Language is arguably our most crucially human attribute, and Linguistics is the systematic study of human language.
It is a very wide-ranging subject. It covers both topics traditionally viewed as 'arts'-oriented and topics with more of a 'science' flavour. The former includes: language in society, language variation and what happens when languages come into contact with one another (socio-linguistics); language change over time (historical linguistics); how meaning is conveyed (semantics and pragmatics).
More 'science'-oriented topics include: how sounds are produced and perceived and what the speech signal actually looks like when it is subjected to acoustic analysis (phonetics); what 'goes wrong' when speakers produce speech errors, when someone suffers some form of language impairment, or when children are deprived of the input they require to acquire language successfully (psycho-linguistics); the ways in which languages can and can't differ from one another (typology and generative linguistics); to what extent we can think of a language faculty in biological terms (bio-linguistics); and how computers can be programmed to replicate aspects of human language production and comprehension (computational linguistics).
People are often struck by the seemingly limitless differences between the world's languages, and these are also of great interest to linguists; beyond that, though, linguists also aim to discover the deeper properties that languages share, possibly with a view to gaining greater insight into the structure of the human mind.
The Linguistics course is divided into a one-year Part I and a two-year Part II, sub-divided into Parts IIA and IIB. Part I, where you follow four courses (focusing on sounds and words; structures and meanings; language, brain, and society; and the history and varieties of English, respectively) provides a foundation across the wide range of Linguistics taught within the Department.
Part II allows you to specialise in the areas which particularly interested you in Part I (options include Phonetics, Phonology and Morphology, Syntax, Semantics and Pragmatics, Historical Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, Language Acquisition, the History of English and the History of French) or to pursue new options such as Computational Linguistics, History of Ideas on Language or Language Typology.
Additionally, there is also, in both Parts IIA and IIB, a wide choice of courses taught beyond the Department, the latter including the linguistics of particular languages. Part IIB includes an individual research element as students are required to write a dissertation on a linguistic topic of their choice, and it also features a “big picture” paper which gives students the opportunity to think about some of the Big Questions in Linguistics in relation to the specific ideas they have encountered on courses taken during the Tripos.
More information about the structure of the course can be found on the Linguistics Department website.
Changing to Linguistics from another Tripos
Linguistics is also available as a Part II subject for students who decide they would like to study Linguistics after having completed at least a year in another degree subject. There are a range of entry routes into Linguistics, the most common being via Modern and Medieval Languages (MML). In recent years, the Department has, however, also attracted successful linguists from, among others, English, Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic, Classics, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Philosophy, History, Music, Education, Law, Land Economy, HSPS, Maths, Biology and Engineering. Linguistics papers can also be borrowed into certain other Triposes (MML, English, Classics and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies), allowing students to pursue their specific language interests while learning more about language more generally.
Like a number of smaller subjects at Magdalene, we do not have specific target numbers of undergraduates for Linguistics. Applicants are selected on the basis of ability and potential. If you have a strong academic background and an interest in the study of language, we would welcome an application from you. You should feel free to contact the College's Director of Studies in Linguistics, Dr Theresa Biberauer, to find out more about the course, or about studying the subject at Magdalene.
Part of the appeal of Linguistics is that it draws on methods and knowledge from an unusually wide range of scholarship and transcends the usual subject boundaries. For instance, the study of meaning draws on work by philosophers, whereas the part of the course concentrating on the sounds of speech takes place in our Phonetics Laboratory - here computers are used to display and analyse the speech signal using methods from physics and engineering. Historical Linguistics, in turn, draws on methods and models employed in disciplines as diverse as philology, history, cognitive science and population genetics. This variety is what makes Linguistics fascinating: at one moment you might be poring over a medieval text for evidence of how the grammar of a language has changed, and the next, learning about how the larynx creates sound energy for speech.
Linguistics graduates, like other Humanities graduates, find employment in a wide range of professions. The fact that Linguistics provides a broad interdisciplinary training, developing the ability to analyse quantitative data, construct abstract (grammatical) models, and test alternative hypotheses, means that linguistics graduates emerge with the kind of transferable intellectual skills that are highly sought after by employers. Careers for which Linguistics provides a particularly good specific preparation for vocational training include speech therapy, teaching (especially of languages), speech and language technology (developing and improving computer-based applications such as speech recognition and translation software), journalism, publishing, and even forensic linguistics (in cases where authorship or voice identity may be at issue). Familiarity with the range and essence of human languages is a huge advantage in careers where rapid learning of unfamiliar languages may be involved, such as the Diplomatic Service. The ability to construct and express logical arguments and the more general sensitivity to language that studying Linguistics brings with it also entail that linguists do very well in areas like Law.
The main requirement for studying Linguistics is a lively curiosity about the nature of language. We are looking for the most academically promising candidates (those able and willing to think for themselves, with high levels of motivation and evident enthusiasm for Linguistics generally and for the course as it is taught here in particular).
It may be that you've been struck by a language that puts its verbs in a different position in the sentence, or wondered why languages change (making Chaucer hard to understand and even earlier English seem rather more similar to modern German than to modern English, for instance), or been puzzled that automatic speech recognition software gets a perfectly clear word wrong, or realised that an utterance such as 'That's nice!' may not always signify something positive, or been excited to learn that languages as diverse as Welsh and Hindi have a common ancestor.
Basically, if you've found yourself asking 'Why?' or 'How?' in relation to language, Linguistics is likely to be for you. Because Linguistics is interdisciplinary, there is no specific A-level (or other equivalent) requirement: we welcome applicants with an outstanding academic profile, regardless of whether this is science-oriented or arts-centred. Some formal study of language, either through learning languages and/or through English Language A-level, does, however, serve as a good preparation.
There are no set subject requirements for studying Linguistics, although English Literature, Mathematics, or any language training are all useful.
Our typical offer conditions are A*AA at A-level or 41-42 in the IB with 7,7,6 at Higher Level, though each offer is individually determined and occasional variations will occur.
Interviews and Written Assessment
Interviews are another important part of the selection process. Candidates invited for interview will normally have two interviews, each usually lasting about 20-25 minutes. One will be a subject interview, with the Director of Studies in Linguistics and another linguist. The other will be a more general academic interview with two other College Fellows who may be language experts or may work in another subject.
Applicants invited for interview will also take a written assessment. The assessment for Linguistics is a Cambridge College-registered assessment. This means you will not need to register for this assessment in advance and the College will provide details directly to you. More information about the assessment (along with some sample questions) is available here. Please note that your performance in the written assessment will not be considered in isolation, but will be taken into account alongside the other elements of your application.