different than the English I had spoken all of my life or even the French I was forced to learn in high school. Listening to the people of Greece speak, all I could think was a mixture of 'Now I get that old saying,' and 'I will never be able to learn this language!'

For me, this was my first introduction to the topic of today's lesson, descriptive linguistics, the study of how language is constructed. If a descriptive linguist had been by my side that first day in Greece, he would probably have used the words 'phonology' and 'morphology,' as well as 'syntax' to explain why Greek seemed so confusing to my ears. In today's lesson on descriptive linguistics, we're going to break down these three terms.


For starters, phonology is simply the study of how the sounds in a language are used. Coming from the Greek word 'sound,' as in 'phonetics,' it's the study of why we, who speak English, pronounce the 'g' in 'giraffe' the same way we pronounce the 'j' in 'Jell-O.' It's also trying to understand why the people of the South Pacific find it easy to start words with the sound 'ng,' while my English tongue can only say it at the end of words, as in 'sitting,' 'asking,' or 'talking.'

Phonology also takes a look at the rather abstract concept of a phoneme, a sound or set of sounds that makes a difference in the meaning of a language. For this one, let's take a look at an example used by Carol and Melvin Ember in their book, Cultural Anthropology.

When discussing phonemes, they cite the letters 'l' and 'r' in our language versus in the Samoan language of the South Pacific. For instance, in our language, if we place the 'r' sound in front of the letters 'oot,' you get the word 'root,' as in the root of a tree. However, if you replace the 'r' with an 'l,' you get the word 'loot,' as in 'to take goods by force.' In other words, in our language, the letters 'r' and 'l' differ phonemically and make a big difference in the meaning of a word.

Conversely, in the Samoan language, the letters 'l' and 'r' are used interchangeably without changing the meaning of the words in which they are used. Therefore, unlike in English, the Samoan 'l' and 'r' are phonemically the same.

When speaking of phonemes, it's important to note that they do not stand alone as words. They are simply sounds that have no meaning on their own. For instance, the phoneme 'ch' in our language has no meaning on its own. However, stick it in front of the letters 'urch' and you have the word 'church.' This brings us to our next topic, what descriptive linguists refer to as morphology.


Morphology is the study of how sound sequences have meaning. In other words, it's the study of how different languages give meaning to individual sounds or phonemes. I like to remember it by just thinking it's how different sounds morph together to make meaning. With this in mind, a morph is the smallest unit of sound that has meaning. For this one, let's take a look at the letter 's.'

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