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What is a word? How can meaning reside in a sound … and how can strings of sounds or marks on a page or screen, as words, be combined in a way that we can all understand?

I’ll repeat this question because it encompasses a miraculous characteristic of human existence that is either quickly passed over or ignored. Please think about this. What role do words play in the act of communication? In a materialistic world we must acknowledge speaking as the generation of sounds, and writing as the arrangement of molecules of carbon or ink on paper, or pixels on a screen. But that does not explain how I can transfer complicated representations and abstract ideas rapidly from my brain to yours. What exactly is the relationship between a word and the object or idea it purports to express? Just by saying or writing ‘Milky Way galaxy’ I can conjure up images and associations in your mind. But what exactly is it that passes from my brain to the spoken and written word to your brain such that there is understanding? How do sounds get converted to information that generates representations and meaning? What, in scientific terms, is information: how can one configuration of matter be ‘about’ another? The relationship between language and fact became a preoccupation of the twentieth century known as the ‘linguistic turn’ and we are still working through its many philosophical an linguistic ramifications.

For me, one valuable nugget of knowledge addressing this tricky question comes from Steven Pinker who offers us the expression ‘the web, the string, and the tree‘.[16] Thoughts, images, ideas, and feelings are all connected in our minds through a web of association. Somehow we express such things through a linear sequence or string of sounds or written words. To convey meaning by communicating with someone else there must be some generally-understood rules for the way words and sounds are combined. Firstly there are rules for the way words can be formed and, secondly there are rules for the way these words can be combined (syntax), this being a hierarchical or tree-like structure (words into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and so on). Together the rules of word formation and word combination are known as ‘grammar’. Syntax uses a tree of phrases to translate a web of thoughts into a string of words. This gets us going, even though it does not satisfy the need for a clarification of the notion of information.

So, by means of a small number of discrete units – letters and sounds – language allows us, through speech and the written word, to convey an infinity of meanings. Using vocalisations we are able to convey to other people all kinds of ideas and information with extraordinary expressive power. Written language then permits the accumulation of knowledge, including abstract imaginative ideas.

Language was not discovered by one group and then passed on to others like writing or the alphabet and for that reason we can regard it as an innate adaptive trait … more a matter of biology than culture. Children have what appears to be an instinctive or innate ability to absorb and recreate language without the effort of learning that is required to develop the cultural skills of reading or writing. Speaking English is a consequence of culture: speaking at all is a consequence of biology.


Language Courtesy Wimimedia Commons

Spoken language is rapidly acquired by children unlike written language and reading which require special training. Language is different from thought and meaning
Here are examples of several written languages
Courtesy Wimimedia Commons


Language consists of three major components: firstly, words or vocabulary, stored in the mental lexicon or dictionary; secondly, rules for assembling words, the syntax or rules that enable us to assemble words into phrases and sentences, morphology, the assembly of bits of words like prefixes and suffixes into complex words, phonology the study of the sound patterns of language combination of vowels and consonants into the smallest words; and thirdly, interfacing, the way these factors relate to communication about the world and with other people. Finally there is semantics: the study of meaning in language. We can hold in memory and comprehend a sentence of about 50 words beyond which we begin to struggle.

This article is an adaptation and extension of the Youtube lecture Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain by Steven Pinker.[6]

Evolution of language

Today we believe it likely that language evolved in the last 60,000 years. Using language as a means of facilitating social communication has obvious survival value and can therefore be regarded as an adaptation evolving from initial grunts and vocalisations. Also it is possible that the one-time use of a complex sign language is echoed today in the expressive use of hands during conversation.

An alternative theory is that language is a spandrel or exaptation. For example, just as it is possible that bird feathers evolved as an adaptation for warmth with flying a side-effect so language may have evolved as a side-effect of brain evolution as our brains became larger and our cognitive functions increased. Not everything arises as an adaptation: it might simply be coopted for useful purposes.

In linguistics as in other aspects of our biology we must assume that complexity has simple origins and this is one topic of special concern in biolinguistics.

From the 1950s it has become increasingly clear that from elemental sounds and linguistic building blocks it is possible to express an infinity of ideas meaning – that language demonstrates an extraordinary degree of computational efficiency.

