This blog is going to delve into a complex argument about the purpose of language. When we think of language, we intuitively think of communication. However, cognitive scientists would argue that the purpose of language is to organize our thoughts. How do we parse out the true purpose of language?
We can start by analyzing the four properties of human language: discreteness, grammar, productivity, and displacement. Discrete units (e.g., phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases) of language can be combined to create different expressions. Human grammar has a set of internalized rules (phonological, morphological, and syntactic) for how to combine these discrete units. For plural nouns, cats is pronounced as cat-[s], while cars is pronounced car-[z]. When the singular noun ends with a vibrating vocal fold, we would pronounce the s as a [z] sound. This is an example of an intuitive grammatical rule for spoken language. At every level, grammatical rules determine how units can be combined. Grammar involves discrete units that are combined by rule, and these pieces can be combined in an infinite number of combinations, which is known as the principle of productivity. In addition, humans have the ability to talk about events that are happening at different points in time, otherwise known as displacement. For example, we can talk about what will happen, what has already happened, or something that would never happen. It is unclear the degree to which other species can communicate about future events. While animal languages can contain some of these properties, it is the combination of these four properties that makes human language special.
As for the purpose of language, it is used to represent sounds and gestures as meaning. The question is whether language is best used to organize thoughts or whether it is best for communication. In a good communication system, ambiguity is undesirable. The listener should be able to understand exactly what the speaker is saying. Here, I will discuss the ambiguity of language to help us understand why it is not the best communication system.
Sentences can generally be organized into noun phrases and verb phrases. For example, take the sentence Creative students write journals. This can be split into [creative students] as the noun phrase and [write journals] as the verb phrase. The speaker (or person who creates the thought) creates these types of structures in their mind. In communication, listeners have to recognize individual sounds and reconstruct the sentence structure. This can lead to error.
Garden path errors (temporary errors) occur when the listener begins parsing a sentence into one structure, but has to change their interpretation of the sentence and parse the structure in a different way. One common example of a garden path sentence is The horse raced past the barn fell. When first reading this sentence, it might come off as ungrammatical. We initially parse the sentence into [the horse] as the noun phrase, and [raced past the barn] as the verb phrase, so we don’t know what to do with fell. The reason for this mistaken sentence parsing is our tendency to choose simpler sentence structures and our tendency to assume that sentences have an active-voice rather than a passive-voice. For clarity, we could change the sentence to The horse that was raced past the barn fell. The phrase that was is a syntactic cue that indicates a complex noun phrase. The structure of this sentence would be [the horse that was raced past the barn] as the noun phrase, and [fell] as the verb phrase. The original sentence has the same meaning, and can be parsed in the same way, with [the horse raced past the barn] as the noun phrase, and [fell] as the verb phrase.
There are also global structural ambiguities in language. Take the sentence I saw the man in the street. That sentence could have two meanings. It could mean the man was in the street, or it could mean that I was in the street. To represent the meaning of the man being in the street, the verb phrase [saw the man in the street] should be broken into a verb [saw] and noun phrase [the man in the phrase]. To represent the meaning that I was in the street, the verb phrase [saw the man in the street] should be broken down into a verb phrase [saw the man] and a prepositional phrase [in the street]. However, only the speaker (or person who produces a thought) can see the syntactic structure of the sentences to determine the meaning of a sentence. The listener cannot determine meaning without further context.
Based on these two types of errors, language might be better suited for organizing thoughts rather than communication. The argument that I made is not that language is not used for communication. It is used to communicate thoughts between individuals. However, it is most useful for organizing thoughts through syntax, or sentence structure. Syntax and the meaning of sentences are in interplay. The relationship between sound or gestures and meaning (which we described as language) is mediated by syntax (or organization of words). Since this organization is known only to the speaker (or thinker), language can be ambiguous. Cognitive scientists argue that we could develop clearer systems of language for communication to reduce ambiguity, but we don’t. This idea of language being for thought has to do with differences in how our brains are organized. Why do we think the way we do? How do we organize our thoughts, and why do we organize them in the system we do? Studying our language allows us to peer into the organizational framework of our minds.
The contents of this blog were taken from Philosophy 246: Foundations of Cognitive Science- Module 4: Language by Professor Toby Mintz.
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