With all of the discussion we’ve had recently about the etymologies of different words and the various meanings and usages that can enrich your vocabulary, we might have aroused your interest in further study of linguistics, the scientific study of languages. This relatively new term (first coined in the mid-19th century) refers to the study of grammar, pronunciation, history, and evolution of languages and their words. A linguist can be someone who studies linguistics, but also generally refers to someone who knows several languages; this latter meaning has been around since the 16th century. Both words can be traced back to the Latin root lingua (“tongue, language”).
The field of linguistics is ideal for someone who enjoys digging into the reasons why words are spelled and pronounced the way they are, why some words are used in certain ways in one area of a country but not the other, and why the various languages spoken around the world developed they way they did. Some linguists focus on the sounds that are specific to different languages and how those sounds are combined to form words (phonetics) while others are more interested in the way the words are defined and used to form sentences (semantics).
If you live near a university or community college, there’s a good chance that there will be at least an introductory class in linguistics offered, if not an entire department devoted to the field. Check to see if there are any classes that you can audit for free or at a reduced cost, or if there are class materials you might be able to purchase or borrow. Whether English is your only language or you speak several languages, an introductory linguistics course will give you an excellent overview of the way languages work, which will help your English vocabulary study.
If you’d rather study on your own, here are a few suggestion for books you might find useful:
Linguistics For Beginners (W. Terrence Gordon). This book gives a comprehensive overview of linguistics, but is written in such a clear and direct style that it’s very easy to understand. This is a good book if you’re interested in linguistics in a general sense, but don’t want to focus on any specific aspect of the field.
Linguistics, Sixth Edition: An Introduction to Language and Communication (Adrian Akmajian, Richard Demers, Ann Farmer, Robert Harnish). While covering the same broad range of topics, this book goes more in depth, and presents the material from a more educational perspective – it’s designed for teachers, and has a workbook and sample exercises. Reading this book is a good substitute for taking a university-level linguistics class.
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (Steven Pinker). This fascinating book focuses on the connection between the physiology of the brain and the origins of language, integrating the evolution of humans and societies and the mechanics of linguistics, in a well-written and entertaining overview of how we learned to speak at all, and why we continue to speak the way we do.