Language: History and Structure

Language – a system of symbols and rules for combining these symbols in ways that can produce an almost infinite number of possible messages and meanings

    • Three critical properties of language:
      • Symbolic: Uses sounds, written signs, or gestures to refer to objects, events, ideas, and feelings
        • Displacement – capacity of language to represent objects and conditions that aren’t physically present
      • Structure: Has rules that govern how symbols can be combined to create meaningful communication units
      • Generative: Symbols can be combined to generate an almost infinite number of messages

Language Structure

  • Surface structure – consists of the way symbols are combined within a given language
    • Syntax – the rules for the combination of symbols
  • Deep structure – refers to the underlying meaning of the combined symbols
    • Semantics – the rules for connecting the symbols to what they represent
  • Example: “Flying planes can be dangerous.” (surface)
    • Deep 1: Planes are dangerous
    • Deep 2: Piloting a plan is dangerous
  • Noam Chomsky: Transformational grammar
    • Rules transform meaning of the deep structure to sequence of the surface structure

Sentence > Phrases > Words > Morphemes > Phonemes

  • Phonemes – smallest units of sound recognized as separate in a given language
  • Morphemes – smallest units of meaning in a language
    • Include base words, prefixes, suffixes, etc.


  • Various forms of humor based on language:
    • Phonological ambiguity – confusion of sounds
    • Lexical ambiguity – confusion or double meaning of words
    • Syntactic ambiguity – confusion of structure
    • Semantic ambiguity – confusion of meaning
  • Children progress from phonological and lexical humor to syntactic and semantic

Acquiring a Language

  • Biological Foundations
    • Several facts suggest biological basis for language acquisition
      • Human children, despite limited thinking skills, begin to master language at early life without formal instruction
    • Between 1-3 months: infants vocalize entire range of phonemes found in world’s languages (cooing)
    • By 2 months, infacts show phoneme discrimination
    • About six months: infants begin to make sounds of their native tongue and to discard those of other languages
    • Linguists believe there exists a critical period between infancy and puberty when language is most easily learned
    • Can children form language without hearing others speak?
      • Wild children – no
      • Isolated children – maybe
      • Lack adult models for language (e.g. deaf kids with parents who don’t use sign language) – maybe
        • Can develop signs with rudimentary syntax
      • Other animals – no
    • Sex differences:
      • Men who suffer left hemisphere strokes are more likely than women to show severe aphasic symptoms (disruption in speech comprehension and/or production)
        • Suggests that women may share more language function with right hemisphere
  • Social Learning Processes
    • Motherese – high pitched intonation used by parents to converse with infants
    • B.F. Skinner developed operant conditioning explanation for language acquisition
      • Children’s language development is strongly governed by adults’ reinforcing appropriate language and non-reinforcing of inappropriate verbalization
      • Problems:
        • Children learn much too fast
        • Parents typically do not correct grammar as much as “truth value”
    • Telegraphic speech – two word sentences uttered during second year of life that consist of a noun and verb (e.g. “Want cookie”)
  • Bilingualism: Learning a Second Language
    • Learned best and spoken most fluently when learned during critical period of childhood
    • If both languages are learned at early age, they often function in the same brain region

Linguistic Influences on Thinking

  • Empiricists – thought is a mental image
  • Behaviourists – thought is a motor action
  • Linguistic relativity hypothesis – language not only influences, but also determines what we are capable of thinking
    • Multiple studies have disproved the determination part
  • Modern view is that language can influence how we think, how efficiently we categorize our experiences, and how much detail we attend to in our daily life experience
  • Language also influences how well we think in certain domains
    • English children consistently score lower than Asian children in mathematical skills due to words and symbols used in each language to represent numbers
      • Chinese uses easier system to learn numbers (11 = “ten one”)
      • English speakers must use more complex system (11 = “eleven”)
  • Propositional thought – a form of linguistically based thought that expresses a statement in subject-predicate thought
  • Imaginal thought – a form of thinking that uses images that can be from any sense modality
  • Motoric thought – mental representations of motor movements

Concepts and Propositions

  • Propositions – statements that express facts
    • Consist of concepts combined in a particular way
      • Typically, one concept is a subject, another is a predicate
  • Concepts – basic units of semantic memory (mental categories into which we place objects, activities, abstractions, and events that have essential features in common)
  • Prototypes – most typical and familiar members of a class that defines a concept
    • Use of prototypes is most elementary method of forming concepts

Requires only that we note similarities among objects

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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