Did it evolve from gestures, auditory signals, and emulation of sounds in the environment (bow-wow theory), rhythmic grunts and chanting (yo-he-ho), or cries of emotion (pooh-pooh or ouch), copying sounds in the environment (ding-dong), sounds associated with love, play and emotion (la-la). Language arose a relatively short time ago, perhaps as late as 30,000 years ago (C. p. 356) leaving a gap of 20,000 years before the arrival of unequivocal written language and a vast gap between human language and that of other primates.

There seems no correlation between language and minimal effort in articulation.

Answers to the following questions remain controversial: are humans unique in their linguistic abailities; is there a unique language aspect to the brain o is language part of generalised cognition; what aspects of language are derived by natural selectio and what as spandrels?

Language & thought

It is sometimes said that language structures the way we understand the world – that words determine thoughts. Certainly language can influence our perceptions of reality, our thought patterns, and worldviews (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but language is not thought itself – we do not think in language. Human babies and animals respond to the world with understanding – they have cognition, visual imagery, and understand the intentions of others – all without language. Our creation of new words reflects the desire to express currently unexpressed thoughts and concepts: that is, we are not constrained by our thought but by our language.

Our use of metaphor is especially interesting here, and no doubt concerns like these are at least part of the reason for political correctness as we steadily expurgate sexist, racist, and ageist words from everyday conversation.

However, we do not think in words: we think in concepts and we clothe these concepts with language which is at the tip of the iceberg of our consciousness. That we cannot think without language is clearly incorrect since we learn it as children; language evolves; it is extremely ambiguous in meaning. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker suggests we think in what might be called ‘Mentalese’ which is, on the one hand, much richer than language through its network of associated concepts but, on the other hand, much simpler because it does not need the words, word-constructions, and pronunciation that makes language possible. Speaking is like translating Mentalese into language.

Communicating the ideas and concepts in our minds has resulted in vastly different languages – and yet it may well be that Mentalese is universal.

The left cerebral hemisphere is dominant for language in most right-handed people (>95%) but most linguists believe that many sites are involved in language, that the idea of there being specific isolated parts of the brain for particular linguistic purposes is unlikely.

Language & meaning

Just as thought is not the same as language, so meaning (language content or semantics) is also not the same as words. When we recall a conversation long after it has happened, it is not the actual words that are retained by our long-term memory but the meaning conveyed by the overall interaction.

Spoken language appears to have a strong instinctive component while written language has only arisen a few times in history and is only perpetuated through a process of learning. Alphabetic writing, with symbols denoting vowels and consonants, appears to have arisen only once.

Units of meaning

What do we call a unit of meaning? We are inclined to think that this is a word, since we talk about ‘the meaning of words’ but: words with similar meaning have different forms (walk, walks, walking), they do not account for idiom (‘walk the talk’), and they are already treated as the units of grammar within syntax and morphology. If we call the unit of meaning a lexeme then it is OK for the word ‘walk’ to exist in several forms and to be used in idioms.

How does the number of words in language correspond to the number of meanings? David Crystal claims that there are about 20,000 words in Shakespeare and about 30,000 lexemes.

Isolating units of meaning from language is not straightforward. For example, it seems reasonable to claim that the meaning of the word/lexeme ‘man’ has three sub-components of meaning adult + human + male.

Lexemes are not isolated units but are related to one-another to greater or lesser degree. There two major relations, firstly the tendency for a particular lexeme to occur in association with others (known as collocation) as when we say ‘It was a very auspicious ….’ Which has few resolving possibilities. Collocation is not the same as the association of ideas. Secondly lexemes may be related to a greater or lesser degree in terms of their particular sense or meaning and among the different kinds of sense-relation are: synonymy (a car is the same as an auto); inclusion (‘X is a kind of Y’, as in a potato is a vegetable) the including item is the hyponym (the vegetable) and the included item is the hypernym (potato); antonyms (opposites) which may grade (as in ‘large’ and ‘small’), not grade (as in ‘married’ and ‘single’), or be converses (as in ‘buy’ and ‘sell’); incompatibles (as below the superordinate category or hyponym ‘vegetable’, the hypernym ‘carrot’ cannot be a ‘potato’. Slightly different part-whole relations exist as in leg and body which is different from inclusion.

The accumulation and refinement of lexemes

Lexemes – as units of meaning, understanding, or concepts – segregate the mass of interrelated sensory inputs and ideas into meaningful and managable units. These units of understanding become much more powerful when they are hared as common knowledge using either the spoken word or writing. Much more can be achieved when you know what someone else is thinking. Common knowledge can be passed on by oral tradition but writing can give knowledge a permanence and reliability that is not guaranteed through speech. Though items of common knowledge can be lost, overall the tendency will have been for knowledge to accumulate, and this would have surged on four occasions with the development of spoken language (maybe as recently as 30,000 years ago), the development of written language (about 5,500 years ago), the development of printing (about 550 years ago), and the development of the internet (about 10-20 years ago to the present). Shared concepts would be largely confined to language groups. With the advent of a universal written language the number of concepts that could be retained as common knowledge would be vastly increased and by translating other languages many more new concepts would be added. Some indication of the rate of inflow of new concepts comes to us from the rate of proliferation of new technical terms, areas of expertise, and academic disciplines needed to deal with the myriad new categories that are being invented. Certainly there was a strong surge of new disciplines in the nineteenth century. Creating order out of the world is achieved through both conscious and unconscious filtering of information. Much of our sensory information, like the constant shifting of our visual field, is unconsciously processed. But we can also mentally discriminate preferred options, as when we decide to have coffee or tea with our breakfast.

Shared knowledge could not have started out as as a finished product, it would have been slowly built up brick by brick like a building. Perhaps it began as the accumulation of a few commonly-understood sounds, signals and gestures. The development of a formal structured language and words would have opened the gates to a flood of new categories. With the numerical increase in these concepts came the need to associate, group, and organise – to classify these new bricks into meaningful units of the overall linguistic building. Just as bricks outline windows, doorways and roofs, so lexemes can denote different clusters of meaning. Lexemes, then, are not only units of meaning or concepts, they are also units of classification or taxa. A more user-friendly word would be ‘category’.

Progressive classification

Much of the selection and classification of mental categories that goes on all the time has no lasting effect since it is not common knowledge. What time I get up, which socks I wear, and what I eat for breakfast, all entail discriminating between and prioritizing categories of thought. Sometimes these categories of thought relate to physical objects in the world and sometimes they are purely an internal matter as when I imagine I am on a desert island. Many common knowledge classifications are capable of improvement in the sense that they can be reorganized in a way that helps us understand and manage the world more effectively. Clearly over time we have divided the physical world into ever more categories and, like the improvement of our scientific classification of animals and plants, this is a continuing process. In a practical sense it is clear that some classifications are more effective than others and in thi sense our powers of discrimination and precision are constantly improving. Some categories of knowledge would have been discarded in favour of those that seemed better.


Learning vocabulary means making the best lexical choice for the circumstances, other things being equal, the greater the vocabulary the greater choice and precision of expression. We have to memorize the link between sounds, words, and meaning: there are no short cuts. Children gradually improve in both comprehension and use of words. At eighteen months most children can speak about 50 words and understand about 200-250. By the age of two vocabulary generally exceeds 200 words but older than this it is difficult to devise parameters. By the age of 8 or 9 simple word definitions can be offered but only teenagers can provide acceptable critical definitions. Ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, and China and later the Indian and Arab worlds all produced at least rudimentary dictionaries these were given a major boost with the advent of printing.

Vocabulary grows by: borrowing from other languages (chic); changing structures (scare-crow to scarecrow, Eurodollar, technophobia); adding prefixes and suffixes (kitchenette); changing meaning (gay). This is the study of word origins known as etymology. There are whole lexical fields of technical terms associated with academic disciplines and technologies, from the car mechanic to the biochemist, geologist to botanist, psychologist to the administrator. We need help to become familiar with these terms and they can create barriers to communication.

We structure language hierarchically with sentences containing substructures-within-other-substructures in a boxes within boxes way.

Names are interesting as being either proper nouns as names referring to specific individuals mostly in the ‘real’ physical world – like everest, or common nouns as names referring to universals classes of objects in general as objects of thought – like mountain.

