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The Scientific Notion of Language and Structure (part 2)

This is part 2 of the chapter. Go to part 1.

Watch the video, answer the questions on a piece of paper, then check your answers.

  1. According to Descartes, what does language enable us to do?
    Say anything we choose to say.
  2. How many sentences can we produce?
    A virtual infinity.
  3. How can you understand sentences that nobody has ever said before?
    You have rules in your head.
  4. How does he describe the rules?
    They're automatic, implicit, unconscious and not accessible to explicit understanding.
  5. What is the important difference between the two sentences about the pig?
    In one, the pig does the eating. In the other, the pig is being eaten.
  6. What could the first sentence about Bill and John mean?
    Bill knew either that John liked Bill or that John liked Fred.
  7. What are the three parts of language that he is going to talk about?
    Phonology, morphology and syntax.
  8. What does each of these three parts mean?
    Phonology is the system of sounds or signs. Morphology is the system of words or morphemes, basic units of meaning. Syntax refers to rules and principles that put together words and phrases into meaningful utterances.
  9. Which author and book does he mention?
    Steven Pinker and The Language Instinct.

Words from the Academic Word List have been hidden in this transcript. Watch the video, complete the gaps on a piece of paper, then check your answers.

  1. So, in general, there is some support, at least at a very broad level, for the claim that language is in some sense part of human nature. Well, what do we mean by language? What are we talking about when we talk about language? We don’t want to
    restrict
    ourselves, for
    instance
    , to English or French. What do all languages share? Well, all languages are
    creative
    and this means a
    couple
    of things.
  2. One meaning is the meaning
    emphasized
    by Rene Descartes. When Rene Descartes argued that we are more than merely machines, his best piece of
    evidence
    for him was the human
    capacity
    for language. No machine could do this because our
    capacity
    for language is unbounded and free. We could say anything we choose to say. We have free will. And in fact, language allows us to produce a
    virtual
    infinity of sentences. So, we could
    create
    and understand sentences that we never heard before. And there are a lot of sentences. So, if you want to
    estimate
    how many grammatical sentences under twenty words in English, the answer is, "a lot." And what this means is that any
    theory
    of language use and language comprehension cannot simply appeal to a list. When you understand a sentence I said you have to have the
    capacity
    to understand a sentence even if you’ve never heard it before. And this is because we could effortlessly produce and understand sentences that no human has ever said before on earth.
  3. Would anybody
    volunteer
    to say a sentence, non obscene, non derogatory, that has never been spoken before on earth, ever? Here. I’ll start. "It’s surprisingly easy to get a purple tie on eBay if you don’t care much about quality." I could imagine no one else in the world has said this before. "I am upset that one cannot easily download ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ through iTunes." Now, it’s possible somebody said both these sentences before, but you probably have not heard them. But you understand them immediately. So, how do you do it? Well, you have rules in your head. You’ve learnt what the words mean, but you have
    abstract
    and unconscious rules that take these words, figure out the order, and in a fraction of a second, give rise to understanding. And that’s the sort of thing linguists study.
  4. So, take some standard examples from the linguistic study of English. And bear in mind the rules we’re talking about here are not rules you
    explicitly
    know. They’re
    automatic
    rules of the same sort we’re going to talk about in the
    context
    of
    visual
    perception
    in that they’re
    implicit
    and unconscious and not
    accessible
    to
    explicit
    understanding. So for
    instance
    , immediately you read "The pig is eager to eat" versus "The pig is easy to eat" and in a fraction of a second you know there’s an important difference. "The pig is eager to eat" means the state of affairs that we’re talking about is when the pig does the eating. "The pig is easy to eat" is when the pig is being eaten.
  5. You would see a sentence like "Bill knew that John liked him" and you know, without even knowing how you know, that this could mean that Bill knew that John liked Bill or it could mean that Bill knew that John liked Fred. But it can’t mean that Bill knew that John liked John. The natural
    interpretation
    , in fact, is that Bill knew that John liked Bill. The two words co-refer.
    Contrast
    that with "Bill knew that John liked himself," which only has the meaning Bill knew that John liked John. And this is what linguists do for a living so if you hear me talking about this and say, "I want to spend the next forty years of my life studying that," you should become a linguist. But that’s the sort of — those are the sort of
    phenomena
    that we’re interested in.
  6. Now, it gets more complicated. Those are examples from syntax, but language has many
    structures
    . Language has
    structures
    going from the bottom to the top. All languages — All human languages have phonology, which is the system of sounds or signs; morphology, which is the system of words or morphemes, basic units of meaning; and syntax, which refer to rules and
    principles
    that put together words and phrases into meaningful utterances. And I want to talk
    briefly
    about each of these three parts of language before looking at some other
    issues
    . I’m indebted here to Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Language Instinct which provides, I think, a superb discussion of these
    phenomena
    . And I’m going to steal some of my examples from Pinker.

