What Is Linguistics? - Definition & Introduction

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the study of linguistics. The ability to communicate is one of humankind's unique abilities, and the study of linguistics categorizes our languages and attempts to discover how languages have evolved over time.

First Words

A baby's first words are a milestone in today's culture. Whether it's 'mama' or 'dada', most parents hope to capture those first moments of speech on camera or film as a memory to cherish. Babies' ability to learn relatively early how to speak and communicate with other human beings - the essence of language - is one of the things which sets humans apart from the other animals.

Linguistics is the study of this unique ability. Scholars and researchers in the field of linguistics attempt to decipher what allows us to speak, and, more importantly for historians, how patterns within our languages have changed over time and helped shape the world we live in today. As language and literacy are so prevalent in today's world - indeed, you are using linguistics right now to read this article - the fields of study encompassed in linguistics is expansive: one can study linguistic changes in history, language-use today, how using language affects our brain, and so on.

The rest of this article will provide a brief introduction into the basic linguistic families that linguists have created to categorize the languages humans have spoken throughout history and still speak today.


The Indo-European language family is the most widely spoken linguistic family today. Several hundred languages are encompassed in the Indo-European family including English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Punjabi, and Bengali, just to name a few. Nearly three billion of the world's population speak some form of an Indo-European language as a native language.


The Niger-Congo linguistic family is spoken largely in sub-Saharan Africa, and the most widely spoken language within this family is Swahili. Unlike the Indo-European languages, many of the languages in this family are tonal. This means that the same sound can have multiple meanings, depending on the pitch, context, and tone of the speaker.


The Sino-Tibetan linguistic family is spoken mainly in eastern and northern China, Himalayan countries such as Nepal and Tibet, and in some parts of Southeast Asia. Containing over 250 distinct languages, the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family includes popular languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Burman. The Sino-Tibetan linguistic family is the second most spoken language family in the world.

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