Chapter 12 Language
The Nature of Language
The understanding of language is relatively automatic. As we hear or read a sentence, we
focus on its meaning and comprehend it by using the information stored in our long term
Psycholinguistics refers to the study of comprehension, production and acquisition of
Levels of Language Representation
A sentence is composed of many different pieces and these different pieces are referred to as
different levels of language representation
Grammar refers to the rules of usage but in linguistics grammar refers to the sum of
knowledge that someone has about the structure of his/her language. Most of the grammatical
knowledge is unconscious but it underlies our ability to speak or comprehend a language
Various levels of language representation explain how we understand sentences. These levels
1. Discourse level refers to a coherent group of written or spoken sentences.
This level mentally represents the meaning of an sentence that goes beyond
the meaning of individual words.
In this representation, the two most important parts are the subject and the
The relationship between the words is explained in terms of a propositional
representation which relates the action, the one doing the action and the
thing that is acted on.
Discourse level links the sentence to the context in which it occurs and links it
to information in the long term memory. This linkage can help us remember
how things work in a particular situation e.g. the last time we ate at x fast
food, the food was bad notice we performed the action of eating the object
food and the incident occurred last time which was then stored in our long
2. Syntax level specifies the relationships between the types of words in a sentence (e.g.
between noun and verb)
Syntax represents the structure of a sentence and it is believed to be a part of
our mental representation of sentences as well. It builds on the doer, action
and the object
Representing the syntax of a sentence uses a phrase structure tree which is a
diagram of a sentence that illustrates its linear hierarchical structure. It breaks
down the components of a sentence.
1 It is believed that we build a mental representation of the trees hierarchical
representation of the word relationships and likewise comprehend the
meaning of the sentence.
At the level of syntax comprehenders make a decision about the word order. A
sentence can have the same content but different syntax based on the word
Patients with damage to the left hemisphere may have aphasia which refers
to language or speech disruption. Aphasia can manifest itself in various ways
and one manifestation that involves disruption of syntactic level of
representation is called non-fluent aphasia or Brocas aphasia. (Brocas ara
is the left frontal area)
Patients of Brocas aphasia have difficulty relating the discourse and the
syntactical level of representation. The difficulty is not related to the meanings
of the words these patients do understand the meanings of the words but fail
to understand the relationship among the words in the sentence (they may
shuffle around the words of a sentence while comprehending/producing).
Since these patients have long term memory of objects, usually they can relate
the doer, action and object using their logic from memory.
3. Word and morpheme level; at this level the meanings of the words are encoded:
Morphemes are the building blocks of words i.e. the smallest unit of meaning
in a language. Words can be composed of single or multiple morphemes e.g.
burned/noodles is composed of two morphemes i.e. burn and ed or noodle
Bound morphemes are the plural and past tense forms that attach onto other
morphemes they are usually prefixes or suffixes
Free morphemes are the single words that can stand alone.
Content morphemes are the words that carry meaning but do not provide
much information on the sentence structure
Function words or function morphemes e.g. the or ed ending type of words
convey less meaning but carry information about relationships among words
and about the syntactic structure of a sentence. Function morphemes link the
level of word and syntax
Patients of Brocas aphasia who have difficulty with syntax also have trouble
perceiving and producing function morphemes. Their speech lacks function
Patients of Wernickes aphasia or Fluent aphasia have a different problem
at the level of word and morphemes. These patients have grammatical speech
with nouns, verbs and other parts of speech but they cannot produce content
morphemes properly and speech ends up being nonsensical. These patients
2 also have difficulty comprehending content morphemes and thus have very
little understanding of what is being said to them.
The difference in Brocas and Wernickes aphasia emphasizes that language is
organized at different levels within the brain. The impairment at one level
such as disruption of functional morphemes suffered by Brocas aphasics can
lead to trouble at other levels as well e.g. in interpreting the sentence syntax
which can then lead to difficulty in understanding the meaning of a sentence
4. Phonemes level
Phonemes are the smallest distinguishable units of speech sounds that make
a morpheme in a language.
We can alternatively use alphabets instead of phonemes as the smallest unit of
morphemes but we dont since different languages differ in writing, different
way of writing may have the same pronunciation or people may differ in
pronunciation themselves. Phonemes help provide a degree of universality
Phonetic alphabets are universal symbols for speech sounds that can
represent all languages independent of how they are written or spelled. These
symbols merely represent how the word should sound
It is believed that similar to how we can consciously break a word down into
spelling, at the level of brain we unconsciously represent words into smaller
Since Brocas aphasia has been associated with poor comprehension and
production of syntax and the reason of that is considered the lack of function
morphemes, research argues that Brocas aphasia can be linked to impairment
in perceiving the function morphemes e.g. in a study, it was shown that
participants had equal difficulty distinguishing between pray vs prayed and
tray vs. trade. The problem lies in the way these patients perceive and
comprehend the sequence of speech sounds which then leads to poor
comprehension of function morphemes further leading to problems with
syntax and sentence meaning.
Language versus Animal communication
Animals also have a means of communication but humans are unique in because they possess
duality of patterning which refers to the property that meaningful units such as morphemes
are made up of meaningless units such as phonemes. We can combine same phonemes in a
variety of ways to produce multiple morphemes.
Animals do have different ways of signalling different things but they do not have the ability
of duality of patterning i.e. they cannot recombine similar sounds to make up a new sound
Language has the property of arbitrariness i.e. the relationship between the sound/spelling
of a word is unpredictable and totally independent of each other e.g. the word cat does not
sound (should have been meow if there was no arbitrariness) look like a cat (in a symbol)
3 Human languages also have generative capacity which refers to the ability of humans to
recombine morphemes, words and sentences to convey a variety of thoughts or ideas. Due to
the generative capacity, sometime we make up a word which is not a defined term but the
other person can interpret it e.g. retard-ness
Due to the generative capacity we can combine the words over and over to make endless
Recursion refers to the generative capacity in the syntax where we can embed pieces of a
sentence or a whole sentence in another sentence, thereby making the sentence longer. By
embedding, we can make a sentence indefinitely long but we prefer to keep our sentences
Behaviourists argue that syntax of sentences can be described as a chain of associations from
one word to next word, but we try to avoid ma