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Linguistic meaning

Just as thought is different from language, so meaning (semantics) is different from 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 has 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

Is there a unit of meaning and, if so, what do we call it?

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.


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’.

Mental categories

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 this 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 the train of spoken or written language? Association of 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 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 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.

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.

Sound to brain

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 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.


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).

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).

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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