SOAS University of London

Department of Linguistics

Introduction to the Study of Language

Module Code:
Taught in:
Full Year

This module is an introduction to linguistics. Students of this module will look at the formal properties of language and the ways in which these properties are studied by linguists, concentrating on the core components of linguistic analysis: phonetics (sounds of language), phonology (sound patterns), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), and semantics (meaning), as well as some areas on the interfaces. Data is employed from different languages of the world. We will be asking questions like “What does it mean to know a language?” and “In what ways are languages the same/different”.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of the module, the students will:

  • be able to demonstrate an understanding of the main communicative functions of language, and the formal ways to achieve them.
  • have a good understanding of the basic concepts in the six core areas of linguistics, pragmatics, semantics, syntax, morphology, phonetics, and phonology and the interaction between them.
  • be aware of the extent and limit of variation between languages and of some of the principles governing it.
  • have grasped how and why language varies across speakers and over time, how individuals acquire language and how language works in the brain.


A total of 20 weeks of teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week comprising a 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour tutorial.

Scope and syllabus

Starting with an overview of communication systems, human languages and the relationship between language(s) and culture, the module then explores the differences between spoken, written and signed language and introduces the IPA as an essential prerequisite to read transcriptions of spoken language.

The module then introduces basic elements of linguistic structure. It starts with articulatory phonetics by presenting an overview of speech sounds attested across languages and then looks at the organisations of these speech sounds in phonological systems. Then the module gives an overview of common phonological processes and introduces suprasegmantal features of languages such as tone and intonation and the functions they serve. In the section on morphology we investigate how the meaning of words is achieved through their complex internal structure and through which mechanisms it can be changed. From there, we look at how meaning is mapped onto syntactic structure, how clauses and phrases are hierarchically organised and what structural ambiguities can result in two different ways of parsing them. We also compare word order and case marking patterns or how the grammatical status of participants is signalled across languages.

In term two, we explore how speakers achieve cohesion across stretches of discourse, and how conversation is shaped through intricate rules for turn-taking, alignment and overlap. We look at how humans achieve successful communication in a given discourse context by introducing the field of pragmatics. An overview of the context-independent and non-cancellable aspects of meaning of words and utterances follows in the section on semantics. A section on sociolinguistics illustrates how differences between speakers and language varieties (sociolects) can be exploited to signal class, gender, age, etc, and how attitudes towards language(s) are reflected in linguistic behaviour. We also look at language differences associated with gender. After this brief look at synchronic variation we investigate how languages change over time, and which language-internal and external factors contribute to shape their structure. We then move away from the phylogenesis on to the ontogenesis of language by investigating how children acquire aspects of their first language and how the human brain accommodates it, to what extent language and cognition are correlated, and finally, what types of language disorders and speech errors are common. The module ends by revisiting language as a communication system situated in culture.

Method of assessment

One three-hour written exam in May/June (70%); data analysis to be submitted on Monday after the reading week in term 1 (15%); data analysis to be submitted on Monday after the reading week in term 1 (15%).

Suggested reading

A comprehensive reading list will be provided by the convenor at the beginning of the module.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules