About the field
Linguistics, the scientific study of language, is perhaps the ultimate interdisciplinary enterprise, cutting across the humanities, social sciences, cognitive sciences, physical sciences, and biological sciences. Since it is not taught in high school, most undergraduates, including many future Linguistics concentrators, only "discover" linguistics after they come to college. Some are intrigued by the prospect of discovering formal rules to model a complex form of behavior like language; others are interested in the relationship of natural languages to other symbolic systems; still others are curious about similarities and differences they have noticed among individual languages. In exploring these and similar topics, students of linguistics not only learn a great deal about a fascinating field; they also master a variety of conceptual and empirical techniques that stand them in good stead after graduation.
The Department understands that undergraduates are interested in linguistics for a variety of reasons. Some plan to pursue graduate studies in linguistics or a related discipline; some plan to go on to professional work: and some see a concentration in Linguistics as interesting and valuable intellectually, but do not base their future vocational plans upon it. The Department has kept all of these considerations in mind in designing its course offerings and concentration requirements. Recent Harvard Linguistics concentrators have gone on to graduate school in linguistics, mathematics, computer science, cognitive science, English, and music; to medical school, law school, and business school; and into employment fields as diverse as editing, writing, translating, and language-processing software design.
Modern linguistic theory attempts to characterize a very complex domain of human knowledge, and is thus an area of central concern to philosophers of mind as well as to cognitive psychologists. Furthermore, since the models of language constructed by theoretical linguists are formal in character and inspired by computational and mathematical methodologies, linguistics has a mutually beneficial relationship with computer science and the study of artificial intelligence. Linguistics also offers a firm understanding of the nature of language to literary scholars and language teachers. Finally, since languages are cultural artifacts, the reconstruction of an extinct language can shed light on the physical surroundings and the social institutions of its speakers, making linguistics a topic of interest to anthropologists, sociologists, and archaeologists.
The courses offered by the Department of Linguistics reflect the extraordinary diversity of the field. The emphases are on linguistic theory, historical linguistics, and the cognitive aspects related to language.