A question every linguist quickly gets tired of hearing! Linguistics is the study of how language works as a system. The sort of things we talk about include how language is encoded in the brain, what it means to ‘know’ a language, how and why people differ in their use of language, and how we can best model syntax. As such we touch on cognition, philosophy, sociology, abstract modelling, and even acoustical physics if you’re so inclined. That’s why it’s often described as a cross-disciplinary subject.
Be warned: make sure you know what you’re signing up for. Some people end up being disappointed by linguistics because it’s not what they thought it was. In particular, you should take note that, although cognitive science is a large part of what some linguists do, it is by no means all that we do. It is also worth noting that at Cambridge we look at language mostly through the lens of generative theoretical approaches, but the odd behaviourist can be found who will occasionally lecture to give a different perspective. Finally, be aware that formal study of a foreign language is, unusually across British universities, not part of the Cambridge undergraduate course, and no knowledge of one is assumed.
In your first year you study four compulsory ‘papers’ (= modules), although you can think of them as effectively eight half-modules: phonology and phonetics, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, varieties of English, and the history of the English language. This set-up gives you a broad overview of all the major topics in linguistics. In the other two years you have free rein from a wide choice of papers covering pretty much whatever topic you like in much more depth than in first year: four in second year and two in third year. The rest of your time in third year is spent on writing the dissertation and preparing for the general Linguistic Theory paper which draws together theoretical considerations from everything you’ve studied into one three-hour essay.
Teaching is delivered through eight lectures and six supervisions a term per paper, adding up to four lectures and three or four supervisions a week. For every supervision you’ll have to do some written work in advance. Sometimes it’s an essay in the 1,000–2,000 word region, but it’s often a data exercise or a series of questions to think about and prepare answers to. Once you get to the supervision you will discuss the task and the topic in general with your supervisor and a group of other students – in first year it’ll be five other students (an unusually large group for Cambridge) but later on pairs or maybe threes. Depending on chance, your supervisor will be a PhD candidate specialising in the area you’re discussing, or a highly-regarded academic. Arrangements for later years obviously vary depending on which papers you choose.
Peterhouse has as many as two linguistics fellows, which is unusual across the university, even at larger colleges. As the only person in a year group doing linguistics here, as you probably would be, it can get a bit lonely occasionally. Still, being on one’s own is not always a bad thing, and, the university-wide intake for linguistics being small, the chances are you’d be on your own or there’d be only one other person at most colleges. Anyway, it means there’s no competition for books from the well-stocked College library!
It’s a happy fact that you don’t need to know anything per se before you turn up in Cambridge, but obviously you’ll be in a better position if you have at least an idea of what goes on in linguistics. For example, if you didn’t understand my comment above about generative theory, you probably should. Reading an introductory textbook or two (there are plenty out there) should cover you for that. Apart from that, be prepared to think technically and formally about concepts and facts that can be a bit slippery. Take note of uses of language all around you and think about what they reveal about underlying structure. Oh, and forget any notions of prescriptivism straight away.