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Module 2: Linguistics

Linguistics is the study of language and its structure, and is an invaluable tool for
individuals who are trying to learn a new language. As we begin to think about how we
are going to help our students read, write, speak, and listen to a new language, we
need to prepare to give them the basics in structure that will help them understand the
overall structure of the English language. In this module, we will discuss all of the major
aspects of linguistics, including phonology, lexicology, morphology, syntax, phonetics,
and semantics. By studying these concepts yourself, you will be better prepared to help
your students learn them in the future.

Module 2: Linguistics

2.1 Phonology

2.2 Morphology

2.3 Lexicology

2.4 Syntax

2.5 Semantics

2.1 Phonology
Phonology is the study of the sound and structure of a language. Essentially, phonology
concerns itself with the mental representation of a sound, so understanding phonology
means that you understand how to break down a word into its smaller sounds and
pronounce it. This can help students tremendously in learning English for the first time
because it gives them a great tool for breaking down new words and pronouncing words
that they have not necessarily seen before. Let’s take a look at some of the basic
concepts within phonology.

2.1.1 Basics of phonology

You can’t study phonology without discussing phonetics, but for the purposes of this
course, phonology is more important. Phonology deals with how we mentally break
down the pronunciation of words, while phonetics deals with producing the sounds;
therefore, phonology is more relevant for people who are learning a new language, not
learning spoken language for the first time. 

In phonology, words are broken down into smaller units that represent sounds to make
it easier for new learners to understand how to pronounce new words. If students
understand the common sound units in the English language, they will be able to sound
out most words, making language acquisition much more comfortable. Here is a
breakdown of some of those units of sound: 

Phonemes: A phoneme is a unit of sound that when replaced changes the sound of a

word in a particular language. English is a complicated language for people to learn
because even though there are twenty-six letters, there are forty-four phonemes. These
phonemes represent all iterations of sounds that a letter can make. For example, a “c”
can sound like a “k” or an “s,” depending on its position in a word. If an individual
understands phonemes, he or she will understand all the different sounds in the English
language. Phonemes are broken down into two categories: vowels and consonants.

Vowels: A vowel is an open sound that is spoken without blockage from the lips or
tongue. Vowels can be difficult because they are very versatile and shift and change a
lot depending on the word in which they appear. Vowels are typically broken down into
the following categories:

 Single vowels
 Short vowels
 Schwa
 Long vowels
 Diphthongs

Consonants: Consonants are sounds that are spoken with obstruction from the lips,
teeth, or tongue. Just like vowels, they can be complicated to understand because there
are so many variations of similar sounds. Consonants can be broken down into the
following categories:

 Voiced consonants
 Unvoiced consonants

Minimal pair: Two words that differ in meaning because they contain one phoneme that
is different are called minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are often words that rhyme or at least
form a near rhyme.

Phone: A phone is the smallest unit of sound and refers to the way in which an
individual pronounces a sound. It can therefore exist in more than one language. This is
different from a phoneme, which refers specifically to the sound that is assigned to a
letter or group of letters in a given language. For this reason, phones can be universal
to all languages, while phonemes are specific to individual languages.

Accents: When a syllable or sound within a word is given more attention than the
others. This changes the way an individual pronounces a word.

 Stress accent, dynamic accent, or stress: When an accented syllable is given

a change in pitch and volume, it is referred by any of these three names.
 Pitch accent: When the accented syllable is differentiated through a change in
only the pitch which it is pronounced.
 Quantitative accent: When the accented syllable is differentiated through only a
lengthening of the syllable.

Intonations: A change in the pitch of a word or syllable that does not change the
meaning of the word or syllable but rather indicates any of a number of different
situations, including:

 Revealing the feelings of the speaker.

 Identifying the phrase as a question or distinguishing between different types of
 Giving importance to a word or phrase in the statement or question.

2.2 Morphology
Morphology is very closely related to phonology in that it is concerned with the structure
of language. Specifically, however, morphology deals with the structure of language
morphemes, phonemes, and other linguistic units. The English language relies heavily
on morphology, especially regarding English language acquisition. Understanding the
morphological relationship between two words can help an individual recognize a similar
morphological relationship between two different words, which helps them better
understand new words and phrases. For example, if an individual can recognize the
morphological relationship between the words “heart” and “monitor” in the phrase “heart
monitor,” then he or she can use that to understand other complex nouns. Using this
knowledge, an English language learner can take an educated guess to determine what
the phrase “hall monitor” means.

