villagers conversation

The Psychology of Language

Language is the system of symbols, sounds, meanings and rules established by society and is the primary mode of communication for humans. This post will begin by considering the ways language and thought shape each other. Then we will examine the elements of language, how people use it in everyday life, and how children acquire the capacity to think and communicate with words. In so doing, we enter into one of the most intriguing debates in all of psychology: the extent to which the capacity to acquire language is innate. The post will conclude by considering whether we are alone among species in the capacity to use symbols to think.

Table of Contents

  1. Language and Thought
  2. Elements of Language
  3. Syntax – The Rules For Organising Words and Phrases
  4. Multiple Levels of Discourse
  5. Principles of Conversation

Language and Thought

Did you know that the Hanunoo people of the Phillipines have 92 names for rice? Does this mean the Hanunoo can think about rice in more complex ways than most westerners, who only really have ‘brown rice’ and ‘white rice’ in their vocabulary? This line of reasoning led Benjamin Whorf (1956) and others to formulate what came to be called the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic relativity, the idea that language shapes thought. According to the Whorfian hypothesis, people whose language provides numerous terms for distinguishing subtypes within a category actually perceive the world differently from people with a more limited linguistic repertoire. In its most extreme version, this hypothesis asserts that even what people can think is constrained by the words and grammatical constructions in their language.

This hypothesis can’t help but remind me of George Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the English language had been stripped of many words and adjectives in order to have a condensed version of the language known as Newspeak – which was basically English but with simplified vocabulary and grammar. The aim of this language (each yearly edition of the Newspeak dictionary contained fewer words) was to eliminate the possibility of thoughtcrime (later changed to crimethought in a later edition of the Newspeak dictionary) which is the thinking of crime, by eliminating any words that could possibly allow one to think of rebellion against the totalitarian regime of Big Brother. One character, Syme, says admiringly of the shrinking volume of the new dictionary: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” The premise of replacing oldspeak (modern English) with newspeak, was to control people’s thoughts, because if they didn’t have access to the vocabulary, they couldn’t think it. This is an example of how the Whorfian hypothesis works at it’s most extreme.

With complex concepts language does appear to play a role in shaping thought. Having certain concepts such as freedom or capitalism, would be impossible without language. Reasoning deductively would certainly be difficult if people could not construct propositions verbally and draw conclusions based on verbally represented premises.

Elements of Language

One of the defining features of language is that its symbols are arbitrary; the English language could just as easily have called cats dogs and vice versa. In this next section, we examine how sounds and symbols are transformed into meaningful sentences, beginning with the basic elements of language. We then explore the grammatical rules people implicitly follow as they manipulate these elements to produce meaning.

PhonemesSmallest unit of sound that constitute speechth, s, ā, ă
MorphemesSmallest unit of meaningAnti-, house, and, the,  -ing, -ed, -er
PhrasesGroups of words that act as a unit to convey a meaningAte the chocolate, the rain outside, inside the fridge
SentencesOrganised sequences of words that express a thought or intentionDid you get milk? Where is the milk? This milk is old

Language is produced hierarchically, from the small units of sound people produce through their mouths and noses, to the complex combinations of words and sentences they produce to convey meaning.  The smallest units of sound that constitute speech, called phonemes, are strung together to create meaningful words and sentences. In the English language, phonemes include not only vowels and consonants but also the different ways of pronouncing them.

A string of randomly connected phonemes, however, does not convey any message. To be meaningful, strings of phonemes must be combined into morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in language. Words, suffixes and prefixes are all morphemes, such as pillow, and, horse, the, pre- and -ing. The word cognition, for example, consists of two morphemes: cognit – from the Latin cognitio (part of the verb ‘to know’) and ion – meaning ‘the act of‘. So strung together, cognition translates to the act of knowing. Similarly, psychology is broken up into two morphemes: psych (which comes from psyche and means ‘the mind‘) and ology which means ‘the study of’ – Psychology = the study of the mind.

Morphemes are combined into phrases, the groups of words that act as a unit and convey a meaning. In the sentence ‘when people speak, they make many sounds’, the words when people speak and many sounds are phrases. Words and phrases are combined into sentences, organised sequences of words that express a thought or intention. Some sentences are intended as statements of fact or propositions, while others ask questions or make requests.

Syntax – The Rules For Organising Words and Phrases


Speakers 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 talk

When 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: