What is Linguistics?

Language is arguably our most crucially human attribute and Linguistics is the systematic study of human language. It is a very wide-ranging subject, covering both topics traditionally viewed as “Arts”-oriented – language in society, language variation and what happens when languages come into contact with one another (Sociolinguistics); language change (Historical linguistics); how meaning is conveyed (Semantics and Pragmatics) – and topics with more of a "science" flavour – 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 or when someone suffers some form of language impairment (e.g. dyslexia, aphasia, Specific Language Impairment) or when children are deprived of the language input they require to acquire language successfully (Psycholinguistics); the ways in which languages can and can't differ from one another and why the world's languages seem to cluster into types that aren't defined solely on the basis of genetic considerations (Typology and Generative linguistics); to what extent we can think of a language faculty in biological terms (Biolinguistics). People are often struck by the seemingly limitless differences between the world’s languages, and these are 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.

What to expect from Linguistics

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. And what people say and write around you will never be the same again either!

Career Prospects

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 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), translation and interpreting, speech and language technology (developing and improving computer-based applications such as speech recognition and translation software), journalism, publishing, and even forensic linguistics. 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.


Linguistics in Cambridge

Linguistics is a currently a relatively small subject in the University as a whole, with student numbers on the general introductory courses generally in the vicinity of 20 and the more advanced courses being smaller. 2010/2011 saw the long-awaited introduction of Linguistics as a full Tripos subject, with students having the choice of studying Linguistics from their first year, rather than necessarily switching to the Tripos after one or two years of studying other subjects. The Cambridge Linguistics Department is housed within the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, which is concerned with European languages.

This means that the course and the research done in the Department benefits greatly from input by colleagues specialising in the Linguistics of particular languages. Additionally, it also has strong links with Departments outside of the Faculty, with students currently being able to select linguistics courses offered in the Classics and English Faculties and in the Department of Psychology.

The structure of the course

Linguistics 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, foundations of speech communication, phonology and morphology, syntax, semantics and historical linguistics). 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 and also experimental psychology. Part IIB further offers the opportunity to pursue individual research as students are required to write a dissertation on a linguistic topic of their choice.


Teaching is provided in University lectures, exercise classes, and seminars, and in College-organised supervisions (usually two students per group).

Changing to Linguistics

Students who take another subject at Part I may change to Linguistics. If your Part I was a one-year course, you would do Linguistics Part IIA and IIB (with IIA adapted to include some of the “foundation” elements from Part I). If you change after a two-year Part I, you can complete your undergraduate degree by taking just Part IIA; if you have funding, though, you can go on to do Part IIB as well, for a four-year degree. There are a range of entry routes into Linguistics, the most common being via Modern and Medieval Languages; 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, Social and Political Sciences/SPS, Maths, Biology and Engineering. Linguistics papers can also be borrowed into certain other Triposes (Modern and Medieval Languages, English, Classics and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies).

Entry Details

UCAS Code: Q100

Typical Minimum Entry Requirements

A Level: A*AA

International Baccalaureate: 42 points, with 776 at Higher Level

Essential Subjects: None

Desirable Subjects: Knowledge of a foreign language to at least GCSE level

Submitted Work: None

Admissions Assessment (Cambridge College registered): If you are invited to interview you will also sit a written assessment for Linguistics consisting of 2 data questions and one essay question (60 minute). More information can be found here.

What we look for in prospective students

The main requirement for studying Linguistics is a lively curiosity about the nature of language. 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: the Department welcomes 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.

Admissions Interviews

Those invited for interview will have one academic interview with the Director of Studies in Linguistics which is expected to last approximately 30-40 minutes. A data-based problem, presented to candidates during the interview, will form part of the interview discussion.

Further information regarding 2020 interview arrangements can be found here.

Further Information

Further Information

The Linguistics Open day will be held in conjunction with the Modern Language Faculty.  Further details can be obtained from the MML Faculty website, or by phoning the Faculty Office on 01223 335000, or by emailing the Faculty at

More detailed information about the Linguistics Tripos and, more generally, Linguistics-related options available at the University may be obtained from Dr Theresa Biberauer (, Director of Studies in Linguistics, Linguistics Department, Sidgwick Avenue , Cambridge , CB3 0NP.