Psychology 101 – Language

Syntax – The Rules For Organising Words and Phrases

grammarSpeakers of a language intuitively know that they cannot place words or phrases wherever they want in a sentence. A native English speaker would never ask ‘Why you did do that now?’ because it violates implicit rules of word placement. Consider, in contrast, the pseudosentence. The sten befted don the flotway. Although the individual words have no meaning, readers will intuitively recognise it as essentially grammatical: sten is clearly a noun and the subject of the sentence; befted is a verb in the past tense (indicated by the morpheme  –ed)  and flotway is the direct object. This pseudosentence feels grammatical to an English speaker because it conforms to the syntax of the language, the rules that govern the placement of words and phrases in a sentence.

Grammar is the study of rules governing the use of a language, each language has it’s own rules and therefore has it’s own grammar. The main sub topics of grammar are morphology, syntax and phonology, and these are often complemented by phonetics, semantics and pragmatics.

  1. Morphology – the study of morphemes and other linguistic units such as words, affixes, intonation, and implied context.
  2. Syntax – the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in human language.
  3. Phonology –the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken in any human language – phonology is concerned with the function, behaviour and organization of sounds as linguistic items
    • Phonetics – the study of the sounds of human speech.
    • Semantics – the study of meaning, it focuses on the relationship between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols and what meaning they represent. A lot of words have multiple meanings, for example – orange can mean either the colour or the fruit, depending on the context.
    • Pragmatics – the study of how context contributes to meaning, and the ambiguity of certain conversational speech patterns and how we interpret their implicit meaning.

More recently, some researchers have begun to focus on levels of linguistic processing broader than the isolated sentence. Rather than studying the elements of language from the bottom up, they have turned to the analysis of discourse, which is the way people typically speak, hear, read and write in interconnected sentences.

Multiple Levels of Discourse – According to many discourse analysts, people mentally represent discourse at multiple levels. At the lowest level is the exact wording of the phrases and sentences written or spoken, which is retained in memory only briefly while the rest of the sentence is processed. When later called upon to remember a sentence, people usually only recall the gist, or general meaning.

People also make inferences, which are largely automatic and implicit. These inferences influence both what people hear and what they remember. Consider the inferences people make when they read the familiar message on a shampoo bottle: lather, rinse and repeat. If the person did not make any inferences based on that text then they would continue to repeat lathering and rinsing the shampoo in their hair, because the text has no instruction on when to stop!

At the next level, the speaker or narrator asks the audience to suspend reality and enter themselves in a different situation or place. For example, the words ‘picture yourself…’ followed by whatever scenario or place you can think of, is designed to momentarily place the audience outside of their current situation and imagine themselves being somewhere else.

One step higher is the communication level, which reflects what the communicator is trying to achieve with his words, written or verbal. Whether he is trying to impart factual knowledge, illustrate a point, or tell a fictional or non-fictional story. Finally, at the broadest level is the general type of discourse, such as a news report, a story, a joke or a comment intended to start conversation etc.

Principles of Conversation

small talkWhen people talk or write, their communications are guided not only by syntactic rules that shape the way they put words together but also by a set of shared of rules of conversation that are implicit in the minds of both participants. For example, people keep track of what their listener knows, and when they introduce a new term or idea, they typically signal it with a change in syntax and embellish it with examples of evocative language. People also use various cues to signal important information. In writing, they usually put the topic sentence of a paragraph first so that readers know what the main point is, while in public speaking, people often use intonation (tone of voice) to emphasise particular points.

These literary devices of everyday life might seem obvious, but what is remarkable is how effortlessly people use and understand them, often without being explicitly told how. Another important thing to consider is that most of what we communicate actually comes through the use of nonverbal language than our actual words. This nonverbal communication includes a variety of signals: body language, gestures, touch, physical distance, facial expressions and nonverbal vocalisations (such as sighs).

This is all I have time to write on language for the time being, I will update it later to include research on how infants develop language so efficiently and quickly, and also the chances of apes being able to develop language.

Check Out Part 5 of Psychology 101: Motivation!

Other guides in the Psychology 101 series:

8 thoughts on “Psychology 101 – Language

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