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Linguists study and explore every aspect of spoken and written language: the sound, meaning, and origin of words; systems of grammar; semantics, or the way words combine to mean what they mean; the evolution of both individual languages and families of languages; and the sounds that are used in a language's vocabulary. Linguists study both "dead" languages (languages that are no longer spoken), such as Latin and Classical Greek, and modern languages. Philologists examine the structure, origin, and development of languages and language groups by comparing ancient and modern tongues. Etymologists specialize in the history and evolution of words themselves. Linguists do not yet know all there is to know about the world's languages. Some languages in remote parts of the world, such as the Pacific Islands, South America, and Africa, have existed for centuries and have yet to be studied closely by linguists. Scientific linguists study the components of language to understand its social functioning, and they may apply linguistic theory to practical concerns and problems.
Other linguists are self-employed and work on a contract basis, offering their understanding of specific languages to organizations and institutions.
Some linguists study ancient languages from archaeological evidence such as the paintings and hieroglyphics inside the pyramids of Egypt. Because this evidence is sometimes incomplete, linguists may need to reconstruct parts of the language and make assumptions based on accepted linguistic theory. Still, their work adds greatly to our knowledge of what daily life was like in these ancient cultures.
Other linguists choose to study languages being spoken today. Many of these are spoken by people in remote parts of the world, but they can also be close to home, such as the languages of Native American tribes. Because some of these languages have never been written down, a linguist may need to spend years talking to native speakers and living with them to gain a complete knowledge of their culture. Such work is valuable because many of these ancient languages, with their rich oral histories and traditions, are in danger of extinction, due to electronic communications and the encroachment of modern civilizations. Some linguists may study how a modern language is changing and developing. For example, they may study changes in spoken American English in relation to the influences of immigration, slang, or the computer age.
Other work by linguists may have more immediate applications. For example, a linguist may study the physiology of language—that is, the ways in which the lips, tongue, teeth, and throat combine to make the sounds of language. This knowledge can have many applications. For example, knowledge of physiology can make it easier to teach foreign languages that contain unfamiliar sounds. The Japanese language, for example, does not contain a clear "l" sound, but linguists can develop methods of teaching English to native Japanese speakers that will overcome this. Knowledge of language physiology can also aid in the treatment of speech difficulties in children, disabled people, stroke victims, or people who have suffered brain damage.
Linguistic theory itself can have many practical applications. These include the development of improved methods of translation, such as computer-enhanced translation. Linguistic theory can help in the preparation of language-teaching textbooks, dictionaries, and audio recordings. Literacy programs, at home and abroad, also depend on the work of linguists. In other countries, these programs are often run by anthropologists and missionaries.
Linguists also study sign language, such as American Sign Language (AMESLAN or ASL). In some interesting experiments, linguists and other scientists have taught simplified sign language to gorillas. Future experiments in communication with other species, such as dolphins, whales, and dogs, will also depend on the expertise of skilled linguists.
Outside the academic world, linguists are finding more and more applications for their talents. Computer experts and linguists work together in the development of new computer languages, based on the rules of human language, that will be more user-friendly. The development of voice-activated computers will also capitalize on the skill and efforts of linguists. This field, known as computational linguistics, is now offering many opportunities in the Internet industry, particularly with companies that build and operate search engines.