What is the difference between Micro linguistics and macro linguistics, with definitions and examples, please?

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andrewhays0287 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both of these terms are used somewhat fluidly, but the general sense is that macrolinguistics tends to focus on language as broader, larger concepts and trends (the “macro”), while microlinguistics is concerned with smaller, more specific elements of language (the “micro”). In some usages, macrolinguistics is used to cover meaning and the social aspect of language, while microlinguistics looks at elements like syntax or phonology.


The branch of linguistics that deals with language and related extra-lingual phenomena as a whole; (sometimes) specifically the statistical analysis of large-scale linguistic phenomena.

Macrolinguists look at meaning, trends, and how language intersects with sociology. How do languages change over time? How are they used by specific groups? In which ways do categories like ethnicity, nationality, religion, and class affect the usage of language? This is more specifically covered in the field of sociolinguistics. 


Especially in the terminology of H. L. Smith and G. L. Trager: the branch of linguistics that deals with the analysis of specific linguistic data (e.g. grammatical or phonological phenomena), in contrast with prelinguistics and metalinguistics.

Microlinguists look at syntax, the study of how words can be structured together within a language, and phonology, the study of how sounds can be structured together within a language. Syntax is how sentences are able to be constructed. Do adjectives follow their nouns? Where can verbs be placed? Phonology looks at the full set of sounds used within a language and describes how they can be arranged. Is it possible for a dental consonant to be followed by a velar consonant? How many vowels can be arranged in sequence?

wordprof eNotes educator| Certified Educator

These familiar prefixes (micro=very small; macro=very large) differentiate two approaches to the study of languages.  The micro-linguist is interested in how small changes in a distinct word or other linguistic element may offer clues to larger trends:  for example, how did “thou thee thy thine” become “you, you, your, yours” in modern English? Or how did contractions form (wouldn’t, won’t, can’t, doesn’t, etc.) evolve?  These shifts in specific areas might offer clues to how language works—what forces are at work? 

The macro-linguist, on the other hand, studies major changes in language from outside forces—the Latin language influence on English came from the Roman Empire’s expansion, for example.  Look at how these two approach work together: The macro-linguist notes that the Norman Invasion brought French to the English; the micro-linguist, wondering why cow-meat is called beef, sheep-meat is called mutton, pig-meat is called pork, etc., notes that the French word for cow is “boeuf,” the French word for sheep is “mouton,” the French word for pig is “porque.”  Together the linguists realize that the French invaders, whose servants were the conquered English peasants, ordered their meals using the French words, so the food names that the servants got used to were the French terms, and entered the English language that way.   

Microlinguistics deals with phonetics, grammar, etc. on the individual example level; Macrolinguistics deals with comparative studies among languages, language families, large influences on language development.