A 1999 survey showed 96% of the world’s languages were spoken by only 4% of the people.(C p. 336)

Contact languages are known as pidgin which are creative adaptations with rules of their own while a creole language is a pidgin language that has become the mother tongue of a community. There are over 650 languages spoken in New Guinea (C. p. 394). There is no known connection between Aboriginal and other world languages.

Language connects through tourism, commerce, policing, newscasts, political communication, administration.

Language and reason

How do we connect one idea to another in a train of spoken or written language? Associated ideas in a flow of language may be implicit but they may also be made explicit using words like ‘therefore’, ‘because’, ‘so’ etc. Although the web of associated ideas in our brains seems infinite the kinds of connections we form can be locked into just a few simple categories: resemblance (similarity and difference); contiguity (before and after in time or space); cause and effect. These categories may be subdivided as has been done by linguists analysing the connections between one statement and another.


Linguistics is the study of language and it includes grammar (the structure of words, phrases, and sentences), phonology (the study of sound), semantics (the meaning of words), pragmatics (the use of language in conversation).

Specialist studies explore: how language is processed by the brain in real time (psycholinguistics); how children acquire language (language acquisition); and how language is processed by the brain (neurolinguistics).

Words Words do not relate to the objects they describe and therefore need to be committed to memory as the word itself, its sound and some specification of its meaning. A moderately educated person has a vocabulary of about 60,000 words (one new word every two hours from the age of one). Since words are arbitrary, like phone numbers or historical dates, we have a great natural ability for word retention.


The energy of the sounds we produce create pressure waves in the air. Our vocal organs are clearly adapted to speech production while the hairs and delicate bone structures of the auditiry system are equally well adapted for sound reception, especially that of speech. A young adult hears within a wave frequency range of 20-20,000 Hz although speech is mostly confined to the range 100 to 400 Hz. The male mean is about 120 Hz and that of the female about 220 Hz. Middle C on a piano is 264 Hz and an orchestra is tuned to 440 Hz.


Linguist Noam Chomsky is well-known for his postulation of a ‘universal grammar’ as a set of metal rules that can generate the syntax of every human language. Thus he proposed innate generative rules for syntactic structures. Language depended in part on where you were born (whether you speak Chinese or English) but also on structures imposed from within the mind.

Grammar and meaning are important for the discrimination of linguistic units. Familiarity means that we interpret and anticipate sounds, even when they are not there since speech perception is not a matter of passive input but active participation.


Words are combined into phrases and sentences and this field of linguistics has been strongly influenced by philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky who noted the extreme creativity (productivity) we employ in constructing sentences which involves a high degree of novelty. How do we do this – because it cannot be done by brute memory of lists of sentences – we must have some recipe or intuited method for combining word elements into meaningful sentences?

This characteristic is a matter of psychology since it must relate to operations going on in the mind and linguists working on this universal underlying generative grammar study both the universal rules governing all languages as well as those relating to particular languages.

It is also important to distinguish between prescriptive grammar (so-called correct sentence construction) as opposed to descriptive grammar, how it actually is spoken.

Independent of meaning

Languages also have a syntax which cannot be identified with their meaning. We recognise accepted syntax even though the meaning of the words is not evident. ‘Colourlesss green ideas sleep furiously’ would be a novel sentence with little meaning but a recognisable syntax unlike ‘Furiously sleep ideas green colourless’ which is incoherent.

Also syntax doesn’t consist of word-by-word linear association (Chomsky, 1956) ‘Colourlesss green ideas sleep furiously’ has virtually zero transition dependencies. Language contains long-distance dependencies and too many of these can complicate communication as with the use of ‘either’ and ‘or’ or ‘if’ and ‘then’.

Hierarchical structure

Sentences are not assembled in word-by-word association but as a nested hierarchy of elements like an inverted tree. So, for example, a sentence like ‘I told him that it was sunny outside’ can be divided into two parts, a noun phrase (the subject) consisting of the noun ‘I’, and a verb phrase (the predicate)- further divided into a verb ‘told’, a noun phrase ‘him’, and a sentence ‘that it was sunny outside’.

