Language and Thinking
  • Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics

    The study of language is often divided into semantics, syntactics and pragmatics. Similar divisions appear in computer science where the construction and application of computer programs are investigated. The distinction between syntax (sentence form) and semantics (word and sentence meaning) is fundamental to the study of language. Syntax is the collection of rules that govern how words are assembled into meaningful sentences. While these are useful distinctions in the study of language, language use in the real world is fluid and always changing.

    Semantics as a study considers the meaning of words themselves and the meaning of word phrases. Young children point with a pudgy index finger and say the name their pointer indicates. Pointing and naming remains an endearing characteristic for the rest of a human life. Naming proceeds from the description of the immediate and concrete objects to making abstract statements about events. Tourists in a foreign country revert to the two-year-old strategy of pointing, naming, and using pantomime to replace the verbs and sentence structures they do not know. The meaning of sentences requires understanding both the meaning of individual words and the syntactic context in which the words are embedded. Words can denote a literal or core meaning and connote a halo of associative meanings.

    Pragmatics is the study of how language is used and how the different uses of language determine semantics and syntax. Much of this book is about language pragmatics, about how humans use language to achieve their goals. You can begin by stating that language is a form of communication. Humans live and work in groups that require sound communications, sharing information, broadcasting warnings, forming and maintaining relationships. Sounds and gestures are the key ingredients of communication systems. In a following chapter Patterns of Language Use, I examine language pragmatics under several headings such as stories, gossip, myths, polite talk, humor, literature and news.

    Syntax A reasonable understanding of the evolution of language is that syntax developed slowly from minimally-syntactical utterances. Syntax links names and actions as a simulation of the order of events in the real world. Syntax is the basis of verbal reasoning. Syntax has developed differently in different languages. Increasing complexity of sentences accommodates an increasing need for more detailed communications. Syntax provides selective advantage to humans who faced variable and complex demands and who made more flexible and complex statements to each other to cope with survival challenges.

    Syntax is the form of language that admits any content. The content may be literal or factual. The content may be an invention, a fictional story that gains credibility by being inserted into proper syntax. Humans are confused or alarmed by improper syntax, but will often accept fabricated contents with little resistance or with demonstrable appreciation. You could argue that there are two main uses of language: one is to inform; the other is to deceive.

    Written language is associated with more standardization of grammar. The written version of English and many European languages have complex grammars that are difficult to learn. The spoken versions of these languages tend to be simpler and are easier to learn. Conversations in any language use looser syntax than properly written texts.

    While grammar is a remarkable achievement, sentences simulate real events with inevitable errors, inventions and distortions. A deep investigation of language reveals a remarkable human ability to represent what is going on attached to a remarkable ability to misrepresent what is going on out there. Language permits the invention of virtual realties that humans “believe” more than they perceive the world as it is. The reasoning built into grammar is not analogous to how things actually work so that grammatically correct statements routinely misrepresent what is going on out there even when the intention is to just report the facts.

    The brain activity associated with syntax and semantics occurs in distinct areas of the brain that are interconnected. The underlying strategy seems to be based on grouping objects and actions into categories with rules that form the syntax or grammar of the language. The human brain stores nouns and verbs separately and has surprising habits of separating words and syntactical rules in sub-compartments. You get something of this effect with computer programs that store data and program segments in scattered blocks of memory and then keep a map of where all the pieces are. In addition to a map or as part of the map, the brain seems to evolve a series of controllers that remember strategies for putting all these pieces together. Different languages can co-exist in one brain and speakers with different linguistic styles can co-exist in one brain. A single language, the one that is used most often, will dominate however, and secondary languages will borrow from or compete with the primary language for representation.

    Smyly suggested that there are two aspects to processing a sentence: meaning and structure – or, more technically, semantics and syntax. These properties are processed separately, in different areas of the brain. "The cat chased the mouse and the mouse chased the cat" are two sentences with exactly the same words, but in a different order. Meaning is not attached to individual words but involves their context and order. Mirella Dapretto and Susan Bookheimer used brain scans to find visualize what areas of the brain were active with different sentence decoding tasks such as listening to pairs of sentences and deciding whether or not they had the same meaning. Some of the test sentences differed in syntax – for example, "The policeman arrested the thief" and "The thief was arrested by the policeman" – while others had the same structure but different words. In the latter set of examples, the words could either be synonyms of each other, in which case the overall meanings of the sentences were the same, or not. For example, "The car is in the garage" and "The automobile is in the garage" mean the same thing, "The bike is in the garage" does not. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures increases in blood flow, to look at which areas of the brain were active during each of the two tasks. They found that meaning processing occurred in the left inferior frontal gyrus. Syntax processing occurred in 'Broca's area' usually associated with producing speech.

    • Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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      Human Nature
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      The author is Stephen Gislason and the publisher is Persona Digital Books.