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Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics

If you are interested in getting a broader overview of the key concepts in linguistics so that you can take your own analysis a little deeper, you're in the right place! Additionally, if you intend on studying English language and linguistics at university, these topics will give you a good idea of what potentially lies ahead.

This article is by no means an exhaustive list of all the key concepts in language and linguistics, but it is a compilation of concepts and theories that will prepare you for your next steps and may also be helpful for you to show off some more in-depth knowledge of language and power, language and technology, and media linguistics in your exams and essays.

Basic terms and concepts in linguistics

There are many terms and ideas that are important for you to know in the context of your study of English Language, however, in this article, we'll be focusing on the ones surrounding the Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics.

What do we mean when we say 'concepts' relating to language and linguistics?

Linguistic concepts examples

While there are many linguistic concepts that we could talk about, these are some key ones, and are the ones covered in this article:

Language and power

It’s important to remember that language not only comprises words and grammar. Language is also a carrier of meaning, culture, and power.

Many theorists have examined the ways in which language is used to create or maintain power and influence others within society, and two of the most influential are Michel Foucault and Norman Fairclough.

According to Wareing (1999), there are three main types of power:¹

  • Political power: power held by people with authority, such as politicians and the police.

  • Personal power: power based on an individual's occupation or role in society. For example, a headteacher would likely hold more power than a teaching assistant.

  • Social group power: power held by a group of people due to certain social factors, such as class, ethnicity, gender, or age.

These types of power can be categorised as instrumental power, influential power, or both:

  • Instrumental power: this is authoritative power held by those in high-up positions in society. They have power because of who they are. A good example of someone with instrumental power is Queen Elizabeth II.

  • Influential power: this refers to when a person (or group of people) doesn’t necessarily have any authoritative power (yet!) but is trying to gain influence over others. In this case, they might use different language techniques to appear powerful and persuasive.

Politicians are a good example of people who have both instrumental and influential power – they have authoritative power as members of parliament but are still trying to convince others to continue voting for them and their policies.

So, how can language be used to create power, exactly? Let’s take a look at some of the language techniques and features used:

  • Lexical choice, e.g., using emotive or figurative language to evoke strong feelings.

  • Grammar, e.g., using imperative sentences to create a sense of urgency and rhetorical questions to connect with the audience.

  • Phonology, e.g., using alliteration and prosodic features (intonation, stress, pauses, and rhythm) to attract the listener.

Examples of language and power

To help consolidate this topic, let's look at some examples:

The company, Nike, famously advertises their products using the imperative sentence, 'Just do it', to create a sense of influential power over potential customers. Imperative sentences are demanding and don't leave much space for questioning. By using imperatives, companies attempt to influence people to act in certain ways that eventually lead to them buying the companies' products.

This slogan may also make the listener feel as if Nike is talking to them directly. This type of direct communication is what Fairclough (1989) describes as synthetic personalisation, a technique big corporations used to create a sense of 'friendship' with their potential customers.²

Other places you can see examples of language being used to create or maintain power are:

  • In the media

  • The news

  • Advertising

  • Politics

  • Speeches

  • Education

  • Law

  • Religion

Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics: Critical discourse analysis (CDA)

When discussing language and power, we usually want to analyse the discourse (this could be written or spoken text or images) to see what techniques have been used to create a sense of power. This process is called critical discourse analysis (CDA). When conducting CDA, it is important to look closely at the text's context and consider who is saying what and why.

According to Fairclough, the analysis of language and power can be split into two disciplines:²

  • Power in discourse: the lexicon, strategies, and language structures used to create power

  • Power behind discourse: the sociological and ideological reasons behind who is asserting power over others and why.

CDA is an approach, not a theory! There is no set way to conduct critical discourse analysis, and your approach will depend on the text you're analysing and what your objectives are.

When conducting CDA, we should place the text into its wider context and try asking the following questions:

  • Who wrote this text, and who is it intended for?

  • What narrative is being promoted?

  • Who benefits from this text? Who is marginalised by it?

  • Is the evidence credible?

  • What ideas are normalised by this discourse?

  • Where is the power in the discourse? Where is the power behind the discourse?

Language and technology

You're likely already aware that language and technology are pretty intertwined! But, how exactly does technology shape the language we use, and is it impacting our identities?

Think about the language you use when you’re instant messaging someone; does it differ from your writing in real life? Come to mention it, when was the last time you wrote something that didn’t involve technology somehow?

The discipline of language and technology looks at how technology has shaped and influenced our language. It also considers the social practices surrounding language use in technology, such as phone etiquette or even emoji etiquette. I’m sure many of you have received an emoji from an older relative that was a little questionable because they didn’t know the generally accepted meaning for that emoji. Linguists examining language and technology would be interested in why emojis take on specific meanings, why these change over time, and how we use emojis to express ourselves and our identities.

Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics, Image of emojis, StudySmarterEmojis can be used to express ourselves (Pixabay)

The linguists Caroline Tagg and Philip Seargeant (2014) examined communication on social media, focussing on the relationship between language use online and identity perception.³ Tagg and Seargeant found that, because of the rise of social media, it is now easier than ever to communicate with people from all over the world, which inevitably influences our speech and the ways we perceive ourselves and others. They also found that social media makes it easier for us to adapt and change our identities according to how we wish to present ourselves to the rest of the world.

Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics: Multimodality

Multimodality refers to the use of more than one mode of communication to create meaning.

An online blog would likely use written text, images, different colours, videos, and links to external websites.

When we talk about multimodality, we take two things into account: modes and mediums.

  • Modes: how we communicate ideas and meaning with others, e.g., through text, images, colours, videos, layout.

  • Mediums: this refers to where meaning is communicated or, in other words, the places in which modes can be seen by people, e.g., books, newspapers, blogs, movies etc.

In terms of language and technology, it is vital to recognise multimodality and how different modes of communication work together to create meaning, as technology has made it easier than ever to integrate and use multiple different modes.

Although multimodal communication isn’t new, multimodal discourse analysis is a relatively recent concept. Multimodal discourse analysis examines all the different modes used within a medium and how they interact with each other to create meaning.

Media linguistics

Media linguistics is closely related to the previous two disciplines: language and power, and language and technology. However, the focus of media linguistics is on the language used in mass media and its influence on our language.

Mass media: a collective term for all the different media outlets that reach a large audience in a reasonably short period of time, e.g., TV, newspapers, and blogs.

Media linguistics is a new discipline, but it is growing rapidly thanks to the vast expansion of media we now consume. In the past, people would likely read the newspaper, see some adverts here and there, and choose what to watch from 4 different TV channels. Today, most of us use social media daily, see adverts pretty much everywhere we look, and have thousands of TV shows and movies available to us with only the touch of a button.

Media linguistics is primarily centred around the critical analysis of media text.

Media text comprises the traditional linguistic definition of text (written and spoken language), as well as things such as images, videos, colours, symbolism, music, and non-verbal communication such as hand gestures.

The analysis of media text requires a critical and semiotic approach, which takes multimodality into account.

When analysing media text, semiotic analysis is pretty important! Semiotic analysis is a critical analysis of text, imagery, sound, and symbolism. Semiotic analysis considers the meaning that is created as a result of the combination of all the different modes, considering the denotative (literal) meaning and the connotative (inferred or associated) meaning.

The colour blue:

  • Denotative meaning: a primary colour.
  • Connotative meaning: feelings of sadness.

So, why would people want to analyse media texts critically? Mass media can be used to create or maintain ‘common knowledge’ that benefits certain members of society and marginalises others. Analysing media texts could expose this and help us as a society understand how and why this is happening. One example of this would be analysing a film to examine the use of negative stereotypes.

Differentiate the basic concepts of language and linguistics

Although the terms 'language' and 'linguistics' are often used synonymously (and do have some similar applications), they are not the same thing, so let's look at each definition:

  • 'Language' refers to a mode of communication used by people to interact socially as well as express our needs, desires, and thoughts. 'Language' can also refer to 'languages' such as English, French, Thai, and Zulu (etc).

Whereas:

  • 'Linguistics' refers to the branch of study and research that looks at languages, how they are used, and what effects different factors can have on them.

Similarities between language and linguistics

  • Both terms refer to and deal with human communication.
  • The fact that the two concepts are so closely intertwined means that your knowledge of one will facilitate your understanding of the other.
  • It is important that you understand both terms throughout your study of A-level English Language.

Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics - Key takeaways

  • Studying language and power involves analysing how language is used to create or maintain power within society. Key theorists include Michel Foucault and Norman Fairclough.
  • Studying language and technology involves analysing how technology has shaped and influenced our language use and considering the social practices surrounding language and technology, such as emoji etiquette.
  • Media linguistics is a fairly new discipline interested in the language used in mass media and its influence on our language.
  • Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is an approach used to critically examine the use of language in the creation of power.

References

  1. L. Thomas & S. Wareing, Language, Society and Power: An Introduction, 1999.
  2. N. Fairclough, Language and Power, 1989.
  3. P. Sergeant & C. Tagg, The Language of Social Media, 2014.

Frequently Asked Questions about Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics

There are many different concepts within the field of linguistics, these include language and power, language and technology, media linguistics, and many more!

Key 'levels of language' include syntax, semantics, pragmatics, morphology, phonetics and phonology.

Language is an important tool for communication. It’s important to remember that language not only comprises words and grammar, but is also a carrier of meaning, culture, and power.

Key components of language include:

  • syntax
  • semantics
  • pragmatics
  • morphology
  • phonetics
  • phonology


These components can be used for various reasons including to express ourselves online, create power, create multimodal texts, and much more. 

Final Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics Quiz

Question

What is multimodality?

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Answer

The use of more than one mode of communication in a text to create meaning. 

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Question

What are modes?

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Answer

Different ways in which we can create meaning.

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Question

What are the different types of modes?

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Answer

The different types of modes include: linguistic, visual, aural, gestural, and spatial.

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Question

Which of the following is not a type of mode?


