Key facts

Average number of students offered a place per year


Average number of applicants per year


Our standard conditional offer for this subject is usually A*AA at A level or 41 - 43 points overall and 7, 7, 6 at Higher Level in IB.  All Colleges may modify offers to take account of individual circumstances.  Further information can be found here.

Are you curious about our most crucially human attribute, language? Does a subject which straddles the divide between arts and sciences appeal to you? If so, Linguistics may be for you.

The Fellows in Linguistics cover a broad range of research areas and have expert knowledge of a number of languages and language families including Celtic, Germanic and Romance. Downing has particular teaching strength in this area, boasting three Fellows in Linguistics.

The current Director of Studies, Professor Adam Ledgeway, is Professor of Italian and Romance Linguistics and teaches and researches principally on the comparative history and structures of the Romance languages (Catalan, French, Italian, Occitan, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish), Italian dialectology and generative syntactic theory.

From October 2019, Professor Ian Roberts will be Director of Studies.  Professor Roberts is a Professorial Fellow in Linguistics and researches in the areas of generative syntactic theory and the historical syntax of the Romance languages (especially French, Italian and Portuguese), the Germanic languages (Old and Middle English, Old Norse, German and Dutch) and the Celtic languages (Welsh, Irish, Breton and Scots Gaelic). He also teaches Introduction to Linguistic Theory, Syntax and the Structure of English.

Downing also has extensive arrangements with other Colleges to ensure that teaching in all areas covered by the Linguistics Tripos is provided at the highest level.

Language is central to our human nature, and linguistics is the systematic study of human language.

Although on the face of it there is huge variation among the world’s languages, linguists not only describe the diverse characteristics of individual languages but also seek to discover the deeper properties which all languages share. These common properties may give us an insight into the structure of the human mind.

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 our 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.

This variety is what makes linguistics fascinating. 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.

Linguistics is divided into a one-year Part I and a two-year Part II, subdivided into Parts IIA and IIB.

Part I, where you follow four lecture series, provides a foundation across a wide range of linguistics taught within the Theoretical and Applied Linguistics Section.

Part II allows you to specialise in the areas which particularly interest you (see the Course Outline).

In both IIA and IIB there is a wide choice of courses taught within and beyond the Section, the latter including the linguistics of particular languages.

Part IIB includes an element of individual research as you write a dissertation on a topic of your choice.

Part I (Year 1)

In Part I you take the following four courses:

  • Sounds and words
  • Structures and meanings
  • Language, brain, and society
  • History and varieties of English.

Part IIA (Year 2)

In Part IIA you take four courses chosen from a wide range, including papers such as the following dealing with different linguistic levels and perspectives:

  • Phonetics
  • Foundations of speech communication
  • Phonology and morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics and pragmatics
  • Historical linguistics

There are around a dozen further courses to choose from, dealing with the linguistics of particular languages or language families, or (in one case) experimental psychology.

Part IIB (Year 3)

In Part IIB, as well as choosing two new courses from range above, you take a compulsory general theory course, and during the year you write a dissertation of 10,000 words on a topic of your choice.


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 quantitative 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 languages)
  • speech and language technology (developing and improving computer-based applications such as speech recognition and translation software)
  • forensic linguistics (in cases where authorship or voice identity may be at issue).

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 main requirement for studying linguistics is a lively curiosity about the nature of language.

It may be that you’ve wondered why languages change, making Chaucer hard to understand, for instance, or you’ve been excited to learn that languages as diverse as Welsh and Hindi have a common ancestor.

If you’ve found yourself asking why or how in relation to language, linguistics is for you. Because linguistics is interdisciplinary we don’t require specific A-Level subjects, and welcome applicants with an outstanding academic profile whether their focus has been on science or the arts.

Some formal study of language, either through learning languages or through English Language A-Level, does serve as a good preparation.

At present, Linguistics applicants receive two 30-minute interviews on the same day, each with either one or two interviewers.

Prior to interview, we ask to see some examples of the written work you have produced during your studies. Because Linguistics is interdisciplinary we do not require written work from specific A-Level subjects.

In addition, we expect applicants to undertake some preparatory reading prior to interview. Although we leave it to applicants to choose what preparatory reading they wish to undertake, some good examples of general introductions to the subject include:

Suggested reading

  • Anderson S. and D. Lightfoot (2002) The Language Organ. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fromkin, V. et al (2000) Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language. Oxford University Press.
  • Pinker, Steven. (2003) The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin.
  • Radford, A. et al. (1999) Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge:CUP.
  • Roberts, Ian (2017) The Wonders of Language OR How to Make Noises and Influence People.  Cambridge University Press.
  • Smith, N. (1999) Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals.  Cambridge University Press.

Further resources related to studying languages can be found at

Further advice about entry requirements and interviews for all subjects can be found in the Applying to Downing section of this site.

Further details of the Linguistics course can be found at the University of Cambridge site.

Love Your Subject: Linguistics