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

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