A. Aural

B. Digital

C. Visual


Show answer

Answer

B. Digital

Show question

Question

Multimodal texts always contain all five modes of communication.


True or false?

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Answer

False.


A multimodal text can contain two or more modes. It does not need to have all five.

Show question

Question

What does the linguistic mode refer to?

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Answer

The meaning of spoken or written language.

Show question

Question

Which mode is the most commonly used?

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Answer

Linguistic mode.

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Question

What does the visual mode refer to?

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Answer

The meaning of what can be seen by a viewer.

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Question

What does the aural mode refer to?

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Answer

The meaning of what can be heard by a listener.

Show question

Question

What is the focus of the gestural mode?

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Answer

The meaning of communication through movement.

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Question

What is the focus of the spatial mode?

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Answer

The meaning of communication through physical layout.

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Question

What are mediums?

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Answer

The forms in which the different modes are carried; the ways modes can be accessed.

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Question

Texts can only have one medium.


True or false?

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Answer

False.


Texts can have more than one medium (e.g. online newspapers).

Show question

Question

What do multimodal teaching methods refer to?

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Answer

 Different ways of teaching that use different sensory modes.

Show question

Question

What are the four modes of multimodal learning?

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Answer

Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, reading/writing

Show question

Question

According to Wareing, what are the three main types of power?

Show answer

Answer

Political, personal, and social group power.

Show question

Question

Power can either be instrumental or _________?

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Answer

Influential.

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Question

True or false: politicians typically hold both instrumental and influential power?

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Answer

True.

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Question

What is political rhetoric?

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Answer

The use of language strategies to effectively create persuasive arguments in political debates. 

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Question

In a conversation, who is more likely to change the direction of the conversation, the dominant or the submissive participant?

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Answer

The dominant participant. 

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Question

Name three phonological language features used to create a sense of power.

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Answer

Alliteration, assonance, and change in intonation. 

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Question

What is ‘synthetic personalisation’?

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Answer

A technique large corporations use to create a sense of friendship between themselves and their potential customers by addressing them on a personal level.

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Question

According to Fairclough, what is power in discourse?

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Answer

The sociological and ideological reasons behind who is asserting power over others and why.

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Question

Who created the Politeness Theory?

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Answer

Brown and Levinson.

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Who is more likely to flout Grice’s maxims, those with more or less power?

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Answer

Those with more power.

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Question

What are the 4 main types of mass communication?

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Answer

Print, broadcast, transit and digital 

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Question

What are the different types of codes in media language?

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Answer

symbolic, technical, written

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Question

What model can be used to describe how communication travels from one person/place to another?

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Answer

The linear model

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Question

What is stereotypical language?

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Answer

Stereotypical language refers to the language used to make preconceived judgements or assumptions about a person or group of people.

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Question

Why do we use stereotypes?

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Answer

We use stereotypes to make generalised assumptions about groups of people in order to simplify the world around us.

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What are some different types of stereotypes?

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Answer

Cultural, social, racial, gender, and religious.

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Question

Fill in the blanks:


The use of stereotypes in the media is an effective way to present a _____ view of groups of people which is _____ for the audience to understand.

Show answer

Answer

simplified

easy

Show question

Question

Choose the best definition of discourse in accordance with Foucault.

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Answer

The use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truths.

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Question

True or false: a newspaper headline is an example of discourse.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What factors can affect a person’s perceived power?

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Answer

  • Socio-economic status (wealth and class)

  • Occupation

  • Education level

  • Gender

  • Ethnicity and race

Show question

Question

Foucault was associated with the Structuralist movement and which other movement?

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Answer

The Post-structuralist movement. 

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Question

What are the four main modes of power recognised by Foucault?

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Answer

  • Sovereign power
  • Disciplinary power
  • Pastoral power
  • Bio-power

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Question

Which mode of power do we exercise over ourselves in order to fit into the 'norm'?

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Answer

Disciplinary power.

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Question

What is Foucauldian discourse analysis?

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Answer

A form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language.

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Question

Which type of power is held by people in positions of authority?

Show answer

Answer

Sovereign power.

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Question

True or false, Foucault believed there are absolute truths in the world?

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Answer

False. Foucault believed 'truths' are constructed with language.

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Question

What is the main aim of conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis?

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Answer

To expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppresses, and marginalises members of society.

Show question

Question

What do gender stereotypes refer to?

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Answer

Assumptions made about the characteristics of different genders. 

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Question

What do religious stereotypes refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Preconceived beliefs of particular people in different religions. 

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Question

What do racial stereotypes refer to?

Show answer

Answer

The assumed characteristics of a particular race.

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Question

What do social stereotypes refer to?

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Answer

Preconceived ideas of people in different social groups.

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Question

What do cultural stereotypes refer to?

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Answer

Broad generalisations of people from different cultures in different countries.

Show question

Question

All stereotypes are understood globally.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


Not all stereotypes are understood globally.

Show question

Question

Stereotypes are often untrue.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks:


Stereotyping can _____ the differences between people and ______ someone's uniqueness.

Show answer

Answer

simplify

undermine

Show question

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