So language is composed from phrase-structure rules which allow us to express unfamiliar meanings by assembling familiar words into new combinations – in fact giving us effectively infinite combinatorial power.

The geometry of branches in phrase structure within sentences is critical to the understanding of the overall meaning.

Language acquisition in children through universal grammar

Children do not memorise sentences but they abstract the rules of sentence-construction, using these rules effortlessly as they learn to speak suggesting that these rules are part of the inherited endowment of every normal child. At 18 months they use two-word sentences – like ‘more outside’, not memorised but assembled or ‘all gone sticky’ both newly constructed also errors in using the past tense to irregular verbs like ’I go’ed’ (English has about 165 irregular verbs). Chomsky claimed that children are hard-wired with this ‘universal grammar’ an intuitive sense of what the rules for any language must be. Children follow structure-dependent rules not word-by-word rules.

Critics question whether this mental structuring or universal grammar is language-specific or part of the general way in which the human mind works as also for, say, vision, motion and memory; it has also not been shown to be true for all languages; or that more general-purpose neural network models are can explain specific ‘grammar’ intuitions.


How does the brain convert what is the almost continuous flow of sound during conversation into meaningful units? The miracle of this conversion becomes apparent when we compare our total incomprehension when we listen to a totally unfamiliar foreign language and when we completely comprehend our own. We cannot force ourselves to hear our own language as simply changes in sound patterns

Language consists of a limited set sounds or phonemes (individually meaningless elements) that combine hierarchically and recursively into larger units or words. The words are then combined in a completely independent way into phrases and sentences.

Phonology studies sound patterns as the vowels, consonants, and diacritics (stress syllables) that constitute the minimal units of word construction. It consists of formation rules that capture a word in terms of its sounds and how these sounds may adjust according to their position in a sentence and usage the use as well as the use of accents and other devices that are added deliberately.

The typical language has 30-40 speech sounds used to construct about 60,000 meaningful words which can be combined to form an unlimited number of sentences. The African Khoisan language, which uses a large number of consonants and a variety of clicks, uses more than 100 sounds. In contrast most Aboriginal languages have fewer than 20 speech sounds, the least of any known language but word inflections (capacity to express different grammatical categories such as tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender and case) are extremely complex.[7]


Phonetics is more strictly associated with the physical aspects of language production, how speech sounds are made, transmitted, and received. There are about 20-200 building blocks of sound (phonemes designated using phonetic symbols) as vowels and consonants that are built into words. The number of sound units varies between languages: the Pacific island Rotokas uses 11, English has 44. In English there are more sounds than letters and these are all listed in an International Phonetic Alphabet. Vowels do not impede the airstream, consonants (of which there are always more), do.

For consonants sound is either labial (lip) as in ’p’, alveolar (front palette) ‘t’, velar (back palette) ‘k’. Airstream is ‘stopped’ with ‘p’ and ’k’ or ‘fricative’ as in ‘s’ or ‘f’, ‘nasal’ as in ‘m’, ‘sonorant’ as in ’l’ is unimpeded airstream. Voicing is use of vocal cords as in ‘b’. Vowels, in general, are used more for expression and consonants for meaning.

Syllables are difficult because they often comprise more than one phoneme but do not make up a word.

Language interface

Language production studies sound production in the larynx and voice box with cartilaginous flaps, the vocal cords and a series of cavities that allow different resonances, harmonics and stops and adjustments with tongue and lips etc. The larynx has descended in the course of evolution.

From the world to brain comprehension of sound is the extremely complex process of speech recognition, the phonemes being co-articulated often produce different sounds as in the ‘k’ of Cape Cod. Sounds do not split into words but speaking is continuous sound; it is our mental lexicon that creates the apparent divisions between words that do not exist in reality. Some of this complexity is illustrated in the childrens’ rhyme ‘Lambs eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy; I’ll eat ivy too wouldn’t you?’ Computers struggle to make the interpretations we achieve effortlessly apart from misinterpretations of meaning. A Russian computer translation of ’The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ came back ‘The vodka is agreeable but the meat is rotten’.