2.2.1 Basics of morphology

To truly understand morphology, one must fully understand morphemes, which are the
basis of the area of study. While phonemes refer to the sounds that make up the
structure of words, morphemes are the physical structural units in a word.

Morphemes: Morphemes are sometimes referred to as the smallest linguistic unit that

carries meaning. While phonemes are smaller, they essentially build towards
pronunciation rather than meaning. Breaking a word into its morphemes allows an
individual to separate and (better understand) the root words, prefixes, and suffixes.
Here is an example:

In the sentence, “Send these schematics down to the marketers.” the word,
“marketers” has 3 morphemes.

Morpheme 1: Market. The root of the word that carries the major meaning of the word.
This word could stand alone and make sense if it needed to (though not in the sentence
we plucked it from). This morpheme is called the free lexical morpheme.
Morpheme 2: -er. This is the suffix that is added to the word, carrying with it the
inherent meaning of “one who does something.” Understanding the suffix allows a
student to understand that a marketer is one who markets. This morpheme is called the
bound lexical morpheme.

Morpheme 3: -s. This letter is added so that the amount is clear and that the word fits
in the sentence grammatically with the intended meaning. The sentence would still
make sense without this morpheme, but it would change the meaning. This morpheme
is called the bound grammatical morpheme.

In the above example, we discussed some classifications for morphemes. Let’s look
closer at these.

Free lexical morpheme: This term is used to describe a morpheme that can exist on its
own and make sense. In the previous example, the free lexical morpheme was
“market.” Alone, “market” is a word. Conversely, “er” is not a word that can exist on its
own and still make sense. While in this case the free lexical morpheme was the root
word, it does not have to be. The word “classroom” is composed of two free lexical
morphemes—“class” and “room.”

Bound lexical morpheme: This term is used to describe a morpheme that is bound to

another morpheme lexically and cannot make sense without it. This term often refers to
prefixes and suffixes that are added to words to adjust their meaning. These
morphemes cannot function alone and serve to simply modify the meaning of the free
lexical morpheme to which they are attached.

Bound grammatical morpheme: This term is used to describe a morpheme that is

bound to another morpheme and serves the purpose of helping its word fit into a
sentence grammatically. In the following example, notice the importance of the bound
grammatical morpheme (we will use “s” in the same way we used it in the previous
example). In the phrase, “John threw two balls to Mike,” the “s” in the word “balls” is the
bound grammatical morpheme. The sentence would not make grammatical sense
without it, as it would read “John threw two ball at Mike.”

Free grammatical morpheme: While we did not clearly identify this in the previous
examples, free grammatical morpheme is a term used to describe morphemes that are
not bound to other morphemes but are there to serve a grammatical purpose. Usually,
these words are articles, conjunctions, and prepositions. In the sentence above, “John
threw the ball at Mike,” “at” is a free grammatical morpheme.

Understanding these basic concepts can help a new language learner get a sense of
how a language is structured and help them be able to make connections and learn new
words and phrases more easily.
2.3 Lexicology
Lexicology is the study of words and therefore includes elements of many other aspects
of linguistics that we will discuss in this module. When we study words in lexicology, we
look closely at how words are formed, what makes them different from other words,
uniform rules that affect usage and/or conjugation, and the different connotations and
meanings of synonyms. All of these ideas will help your students move from
understanding the sounds that make up the English language to understanding the
words that make up the English language. Here is an overview of some of the basic
principles of lexicology and its associated vocabulary:

2.3.1 Basics of lexicology

To understand lexicology, it is important to break it down into its smaller parts to look at
how each works to create the overall study of lexicology. A clear understanding of
lexicology and its basic principles and terminology will help you and your students find
more success by easing their understanding of words and their function within a

Lexeme: A lexeme is a lexicological unit of linguistics, which, for the most part, refers to
a root word. The lexeme is the part of a word (even if that is the whole word) that
imparts the most meaning, with conjugation or prefixes and suffixes added to adjust the
meaning. In other words, the word “snow” is a lexeme, and all iterations of that word,
such as “snows,” “snowed”, or “snowing,” all share this same lexeme. By breaking down
words to their roots, students can better break down new words, connect to a word’s
etymology, or even find a cognate they can relate to. 

