Chapter 9: Language
The Organization of Language
• At the highest level of the structure are the ideas intended by the speaker, or the
ideas that the listener derives from the input. These ideas are typically expressed in
sentences – coherent sequences of words that express the intended meaning of a speaker.
Sentences in turn, are composed of phrases, which are in turn composed of words. Words
are composed of morphemes, the smallest language units that carry meaning. Some
morphemes, like “umpire” or “talk” are units that can stand alone, and they typically
refer to particular objects or ideas or actions. Other morphemes get “bound” onto these
“free” morphemes and add information crucial for interpretation.
• In spoken language, morphemes are
conveyed by sounds called Phonemes
defined as the smallest unit of sound that can
serve to distinguish words in language.
Some phonemes are easily represented by
letters of the alphabet, but others are not.
The production of Speech
• In ordinary breathing, air flows
quietly out of the lungs, through the larynx,
and up through the nose and mouth. Noise is
produced, however, if this airflow is
interrupted or altered, and this allows
humans to produce a wide range of different
• For example, within the larynx there are two flaps of muscular tissue called the
vocal folds. The vocal folds can be rapidly opened and closed, producing a bussing sort of
vibration known as voicing. You can feel this vibration by putting your palm on your
throat while you produce a Z sound. You will feel no vibration, though, if you hiss like a
snake, producing a sustained S sound.
• These various aspects of speech production provide a basis of categorizing speech
sounds. We can distinguish sounds, first according to how the airflow is restricted; this is
referred o as a manner of production. Thus air is allowed to move through the nose for
some speech sounds but not others. Similarly, for some speech sounds, the flow of air is
fully stopped for a moment. For other sounds, the air passage is restricted, but air
continues to flow.
• Second, we can distinguish between sounds that are voiced – produced with the
vocal folds vibrating – and those that are not. The sounds of V Z and N are voiced, F, S, T,
and K are unvoiced. Finally, sounds can be categorized according to where the airflow is
restricted; this is referred to as place of articulation. Thus, you close your lips to produce
”bilabial” sounds like P and B, and place your top teeth close to your bottom lip to produce “labiodental” sounds like F and V; and you place your tongue just behind your
upper teeth to produce “alveolar” sounds like T and D.
The Complexity of Speech Perception
• Notice that within this stream of speech there are no markers to indicate where one
phoneme ends and the next begins. Likewise, there are, for the most part, no gaps to
indicate the boundaries between successive syllables or successive words. Therefore, as a
first step prior to phoneme identification, you need to “slice” this stream into the
appropriate segments – a step known as speech segmentation.
• Most of us are convinced that there are pauses between word in the speech that we
hear, and its these pauses, we assume, that mark the word boundaries. This perception,
however, turns out to be an illusion, and we are “hearing” pauses that, in truth, aren’t
there. This is evident when we “hear” the pauses in the “wrong places” and thus segment
the speech stream in a way that speaker didn’t intend.
• Speech perception is further complicated by a phenomenon known as
coarticulation. This term refers to the fact that, in producing speech, you don’t utter one
phoneme at a time. Instead, the phonemes “overlap” and so, while you’re producing the S
sound in “soup”, your mouth is getting ready to say the vowel. While uttering the vowel,
you’re already starting to move your tongue lips, and teeth into position for producing the
Aids to Speech Perception
• You don’t rely only on the stimuli you receive; instead, you supplement this input
with a wealth of other knowledge – including knowledge about what the words are in our
language. Thus, on one proposal, the moment you hear the first phoneme in a word, you
activate all the words in your vocabulary that have tis starting sounds; the moment you
hear the second phoneme, you narrow this “cohort” of words so that you’re thinking only
about the words that start with this pair of phonemes. Continuing in this way, speech
perception ends up as not just a matter of receiving and identifying sounds. Instead, it is a
process in which you actively seek a match between the sounds arriving at your ears and
the words actually in you vocabulary.
• Speech perception is guided by knowledge of a broader sort, knowledge that relies
on the context in which a word appears. This is evident, for example in the phonemic
• Speech perception also benefits from a pattern called categorical perception. This
term refers to the fact that you’re much better at hearing the differences between
categories of sounds than you are at hearing the variation within a category of sounds.
Said differently, you’re very sensitive to the differences between, say, a G sound and a K,
or the differences between a D and a T. But you’re surprisingly insensitive to differences
within each of these categories, so you have a hard time distinguish, say, one P sound.
Combining Phonemes • If it ends with a voiced sound, the Z ending is used to make the plural. If the base
noun ends with a unvoiced sound, the plural is created with an S.
Morphemes and Words
• For each word, the speaker typically has several bits of information. First, the
speaker knows the word’s sounds – that is, the sequence of phonemes that make up the
word. Second, in a literate culture, the speaker generally knows the word’s orthography –
that is, the sequence of letters that spell the word. Third, the speaker also knows how to
use the word within various phrases, governed by the rules of syntax. Finally – and
obviously – the speaker needs to know the meaning of a word; he must have a semantic
representation for the word to go with phonological representation, essentially connecting
the meaning to the sounds.
• What a word refers to is called the word’s referent. With this context, one might
propose that the meaning of a word or phrase is linked to the word’s (or phrase’s) referent:
If you know the referent of “bird”, you know what the word “bird” means if you know the
referent of “football player”, you know what the phrase means; and so on.
• You can understand a word’s meaning only if you understand the relevant
concepts. For present purposes, therefore, let us just say that a large part of “knowing a
word” is knowing the relevant concept.
Building New Words
• Generativity of language – that is, the capacity to create an endless series of new
• Syntax – rules governing the sequence of words in a phrase or sentence.
• But what is syntax? The answer is complicated, but one part seems to involve
phrase structure rules. These are stipulations that list the elements that must appear in a
phrase, as well as the sequence of those elements. The rules also specify the overall
organization of the sentence.
• One phrase structures rule, for example, stipulates that a sentence (S) must consist of
a noun phrase (NP) and a Verb phrase (VP). A different rule stipulates that noun phrases
can include a determiner, some number of adjectives, and then the noun itself. Verb
phrases can take several different forms but often consist of a verb followed by a noun
phrase. • Tree structure: A style of depiction often used to indicate hierarchical relationship,
such as the relationships (specified by phrase structure rules) among the words in a phrase
Prescriptive Rules, Descriptive Rules
• Prescriptive rules – rules describing how language is “supposed to be”
• Phrase structure rules, in contrast, are not at al prescriptive; they are instead
Descriptive rules – that is, rules characterizing the language as it is ordinarily used by
fluent speakers and listeners.
The Function of Phrase Structures
• The organization can also influence memory: In one study, the investigator asked
listeners to memorize strings of nonsense words they heard spoken. Some of the strings
had no structure at all. Other strings included function morphemes that allowed the
participants to discern a phrase structure. One might think strings of the second type would
be harder to memorize, because they’re longer. But the opposite is true: Once organized
into a phrase structure,