Friday, 24 June 2011

Linguistics in Oman

 Linguistics. That neglected science in Oman. That forgotten science that could reveal cultural treasures  It is so neglected in Oman (and the Arab World generally) that people don’t actually know what it is. But they’re not the ones to be blamed; I too, was one of them one day. It’s tempting to blame the other ‘giant’ sciences and fields like medicine, engineering, business and IT. After all, they are the most “needed” sciences for a nation to be modernized and to catch up with the rest of the world. I agree to some extent, but do take a minute and get to know linguistics, I’m sure it’ll open its arms to  you , because every language user is a rich source of data for the field! 

People often confuse linguistics with three other fields: English Language Teaching (ELT), translation or English literature. When I hear this, I usually take the time to explain that linguistics is not any of these. And people generally feel surprised that such a science exists and they feel even more surprised that they didn’t know it before. Linguistics is the one science that studies a phenomenon that most able people take for granted: language! 

Roughly speaking applied linguistics has 6 subfields which branch out into more subfields:

Phonology:  studies the sounds of language. Ever wondered why European can’t pronounce some Arabic sounds? It’s because they don’t realize that sound in their phonological inventory.

Syntax:  concerned with the structure of language.  You need to know enough grammar to work with this one. It is in fact like the mathematics of language. It deals with constructing sentences using grammatical units as building blocks.

Discourse: studies language in context. What that specific utterances mean in that specific context. It looks at conversation as a structured, non-random activity. How is it that people are able to know when to talk and when to stop? What do interruptions mean? What do silences mean? How significant is laughter in a conversation? It explains these things through a system, a system that has an order.  Written language is also studied in discourse (although my impression is that the spoken language has been given more attention).

Psycholinguistics: studies how children acquire and develop language. It also studies how second language learners learn another language. What are the mental and psychological stages involved in this process? How do they learn to construct sentences? Is there any influence from their first language?  

Sociolinguistics: deals with language and society. Do men and women speak the same? Do old and young people speak differently? It looks at social categories like gender, age, religion, ethnicity, race, education, social class, etc. and explains language use in relation to them. It is also concerned with language change, bilingualism and multilingualism, and language and identity.

Semantics: the study of meaning. It studies the different connotations of a words. It also studies the relation between words and symbols.

There are many more branches of linguistics and this is just to give a snapshot. But to name a few:  pragmatics, etymology, philology, historical linguistics, lexicography, evolution linguistics, and the list does not stop here. 

Oman is linguistically diverse and heterogeneous. Ancient languages are spoken in Oman until today, yet they are in danger of extinction. These languages are hardly documented. Think of the cultural loss that would be lost if they are not documented and just extinct instead. Language is not simply a tool for communication nor is it just sound traveling in the air. Language tells a lot about who you are, tells a lot about the society in which it is spoken, their culture, history, present, future aspirations and politics. 

This is an informal description of linguistics and I’m not trying to market the science or claim that it is the best thing that happened to humankind. I am sharing my interest and hope to spread understanding of this ever neglected science in Oman. This blog is dedicated to linguistics and linguistically curious readers; especially in the Omani context. It’s time for linguistics to contribute to Oman just like the other flowering sciences are . It’s time for linguistics to show its face and find its place in Oman.