The line between linguistics and psychology

Some one asked a good question on Reddit this week:

“What is the relationship between linguistics and psychology?

I am undergraduate majoring in psychology – but I’ve always said that if I wasn’t a psychology major, I would be a linguistics major. It seems to me that the two fields are very similar, they ask different types of questions, use different methodologies, and operate within different theoretical worlds; but they both seem to be studying the same general things. These being behavior, consciousness, communication, the brain, etc. So – aside from the obvious fact that linguistics like to use language – how are the two fields different?

What are the major philosophical, methodological, and theoretical differences between the two?

Why aren’t they a part of one larger field? (I’m not asserting one is inferior and should be “consumed by another”)

At least at my university, the linguistics department is separate than the psychology department. Is it like this at other universities? Why is it that the neuroscientists are perfectly fine with being in the psychology department, but the linguists aren’t?

Why aren’t neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, and linguistics all part of one larger field?”


This seemed like a great opportunity to give some insights into the line between them, and I wrote a fairly in-depth answer, below. I extend the same invitation to you (no matter how old this post is when you find it) that I do to the original poster at the end of it.



(I am a PhD candidate in psychology with a BA and MA in linguistics who studies the psychology of language and communication.)

Generally, psychology is a more consistent field, methodologically. Even social psychology is done through a cognitive lens. This lens arose with the Cognitive Revolution kicked off (for the most) by Chomsky and co., so it’s tightly tied to generative linguistics. Both psych and generative linguistics attempt to explain the processes between input and output of communication. However, psych prefers experimental methods, in which they attempt to elicit specific output, while generative linguistics is generally descriptive in methodology, finding patterns post hoc rather than establishing hypotheses a priori. Related is the field of cognitive modeling or computational linguistics, wherein scholars attempt to find a balance of psychological reality (accurately representing what happens in the mind and reproducing it in computers) and functional identicality (not accurately representing the way human brains work, but still finding logical systems that will produce the same output). The idea behind the second is that by pursuing better and better iterations of that, they may eventually reach the first.

However, as I said, psych is more consistent than linguistics. The cognitive revolution did not universal appeal to linguists the way it did to psychologists (yes, there are behaviorists, but they’re generally in the minority). Also, cognitive processes were seen as largely unimportant to the goals of many linguists who simply wanted to document or preserve languages and related communicative cultures (anthropological or sociological linguistics) — knowing how the brain works is not as interesting as comparing all the different ways language arises in different groups of people. In this case, if the fields were merged, a lot of linguists would feel like they were being taught or pressured to use techniques and theories that were irrelevant to their interests. Prediction may be less important in these cases than description and appreciation. Also, more of these linguists still see analogical or social learning as contrary to the pretty common psych idea that many elements of language are inborn, and don’t really want to associate with the dirty cognitivists. 😛

Neuroscientists align more with psychology because they have interest in consistency that can be explained by universal cognitive processes.

Most departments are split. However, some schools where the linguistics have more cognitive interests can fuse. Brown, for instance, has a combined department with pretty wide-ranging topics.

One thing you should know is that while most people hold up psycholinguistics as the main intersection of the fields, that’s not really true. Judgment and decision making, information processing, attitude research, social cognition, schema theory, interpersonal communication, science communication, human computer interaction, media psychology, social support and relationships, and many many other fields cover linguistic topics. The problem is that most of these researchers would benefit from a lot of linguistic theory or understanding of language structure that they don’t normally have. I had to educate my social cognition/attitudes advisor on the possible affect of evidentiality on whether hedging should be considered monolithic, or if different evidential implications may moderate the effects of hedging on interpersonal judgments.

If you are at all interested in anything I’ve said, I am happy to continue to ramble.”


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