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Unit 2: Language in the Biological Context

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Western University
Psychology 2134A/B
Marc Joanisse

Unit 2Language in the Biological Context Overview In the previous lecture we began to discuss what we mean by Human language The goal is to situate human language in a biological context by examining it as a universal human ability This includes introducing the theory that we encode language as a mental grammar which we encode as tacit implicit knowledge Next we look at theories and facts related to how language might have evolved This includes studying what we mean by language in a more formal sense and then looking at theories of evolution and finally language in nonhuman species Language is Universal A key assumption that scientists make is this every human has language That is everywhere that there are human societies there is language Wait arent all languages different But what do we mean by language We make an important distinction here with languages We know that the world has many languages like English Mandarin Swahili Farsi and Hindi Those languages are very different from each other Languages differ from one another in many ways These include Phonology the sounds of wordsMorphology the structure of wordsVocabulary the actual words that are used Syntax the structure of sentencesSemantics the meanings of wordsIn the next section I describe some interesting ways that languages differ along these dimensions Phoneme Inventories Lets first consider how many vowels English has Ask anyone and theyll tell you something like 5a e i o u and sometimes y Wrong English only has 5 vowel letters not including y but we can speak at least 11 different vowels Consider the vowel sounds in each of these words beat bit bait bet bat bought boat boot bat but book Notice how each of these contains a different vowel sound English uses each of these vowels to distinguish among wordsInterestingly other languages will use fewer or more vowels For instance if you speak French or tried to learn it when you were younger youll know that it has vowels that English doesnt have in words like tu peux and neIt turns out French has 12 vowel sounds and they overlap only partially with English Extra Vowels in French httpfrenchaboutcomlibrarypronunciationblipavowelshtm Other languages have fewer vowels For example most Arabic dialects have 5 vowels And Abkhaz a language spoken in the Caucasus part of the Republic of Georgia has only two vowels a andthe vowel sounds in bought and but Vocabulary Size Languages also vary in terms of vocabulary A fancy word for this is their lexicon and this is the term well use from here on in English has about 100000 words depending on how you count them up Using the same measure Spanish has about 50000 words So its interesting that while all languages have lexicons they vary in size Syntactic Differences Languages all use the order of words to modulate meaning An important characteristic is the way in which the subject object and verb of a sentence are produced Take the following example The cat chased the dog The dog chased the cat In both sentences the verb is chased Its the action that is happening In the first sentence the cat is the Subject of the sentencethe thing that actually performs the action The dog is the Object of the sentencethe thing that is being acted upon By shifting the subject and object we changed the meaning of the sentence who is chasing who The order of subjects objects and verbs differs across languages In English we use SV subjectverbobject order I open the box S V O In contrast Japanese uses SOV word order Watashiwahakooakemasu I boxopen SOV This is an important difference among the worlds languagesLanguage UniversalsSo far I have focused on how languages differ But in spite of these differences we also know that languages share tremendous similarities These are referred to as language universalsPhonological Universals
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