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What is the difference between microlinguistics and macrolinguistics, with definitions and examples?

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The difference between microlinguistics and macrolinguistics is that macrolinguistics focuses on language more broadly by looking at how language impacts societies and vice versa, while microlinguistics looks at the smaller details of language, such as syntax, phonetics, grammar, and phonology.

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Macrolinguistics and microlinguistics both involve the study and usage of language. While they are often interrelated concepts, they each approach the topic from a different level.

Macrolinguistics focuses on language on a large scale and as a broad topic. Macrolinguistics involves the study of how language impacts societies and how social factors influence language. For instance, macrolinguistics may examine why Latin languages use gendered nouns and Indo-Aryan languages do not. Someone studying this may have questions about how this distinction impacts social functions within societies. Macrolinguistics also involves looking at how whole languages and linguistic families evolve and develop, and it can be concerned with how language is acquired and stored in the brain. Macrolinguistics, in this sense, may examine how the Broca's area and Wernicke's area of the brain develop in relation to language acquisition as someone ages throughout infancy and childhood.

Microlinguistics takes a closer look at language. It is concerned with elements of syntax, phonetics, phonology, semantics, and grammar. Unlike macrolinguistics, microlinguistics is not concerned with the impact of language beyond the language itself. It studies languages purely in the abstract sense. Examples of this field could include the study of the formation of diphthongs, conventions of spelling, and the origins of specific words.

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Macro-linguistics is the study of language on a large scale, relating to the development and trends of languages and usage. Micro-linguistics is a small scale observation of language, particularly dealing with the concepts of grammar, syntax, and individual words.

Macro-linguistics, for example, would examine the descent of the English language from the confluence of Germanic and Latin tongues, and how it has changed since it became a solitary language. Micro-linguistics, on the other hand, would deal with the etymology of a specific word, and the rationale behind simple rules such as "i before e, except after c".

A broad definition explains them as such:

Macro-linguistics deals with language and extra-lingual related phenomena as a whole, while Micro-linguistics deals with the analysis of specific linguistic data.

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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?

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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.

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