Language is central to our human nature, and linguistics is the systematic study of human language. On the face of it there is huge variation among the world’s languages, and linguists not only describe the diverse characteristics of individual languages but also seek to discover the deeper properties which all languages share. These common properties may give us an insight into the structure of the human mind; developing these insights is at the heart of the study of linguistics.
What to expect from linguistics
Part of the appeal of studying linguistics is that it draws on methods and knowledge from an unusually wide range of subjects. For instance, the study of meaning draws on work by philosophers, whereas the part of our 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. This variety is what makes linguistics fascinating: one day 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 speech sounds are produced in the larynx.
Here at Cambridge we have internationally acknowledged expertise across a wide range of language-related disciplines. The academic unit focusing exclusively on the study and teaching of linguistics is the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, within the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages. This means our courses, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and our research, benefit greatly from input by colleagues specialising in a wide array of areas of linguistics as well as by those working on the linguistics of particular languages in other Departments house in the MML Faculty.
The structure of the course
The Linguistics Tripos is divided into a one-year Part I and a two-year Part II, which is subdivided into Parts IIA and IIB. The first year (Part I), where you follow four lecture series, provides a foundation across a wide range of linguistics taught within the Department. The second and third year (Part II) allow you to specialise in the areas which particularly interest you (see the course outline below). There is a wide choice of topics to choose from taught by both the Department of Linguistics and other faculties and departments. For example, the linguistics of particular languages is taught in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages. Part IIB also includes an element of individual research as you write a 10,000 word dissertation on a topic of your choice.
Changing to or from Linguistics
Part II of the Linguistics Tripos is also available to undergraduates who have successfully completed Part I of another course. It may be taken as the two-year course described below or as a one-year course for those who have taken a two-year Part I. Alternatively it is possible to choose linguistics options as part of our Modern and Medieval Languages course.
The Linguistics Tripos is divided into a one-year Part I and a two-year Part II. Part I provides a foundation across a wide range of linguistics taught within the Department of Linguistics while Part II allows you to specialise in the areas which particularly interest you.
Part I (Year 1)
In Part I you take the following four papers:
- Sounds and Words
- Structures and Meanings
- Language, Brain, and Society
- History and Varieties of English
Part IIA (Year 2)
In Part IIA you take four papers chosen from a wide range of options dealing with different linguistic levels and perspectives, for example:
- Phonological Theory
- Semantics and Pragmatics
- Historical Linguistics
- History of the English language
- History of the French language
- History of Ideas on Language
- First and Second-language acquisition
- Psychology of Language Processing and Learning
- Computational Linguistics
There are around a dozen further papers to choose from, mainly dealing with the linguistics of particular languages or language families.
Part IIB (Year 3)
In Part IIB, as well as choosing two further papers from the options above, you take a compulsory general theory paper, and during the year you write a dissertation on a topic of your choice.
Further information about the Linguistics course at Cambridge can be found on the page about Linguistics on the University website.
Linguistics at Pembroke
We warmly welcome applications to read for the Linguistics Tripos. We anticipate admitting one student to read Linguistics, to join our active and supportive subject communities in Modern and Medieval Languages, Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic, and English. Among Pembroke’s Fellows with particular interests in aspects of linguistics are Dr Torsten Meissner, University Senior Lecturer in Greek Philology, Dr Renaud Gagne, University Lecturer in Classics, Professor Chris Young, Professor of Modern and Medieval German Studies, and Dr Mina Gorji, University Lecturer in English.
Applicants can expect a subject interview, to be conducted by our Director of Studies and a general interview, both held in College. The subject interview aims to test your ability to think creatively and logically about language, to work out the structure of examples of language, and to establish your motivation for the subject and degree of engagement with it. It may also contain questions on a brief paper given to each applicant to read on the day. The general interview is intended to give us a fuller sense of your aptitude for your chosen course, the maturity of your approach towards academic work, and your linguistic and other interests. Applicants will be asked to submit two school essays prior to interview. As at other colleges, applicants will be asked to complete a University-wide pre-interview Admissions Assessment. The registration deadline for the assessment is 15th October, further details can be found on the University of Cambridge website.
What we are looking for
The main requirement for studying Linguistics is a lively curiosity about the nature of language. Perhaps 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, for instance), or been puzzled that automatic speech recognition software gets a perfectly clear word wrong. Maybe you’ve been excited to learn that languages as diverse as Welsh and Hindi have a common ancestor or you’ve realised that an utterance such as ‘it’s cold in here’ may mean more than the words (i.e. ‘please close the window!’). If you’ve found yourself asking ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ in relation to language, then Linguistics is for you. Because Linguistics is interdisciplinary we don’t require specific A level subjects, and welcome applicants whose profile is science-oriented as well as arts-centred. Some formal study of language, either through learning languages or through English Language A level, does however serve as a good preparation.
After your degree
Linguistics graduates, like other arts 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 transferable skills that are greatly sought after by employers. Linguistics also provides a particularly good preparation for further vocational training in fields such as speech therapy; teaching (especially of languages); speech and language technology (developing and improving computer-based applications such as speech recognition and translation software); 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 also a huge advantage in careers where rapid learning of unfamiliar languages may be involved, such as the Diplomatic Service.