Lexical items: Whereas a lexeme is the root of a word, a lexical item is the entirety of a
word or phrase that imparts meaning. In our previous example, we mentioned that
“snows,” “snowed,” and “snowing” all have the same lexeme, which is “snow.” In that
example, all of those words are different lexical items. A lexical item can also be a
combination of words, such as “class work,” or a phrase, such as “in the way.”
Essentially, lexical items are the units in a sentence that have separate meaning.

Word forms: The term “word forms” encompasses all the iterations of a similar lexeme.
In other words, some word forms of the lexeme “go” are “goes,” “went,” and “will go.”
This term is used to describe the different conjugations of a verb, the different tenses of
a word, or the different forms of a word based on amount.

Another important idea that would be helpful to know is that lexicology also
encompasses lexical structure, which deals with the structure of words and their parts.
Let’s take a closer look at lexical structure:

Lexical structure: Lexical structure refers to the internal structure of lexemes as well

as the structure of the lexicon of a language. The “lexicon” is just a fancy term for all of
the words in a group.
 Paradigms: Differences in meaning that rely on the substitution of words. In
other words, if you look closely at a phrase, such as “Bill ran to his truck,” making
a paradigmatic change would require a substitution. This would result in a
different phrase, for example, “Bill ran to his wife” or “Frank ran to his truck.”
These changes completely change the meaning of the sentence because
different subjects and objects can be substituted. 

 Syntagms: These are differences that result from the positioning of words in a

phrase. In other words, to make a syntagmatic change in a sentence, you would
change the order of the words to adjust the meaning of the sentence. For
example, if the sentence “Johnny threw the ball to Mary” is changed to “Mary
threw the ball to Johnny,” then the difference is syntagmatic.

Co-text: We will discuss semantic ideas in detail later in the module, but this term is
relevant to both aspects of linguistics. The co-text of a word is the linguistic context,
which means that it is the linguistic meaning of a word or the meaning that a word
inherently carries with it.

Context: Context is another semantic term but also a concept that even laymen know.
The context of a word is the words and sentences around it that give it meaning.
Whereas co-text covers the various meanings that can be attributed to a word, the
context refers to the specific meaning of the word that is intended based on the
surrounding words and sentences.

2.4 Syntax
Now that we have learned about how sounds and words are created, it is time to
discuss how sentences are formed. Syntax is the set of rules that govern the
grammatical construction of sentences in a language. For English, these rules are fairly
complicated, but let’s take a close look at some of the basic ideas behind English
grammar and syntax.

2.4.1 Basics of syntax

To understand syntax, we have to look more closely at all of the parts that make up a
sentence. The first step is to understand how sentences are classified:

Clausal sentence (simple sentence): A clausal sentence is a simple sentence that

contains only one clause or one complete proposition (subject and predicate). For
example, the sentence “Gloria is going to the store” contains only one clause, which
includes a subject (“Gloria), a verb (“is going”), and an object (“the store”).

Compound sentence: A compound sentence is a sentence that consists of more than

one clause (known in this case as coordinating clauses because they work together to
complete an idea). For example, the sentence “Maryann went to the mall and got a new
shirt” is a compound sentence containing the clauses “Maryann went to the mall” and
“got a new shirt.” In the second clause, the subject (“Maryann) is implicit.

What about the words that make up these clauses? The English language has
innumerable rules for how words should be structured and organized within a sentence.
The first categories you need to know to understand these rules, though, are the parts
of speech.

 Noun: A noun is word that describes a person, place, thing, or idea.

 Verb: A verb describes an action or a state of being.
 Adjective: An adjective is a word that modifies a noun.
 Adverb: An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another
 Preposition: A preposition is a word that describes the relationship between a
verb and its object.
 Pronoun: A pronoun is a more general word that takes the place of a specific
 Conjunction: A conjunction is a word that links two coordinating clauses

Now that we know the parts of speech, we can begin diagramming sentences. Here is
an example of a sentence with all of the parts of speech labeled:

Lei quickly ran down the dark street to find and catch his dog.

Lei Noun
quickly Adverb
ran Verb
down Preposition
the Adjective (article)
dark Adjective
street Noun
to Preposition
find Verb
and Conjunction
catch Verb
his Pronoun
dog Noun
While it would be impossible for us to cover every single syntactical rule in the English
language, here are a few more that are directly relevant to your students who are
learning English for the first time:

 Every sentence needs at least a subject and a predicate. The subject of the

sentence is the noun that is acting or being. The predicate is the phrase that
consists of the verb and the object (not every sentence needs an explicit object).

 The verb and the subject of the sentence need to agree, meaning that if you are
using a plural noun, you need to use the plural form of a verb.