  1. So, in general, there is some support, at least at a very broad level, for the claim that language is in some sense part of human nature. Well, what do we mean by language? What are we talking about when we talk about language? We don’t want to restrict ourselves, for instance, to English or French. What do all languages share? Well, all languages are creative and this means a couple of things.
  2. One meaning is the meaning emphasized by Rene Descartes. When Rene Descartes argued that we are more than merely machines, his best piece of evidence for him was the human capacity for language. No machine could do this because our capacity for language is unbounded and free. We could say anything we choose to say. We have free will. And in fact, language allows us to produce a virtual infinity of sentences. So, we could create and understand sentences that we never heard before. And there are a lot of sentences. So, if you want to estimate how many grammatical sentences under twenty words in English, the answer is, “a lot.” And what this means is that any theory of language use and language comprehension cannot simply appeal to a list. When you understand a sentence I said you have to have the capacity to understand a sentence even if you’ve never heard it before. And this is because we could effortlessly produce and understand sentences that no human has ever said before on earth.
  3. Would anybody volunteer to say a sentence, non obscene, non derogatory, that has never been spoken before on earth, ever? Here. I’ll start. “It’s surprisingly easy to get a purple tie on eBay if you don’t care much about quality.” I could imagine no one else in the world has said this before. “I am upset that one cannot easily download ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ through iTunes.” Now, it’s possible somebody said both these sentences before, but you probably have not heard them. But you understand them immediately. So, how do you do it? Well, you have rules in your head. You’ve learnt what the words mean, but you have abstract and unconscious rules that take these words, figure out the order, and in a fraction of a second, give rise to understanding. And that’s the sort of thing linguists study.
  4. So, take some standard examples from the linguistic study of English. And bear in mind the rules we’re talking about here are not rules you explicitly know. They’re automatic rules of the same sort we’re going to talk about in the context of visual perception in that they’re implicit and unconscious and not accessible to explicit understanding. So for instance, immediately you read “The pig is eager to eat” versus “The pig is easy to eat” and in a fraction of a second you know there’s an important difference. “The pig is eager to eat” means the state of affairs that we’re talking about is when the pig does the eating. “The pig is easy to eat” is when the pig is being eaten.
  5. You would see a sentence like “Bill knew that John liked him” and you know, without even knowing how you know, that this could mean that Bill knew that John liked Bill or it could mean that Bill knew that John liked Fred. But it can’t mean that Bill knew that John liked John. The natural interpretation, in fact, is that Bill knew that John liked Bill. The two words co-refer. Contrast that with “Bill knew that John liked himself,” which only has the meaning Bill knew that John liked John. And this is what linguists do for a living so if you hear me talking about this and say, “I want to spend the next forty years of my life studying that,” you should become a linguist. But that’s the sort of — those are the sort of phenomena that we’re interested in.
  6. Now, it gets more complicated. Those are examples from syntax, but language has many structures. Language has structures going from the bottom to the top. All languages — All human languages have phonology, which is the system of sounds or signs; morphology, which is the system of words or morphemes, basic units of meaning; and syntax, which refer to rules and principles that put together words and phrases into meaningful utterances. And I want to talk briefly about each of these three parts of language before looking at some other issues. I’m indebted here to Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Language Instinct which provides, I think, a superb discussion of these phenomena. And I’m going to steal some of my examples from Pinker.

Paul Bloom, Introduction to Psychology (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), https://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed 10 June 2013). Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA. Terms of Use