Linguistics is the study of languages and the underlying principles of language generally. Only humans have the ability to use language, and besides providing us with a tool for communication, language also provides us with a tool for thinking. In this sense, the study of language may provide a window onto the study of mind, and this is what makes the study of language particularly compelling. How do different languages compare to each other? Is language variation unlimited? Are there principles which are shared by all languages? What are the major approaches in the study of language?
A variety of perspectives on the study of language are represented in our department and we see this is as a major advantage over other linguistics departments. The two major approaches are the Structuralist approach and the Generative approach.
The Functional approach deals with natural languages, spoken and written, in authentic usage situations and discourse contexts. In this approach, language is seen as a communication system that is shaped and changed by usage. The goals of this approach are to identify the relationship between linguistic form and function, whether semantic, pragmatic, or sociolinguistic. The functional approach embraces diverse fields of linguistic inquiry, including structural analysis and language description, comparative and historical linguistics, linguistic typology, interactional linguistics and sociolinguistics. Especially encouraged in this approach is the study of diverse languages of various families, areas, and time-periods, which give a deeper understanding of different linguistic categories and structures, cross-linguistic similarities and differences, and the results of language contact and other social, cultural, and historical factors on the structure of languages.
The Generative approach views language as a uniquely human cognitive system encoded in the human mind, and seeks to characterize it by studying the properties of human language. On this approach, language, as a whole, is composed of units which combine at different levels: the composition of sounds into words; the composition of words into phrases and sentences, the literal meanings of the phrases and sentences, and the meanings of sentences in particular contexts of use. This approach to the study of language encourages to take courses in psychology and philosophy and to work in labs dedicated to the study of verbal behavior.
The linguistics department offers courses on the general principles of language taught by leading scholars in their respective fields, as well as a broad variety of courses focused on the study of particular languages: Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, and a variety of Ethiopian languages) and neighboring language such as Ancient Egyptian; Indo-European languages (Romance, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic and Celtic varieties). Students may also take language courses given throughout the Faculty of Humanities, such as Yiddish, Ladino or Neo-Aramaic, or languages representing other cultures such as Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Persian, Quechua, Turkish, and a variety of languages spoken in India.