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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?

These are profound questions that delve deeply into our human nature – and which most of us ignore.

How are we to explain all this?

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‘ as an aide memoir.[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 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]

Symbols used to convey thought and meaning in several different languages

Spoken language is rapidly acquired by children suggesting an inbuilt genetic predisposition, while reading and writing require special training. 
Here are examples of several written languages.
Courtesy Wimimedia Commons

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 selection 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, education, & power

National languages provided a sense of common identity while literary traditions gave this identity a sense of pride in history and often a sense of national purpose. Knowledge of tradition was encouraged in schools as was the development of that tradition. The model for education had been established by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Romans had a deep respect for Greek culture. Young men from those wealthy and influential Roman families active in pubic life were expected to speak both Latin and Greek so that the wisdom contained in the literature of both nations could be learned put into practise. With the decline of the Roman Empire what little schooling was available was confined to the Christian monasteries and cathedrals until the first universities were established in the 12th century with reading and writing still based on Latin. Though Latin was no longer spoken as a native language it provided a means of international communication between the well-educated and it was the language of the Church.

The use of Latin in the Catholic Church excluded the non-educated from participation this being a factor in the desire for church Reformation that was gathering momentum across northern Europe. Among the influential people calling for change were Englishman John Wycliffe (1331-1384) and German Martin Luther (1483-1546) with royals considering the possibility of a church that was loyal to the king rather than the Pope. Henry VIII of England was opposed by the Pope when, seeking an heir, he had been refused divorce from his unforthcoming wife. Not to be thwarted Henry formed the Protestant Church which was loyal to the English throne rather than the Pope in Rome. Across Europe the translation and preaching of the Bible in native languages became accepted although Latin for the educated remained in other spheres and only in the 1960s did the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church permit the use of native language in the holy liturgy. Readers, grammars and dictionaries (long available for Latin) only became available for school learning of native languages in the 16th and 17th centuries. The need for people from all sectors of society to deal with official documents written in native languages meant that literate and educated people were no longer drawn from the clergy. More and more people were educated from a young age as a form of vocational training, often in preparation for the world of commerce and ‘knights schools’ offered training for noblemen bent on a military career, and by the 17th century courses were being offered in foreign languages.[10]

Native languages had emulated in many ways the rules and customs inherent in the use of Latin, but they were still largely deficient in profound and sensitive works of human sentiment like those of the great classical authors Homer, Saphho, Aeschylus, Aristophones, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Cicero and others. Gradually European national languages found their own literary and other cultural heroes that would give their nations status: in Italy at the dawn of the Renaissance there were the early 14th century works of Dante (1265–1321), followed by the poet Petrarch (1304–1374) and writer Boccaccio (1313-1375) while other Romance countries were slower to follow; in France there was Rabelais (c. 1483–1553), the philosopher and essayist Montaigne (1533–1592), playwrights of tragedy Jean Racine (1639–1699) and his son, and for comedy Molière (1622–1673); in Spain there was novelist, poet and playwrights Lope de Vega (1562–1635) and Cervantes (c. 1547–1616). In the Germanic tradition there were similar, perhaps lesser, works in Sweden and the Netherlands and in England the works of Chaucer and the towering plays of Shakespeare (c. 1564–1616). All these states had, at the same time, established firm reputations in economics and politics associated with their centres in Leiden and Antwerp, Stockholm, London, Venice, Rome, Genoa, Paris and Madrid.

It is ironic that following the English rejection of French there should be a period of French political and economic ascendancy in the late 17th century during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV (1638-1715) when it became fashionable to emulate French manners and customs and, of course, to speak French in the literary and scientific milieu of ‘polite society’ not to mention the world of commerce and diplomacy. Competition between European nation-states (not unlike the ancient Greek poleis) has continued to the present day in language, politics, culture, and economics and this has served as a model for more recent nations. For a while in the nineteenth century Germany led the world in scientific and and scholarly activity with the German language sharing its period of pre-eminence.

Pronunciation & accent

Placed suddenly in 18th century society probably the most striking difference we would notice from the present day, apart from changes in technology, would be the pervasive awareness and preoccupation with social status. In the 18th century your place or rank within society would be evident in your dress, general bearing, and above all the way you spoke. You would be judged accordingly. Today, for the first time in the history of civilizations it seems that in western liberal democratic society much of the obsequious fawning and concern about social station has gone. People are respected for their roles in society and are not regarded as morally inferior or superior.

It is only in our age that we are shaking off the pretension of there being a ‘correct’ way to speak. There remains the pseudo-standard of ‘received pronunciation’ – the bland accent of southern England as spoken by BBC newsreaders. But dialects and accents are now enjoyed. Irish, Welsh and Scottish accents now entrance when once they were treated with disdain as an indication of inferior race, repressed in the schools where teachers and children were sometimes bullied into using English rather than native tongues. Liverpool English or scouse is known and loved world-wide through the popularity of the Beatles pop group.

Native languages have seen something of a revival in recent years but the number of speakers is few. Today it is much more important to sound approachable than to create an impression of being educated or posh: we are managing to exist together without an entrenched hierarchy.

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