This places language in context using our understanding of the world and expectations about how others speakers communicate. We assume that communicators are trying to get across a message truthfully and politely. ‘Give me a hand’, ‘I’m Harry and I’m leaving’ and other potentially confusing constructions relating to various life-situations and all needing to be computed.

Language is a miracle because it permits us to communicate an infinite set of ideas using the combination of a limited set of tools consisting of a large lexicon of memorised words and a powerful mental combinatorial grammar.

The challenging questions that remain include the unlimited creativity of language, the abstract mental structures that relate words to one-another and how these are acquired in childhood, the properties that are universal across languages and how any universality relates to the mind. It relates strongly to human biology, evolution and sociality as a window into human nature.

Meaning – Semantics

Meaning is a complex many-faceted concept (see Meaning) but we can make a distinction between semantic or literal meaning and pragmatic meaning or what is to be achieved by a statement.

Linguists are currently researching the controversial connection between language, thought, and meaning – the degree to which does language structures the way we perceive and understand the world. For example, languages divides the world using different categories. Though the colour spectrum is a continuum different languages tend to recognise red, green, yellow and blue suggesting that these may be universal categories that are a consequence of our biology. How then do language and culture structure the world?

Sense refers to the meaning of a word inside a language, while reference is what the word refers to outside language, in the ‘real world’. This becomes important when language makes divisions that are not found in reality as in the distinction between stream and river.

English consists of about 40 sounds, a few hundred syllables, about 3000 grammatical constructions but hundreds of thousands of units of vocabulary. But it is the interaction of words within the structure of a sentence that conveys ‘sense’, where words ‘make sense’.

The word ‘meaning’ is polysemic, it has at least 20 meanings. Many scientific words are monosemic – like sodium, and semiconductor. Many everyday words have a dozen or more meanings: the word ‘take’ has 50 or more. The basic units of semantics are sometimes called lexemes.

Historical and cultural significance

Apart from archaeology our two major portals into the distant pre-literate past are genetics and linguistics.

Except when one group of people is suddenly totally absorbed by another language changes very slowly as dialects emerge along with new words and linguistic conventions. Using a similar method of analysis to that used by biologists in evolutionary analysis, a kind of ‘descent with modification’ (phylogenetic linguistic analysis) linguists can speculate about both the historical linguistic changes and the dates when these occurred.

The combination of linguistics, archaeology and DNA analysis is a powerful tool used to investigate the historical migration of peoples round the globe.

Linguists purport that all Eurasian languages are derived from a single foundation language ‘Indo-European’ but the geographic location of the homeland for this Indo-European language is disputed: it is generally placed in either the steppes north of the Black Sea and west of the Urals, or south of the Black Sea in Asia Minor (Anatolia).


Graphetics is human mark-making (cf. phonetics as sound-making) and graphology the diferent forms in different languages, letters, symbols, punctuation marks etc. (cf. phonology). There are three general forms of written word: handwriting (calligraphy), printing (typography), and electronic representation. The combination of capital and small letters is called Carolingian script, named after Charlemagne (742-814). Movable type was used in China from the 7th century, inked wooden blocks being used for The Diamond Sutra of 868, but first used in Europe in the mid fifteent hcentury, attributed to Johannes Gutenberg (1390-1468) and becoming mechanised in the nineteenth century along with the arrival of typewriters. Photocomposition started in the 1950s, and computerized typesetting in the 1960s followed shortly by computerized word processors.


Language is a combinatorial system in which a finite number of discrete elements (words) that can be associated into larger structures (sentences) with properties distinct from those of the elements – to produce an infinite number of combinations with an infinite range of meanings.[5]

Language has many interesting properties including: recursion (nesting) – a linguistic rule can be applied to the result of the application of the same rule; displacement – it allows speakers to stand back from themselves to discuss situations, emotions, past and future etc.; meta-communication – it can discuss itself; prosidy – it is often associated with the additional communication of tone, hand and body language, accents, speed; motherse – slow, deliberate simplification is used in all languages in speaking to the young.

Language is uniquely human, an essential human endowment at the core of human nature: the source of creativity, originality, and our unique way of planning.

With English as a probable global lingua franca it is interesting to know about its origins, especially as this provides us with a window into the ancient history of the British people (see Language – English).

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