The Structure of Language
*A natural language has two necessary characteristics :
1. It is regular (governed by a system of rules, called grammar)
2. It is productive (infinite combinations of things can be expressed in it)
*Bird songs and bee dances are not considered to be languages because they cannot
express infinite combinations of ideas
Phonology: The study of how speech sounds are combined and altered in language.
• Note that phonetics, however, is the study of how speech sounds are produced.
o The English language has about 40 phonetic segments
• Phonemes: the smallest unit of speech sounds.
o Phoneme distinction: In English, we distinguish between the “l” and the “r” sound; other
languages, such as the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, do not. E.g. A native speaker of
Cantonese dialect wouldn’t hear the difference between “flied lice” and “fried rice”.
Developmental trends (Werker & Tees, 1984)
Perceptual magnet effect: enables us to more easily learn differences between
sounds that exist in learned language.
Syntax Grammatical rules and structure.
*Semantics The study of meaning.
• Theories of meaning have to explain several things (Bierwisch, 1970): 1) Anomaly 2) Self
Contradiction 3) Ambiguity 4) Synonymy 5) Enrailment
Pragmatics The social rules of language.
• Illocutionary Intent: When a speaker’s intent is different from what is actually said. E.g. When
you ask someone, “Do you have a watch?” you aren’t simply asking whether they have a watch
or not, your intent is to see if they have a watch so that they can then proceed to tell you what
time it is.
o Types of Illocutionary Utterances (Searle, 1979):
1) Assertives: The speaker asserts their own belief, e.g. “It’s hot in here”.
2) Directives: The speaker delivers instructions, e.g. “close the door”.
3) Commisives: Commits the speaker to some later action, e.g. “I promise to clean my
4) Expressives: Expresses psychological states of the speaker, e.g. “Sorry that I ate the
5) Declarations: When the utterance is an action itself, e.g. “You’re fired”.
Language Comprehension and Production Speech Perception
• * Miller described two fundamental problems in speech perception:
1) Speech is continuous. Rarely are there pauses between sounds, yet we know how to break
up the sounds to make sense of what the speaker is saying.
2) A single phoneme sounds different, depending on context.
Studies of infants have shown that although very young infants can discriminate
between almost all of the phonemes used in every language of the world, at 6
months of age this ability fades and the infant can only discriminate between the
phonemes of their native language
• Massaro and Cohen (1983) demonstrated that we also make use of visual information in the
perception of speech. They examined the perception of the consonants “b” and “d”, using
phonemes “ba” and “da”. The participants did not notice a discrepancy when the auditory
information presented was “ba” but the videotaped speaker was saying “da”. What the speaker
appeared to be saying influenced what was heard.
• Warren (1970) demonstrated that in some cases people “hear” phonemes that are not there!
Presented participants with a recording of the sentence “Governors met with their respective
legi*latures in the capital city,” in which the “s” of “legislature” was replaced with a coughing
sound. Only 1 of 20 listeners reported detecting a missing sound covered by a cough. The other
19, then, demonstrated phoneme restoration effect by predicting missing phonemes through
other linguistic information presented.
• Swinney suggests that context effects operate not instantaneously but after a brief (fraction of a
Speech Production Errors : When what the speaker intended to say is quite clear, but the speaker
accidentally reorders the elements, e.g. word substitution error: “I have to brush my face and wash my
teeth.” E.g. exchange of sounds “whack and blite” instead of “black and white”
• Garrett (1990) suggested that since word substitution errors are so rare, this shows that
information about meaning and information about form are processed at different points in
sentence construction. If meaning and form processed at the same time, then sentences in which
both kinds of similarity (similarity with sounds and with words) are present ought to produce the
most errors because there is greater chance for error to occur. This doesn’t happen though, which
suggests that the two kinds of processing are separate.
• Comprehension Ambiguities
o “Teacher Strikes Idle Kids”
o “Executive Secretaries Touch Typists”
• Lexical ambiguity: Occurs with words that have two meanings, e.g. river bank and financial
o Making inferences
“The bank is overflowing with customers.”
“The bank is overflowing with water.”
• 3 types of ambiguous sentences: 1) Phonetic 2) Lexical 3) Syntactic
• Garden Path Sentences (shifts in surface structure): The prime number, few. Vs. the prime number two
Demonstrates that normal processing can sometimes fail
• Gricean Maxims (rules) of Conversation Grice (1975)
1) Quantity: Utterances should provide exactly as much information as the listener needs to
understand a situation.
2) Quality: Utterances should be truthful.
3) Relation: Utterances should relate to the current discourse.
4) Manner: The point of an utterance should be clear.
o Conversational Maxim Violations:
Asking if someone has a watch example
• Common Ground Clark & WilkesGibbs (1986): Individuals engaged in a conversation must
share knowledge in order to be understood and have a meaningful conversation.
o ‘Overhearer’: By using common ground in conversation, the speakers can prevent
overhearers from understanding the meaning of what is being said, because they know
that only the person they intend to speak to will understand what they are actually saying.
• Lexical Entrainment
o Creation and adoption of a standard term to refer to an object
• “The President’s Speech”
o Utterances are inherently ambiguous
o Usually the inferred meaning is intended and true
o When the inferred meaning is not intended, it can be humorous, or it can cause fights
o When the inferred meaning is intended but false, then it’s probably an advertisement or
Language and Cognition
Two Distinct Proposals Regarding the Relation of Language to Other Cognitive Processes:
1) The Modularity Hypothesis:
• Fodor (1983) su