 For the most part, the best way to frame a sentence is in active rather than
passive voice. This means that the sentence “Sammy threw the ball to Jane” is
more grammatically sound than if it were passive and written “The ball was
thrown to Jane by Sammy.”

 Verb tense needs to agree throughout a piece of writing or spoken language. If

the first verb you use is in past tense, then all subsequent verbs with the same
intention should be past tense.

2.5 Semantics
We have successfully worked our way up to understanding how sentences are
structured, and now it is time to discuss words again, but this time we will look at the
connotative and complex meanings that they carry. Semantics is a branch of linguistics
that involves the study of words and their meanings. 

2.5.1 Theories of semantics

Typically, the concept of semantics is divided into three theories of semantics: formal

semantics, lexical semantics, and conceptual semantics. Each of these types of
semantics delves into the true meanings of words and will help your students
understand the intricacies of the English language.

Formal semantics: Formal semantics is a very mathematical theory that strives to

understand the meaning of words by forming exact mathematical principles and ideals
that speakers and writers can use. People who subscribe to the formal semantics theory
look for the relationship between how language forms and the world in which it forms to
try to understand how people create meaningful discourse.

Lexical semantics: Lexical semantics is a theory that the meaning of a word is

understood by looking at its context. In this   way, sentences can be broken down into
semantic constituents or words and phrases that carry meaning and context. This
theory promotes the analysis of how words and phrases play off each other to build
Conceptual semantics: Conceptual semantics is a theory that highlights the
importance of the internal structure of words. Theorists believe that the best way to
understand the meaning of a word in a sentence is to look at the word itself, its internal
structure, and how it combines different, smaller elements.

2.5.1 Extending word meaning

Truly understanding the English language means understanding the complexities of the

language that allow speakers of the language to build different layers of meaning in their
speech. Understanding these complexities takes a strong grasp of semantics and the
ability to analyze context. When we talk about word meaning, we can generally break it
down into two categories:

Denotation: Denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word. You can easily find the
denotation for a word in the dictionary. With synonyms, the denotation is similar or the

Connotation: Connotation refers to the implied meaning that the word often has

because the word is used to describe something beyond what the denotation states.
Take a look at two synonyms, such as “skinny” and “thin.” If you use these two words to
describe a person, their denotations are pretty much the same, but the connotation
behind “skinny” is more negative than the connotation behind “thin.” Thin implies
someone who is at a healthy weight, while skinny implies that the person is frail or
weak. It takes true understanding of a language to get such small, but important
complexities of meaning.

Because of the complexity of language, speakers and writers can build meaning that is
implicit rather than explicit and sometimes difficult to decipher even for the most fluent
English speaker.

Literal language: Literal language is when a speaker or writer directly describes what

they mean.

Figurative language: When the writer builds meaning that goes beyond the literal
meaning. Here are some examples of figurative language:

 Metaphors
 Similes
 Personification
 Irony
 Symbolism

2.5.3 More semantic terminology

 Beyond what we already described are important terms within the study of
semantics you should be aware of.
 Synonymy: This word literally translates to “sameness of meaning” and is the root
of the word “synonym.” As we displayed in our discussion of connotation, however,
while two words can be synonyms, they do not necessarily mean the same thing. If
two words meant exactly the same thing, then one would be extraneous.
Synonyms are necessary because they represent the detail and specificity of the
English language.
 Hyponymy: This term literally translates to “inclusion of meaning” and essentially
refers to words that belong in groups. A fork is a hyponym of silverware because it
is a member of the silverware group.
 Antonymy: This term literally translates to “oppositeness of meaning,” which
means that antonyms are meant to be opposites. It is very difficult to find an exact
antonym for most words, however, so words are often paired up because they’re
close to being antonyms, much like how synonyms have similar but not exact
 Incompatibility: This term literally translates to “mutual exclusiveness within the
same subordinate category,” which means    that it refers to two members of a
group that are different entities. For example, cats and dogs are both animals, so
they would fit under the purview of this term.
 Homonymy: This is a term that refers to when two words sound the same even
though they have different meanings. These can be especially confusing to new
language learners because they require a strong idea of context to identify. A
good example of a group of homonyms is “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”
 Polysemy: This term refers to when a word has more than one meaning. This is
different from a homonym because the spelling of the word does not change
depending on the meaning. For example, the word “close” can refer to two items
that are in near proximity to each other, or it can refer to something being shut.