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At least in my mind, language can be generally considered as a sequence of paragraphs, each being a sequence of sentences, each being a sequence of words, each being a sequence of letters. I understand that there is a science for each level of this hierarchy, from graphology to rhetoric.

What are these fields? How do they connect with each other? In other words, how'd you classify each of these errors?

  1. Awirit a wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Letters are joined non-sensically)
  2. Youre a wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Letters are joined incorrectly)
  3. Your wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Word exists but is used incorrectly)
  4. You are the wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Words exist but are used incorrectly)
  5. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. (Sentence is correct but are joined nonsensically)
  6. You are a mother wonderful. I am so proud of you. (Words exist but are ordered incorrectly)
  7. You are a wonderful mother. And I am so proud of you. (Sentences are correct but joined incorrectly, at least according to Italian rules.*)
  8. You're a wonderful mother. I play tennis. (Sentences are correct but joined non-sensically)

*In Italian, sentences can't start with prepositions. I used this example for lack of better ideas, but I wrote it in English anyway for your reading pleasure.

...and what about languages like the Japanese that don't have letters as we know them to begin with?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

You are on the track of something important, but you are confusing a number of things.

The first thing to say is that language is not written language: written language is a highly divergent subset of language, with a lot of special properties not shared by language in general. Language does not have letters: it has sounds (or in the case of sign language, signs).

The levels you are talking about do exist in languages in general (except that we talk about sounds rather than letters). But there are more fundamental distinctions that can usefully be made.

Most linguists will recognise at least the following:

  • phonetics is about the actual sounds that are spoken and heard
  • phonology is about the patterns of sounds in a particular language
  • morphology is about the shapes of words in a language, and how in many languages the shape changes for different grammatical functions
  • syntax is about how a particular language puts words together to make sentences or larger structures
  • semantics is about the meanings of words
  • discourse analysis and pragmatics are about how we know what we 'mean' when we talk (eg "If you like." can mean "I don't really want to").

There are other areas of study, and different theoretical frameworks; but if you look some of these up you will get some idea.

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Thank you for putting up with my mental confusion; now I have a better picture of what linguistics actually are about. –  badp Jan 9 '13 at 17:56
    
+1 Good reminder: Languages are primarily spoken. –  Alenanno Jan 10 '13 at 18:02

See Colin Fine's response for a general answer on levels of analysis in linguistics and the object of linguistic study (i.e. not writing). I'll try to address some of your more specific questions.

In other words, how'd you classify each of these errors?

1.) Awirit a wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Letters are joined non-sensically)

Phonology studies which sound combinations you may find in an individual language. Awirit looks like a valid English sound sequence to me, but it just happens not be associated with a meaning. So let's say that if someone made such a mistake, they might have problems retrieving words from their mental lexicons. This would be a case of language pathology that might especially interest neurolinguists or psycholinguists.

2.) Youre a wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Letters are joined incorrectly)

Typo or spelling mistake. This is not within the domain of linguistics.

3.) Your wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Word exists but is used incorrectly)

Again, typo or spelling mistake, nothing to do with linguistics. You also omitted the article a here, which might be a question for semantics. Semantics defines the meaning of individual words and how they combine to give you the meaning of sentences. With your missing article in 3, semantics may tell you that it cannot form the meaning of the entire sentence.

4.) You are the wonderful mother. I am so proud of you. (Words exist but are used incorrectly)

If you're at the level of "words being joined" (as opposed to sounds being joined, as in 1), you're probably going to be talking about syntax or semantics. I'm assuming again that you're using the instead of a, which makes this similar to 3.

5.) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. (Sentence is correct but are joined nonsensically)

Again semantics. Colorless green forms a contradiction in the semantic representation of the sentence. Sleep may impose an animacy restriction on its argument which is not met by ideas.

6.) You are a mother wonderful. I am so proud of you. (Words exist but are ordered incorrectly)

Generally speaking, syntax deals with word order. Where the adjective is found relative to the noun it modifies may depend on the default ordering between heads and modifiers in any individual language.

7.) You are a wonderful mother. And I am so proud of you. (Sentences are correct but joined incorrectly, at least according to Italian rules.*)

I don't know Italian, but this sounds like a prescriptive rule to me. This is to say that people may very well say this, but it is considered "incorrect" or "uneducated". Linguistics doesn't describe how people "should" speak, but how they can/do speak.

8.) You're a wonderful mother. I play tennis. (Sentences are correct but joined non-sensically)

Discourse structure. Depending on your view, this could be dealt with in semantics, pragmatics, or separately.

...and what about languages like the Japanese that don't have letters as we know them to begin with?

Linguists don't care much about writing systems (except historical linguists, since that's all they have to work with). Japanese is very much like any other language in that it has sounds, words and utterances. To illustrate the point further, speakers of languages with no writing systems and illiterate speakers are just as interesting to linguistics as literate English or Japanese speakers.

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