Chomsky's approach is characterized by the use of transformational grammar – a theory that has changed greatly since it was first promulgated by Chomsky in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures – and by the assertion of a strong linguistic nativism (and therefore an assertion that some set of fundamental characteristics of all human languages must be the same).With "nativism" comes the idea that there is a specific "module" in the brain devoted to language, which all humans have (and which other animals do not). (See Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which argues that the human brain is "hard-wired" for language.)
In contrast, functional linguistics posits that language evolved to serve a function (e.g., humans need ways to describe objects, so they invented nouns; they need ways to describe actions, so they invented verbs). Cognitive linguistics is similar and bases the study of language on the concepts that underlie its forms. Both functional and cognitive linguists reject the idea of an autonomous language module in the mind.
Below I'll outline some of the major subdisciplines of linguistics. Caveats: 1) I studied functional/cognitive linguistics and think generative linguistics is dumb. 2) Much of this may have changed in the past decade; I haven't kept up with the field.
The first things you learn in an introductory linguistics course are basic phonology and morphology.
Phonology is the study of phonemes, which are the fundamental units of the phonetic alphabet, the smallest units of sound that can be used to distinguish meaning. These do not correspond perfectly to the regular alphabet – for example, a hard C and a hard K are not two different phonemes, but a soft C (AKA an unvoiced S) and a hard K are. Generally in LING 101 (actually it was LING 200 at Rice) you learn the international phonetic alphabet and how to represent English words with it. You also learn about minimal pairs, which are used to help identify phonemes in a language. For example, "lass" and "lash" constitute a minimal pair, because the only difference is the final sound, indicating that an unvoiced S and the SH sound (a voiceless palato-alveolar fricative) are understood by English speakers to be distinct sounds, and can therefore be used to distinguish between two different words. In contrast, an aspirated p and an unaspirated p (aspiration is the little puff of air you emit from your mouth if you make the p sound at the beginning of a word) are in free variation, meaning that whether you aspirate the p at the end of "nap" or not, it still means "nap."
Morphology is the study of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in a language. These are the chunks that we build words with. Some words are morphemes (e.g., dog.) Affixes are also morphemes. The word "nondogs" contains three morphemes, non-, dog, and –s.
Phonetics is the study of the physical sounds of speech, and in my memory it involved making recordings of speech and analyzing the wave forms in a lab. Dullsville.
Historical (Diachronic) vs. Synchronic Linguistics
Diachronic linguistics is the study of languages across time (for example, how has English changed since the Norman invasion or the Great Vowel Shift?). Synchronic linguistics looks at the properties of language in a given time slice, generally the present.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive
Y'all know what this is. Linguistics aims to describe language in use, not prescribe rules to govern language.
The study of the way sentences are built (also known as grammar). One of the most basic ways to describe a language syntactically is by word order. English is an SVO language (subject-verb-object), e.g., "Sally walks the dog." Most languages in the world are SOV or SVO. Some languages put the verb first; very few languages put the object first.
The study of meaning in language. Semantics involves sitting around picking apart the differences between, say, "scurry" and "scamper." I find this shit endlessly interesting and almost went to Berkeley for grad school to study this further, so when people complain that a conversation is devolving into "quibbling over semantics," I take offense. Semantics isn't boring!
The study of social effects on language, including regional and class differences (in phonetics, syntax, etc.) and slang.
Other subfields include pragmatics, etymology, conversation analysis, anthropological linguistics, neurolinguistics, computational linguistics, corpus linguistics, language acquisition, etc.
What did you study in college? How would you describe it in 500 words?
*This post was commissioned by Christen Enos.