Structure of Human Language
Handout for LING 057
Language and Popular Culture.
When we think about the components of human language, we think of it as
consisting of the following:
- A sound-system (or phonological component).
- A set of vocabulary items (the "lexicon").
- A grammatical system ("morphology") which puts meaningful
elements together into
- A syntax, or set of rules to state what the order of elements is in
larger utterances, such as 'sentences.'
- A semantic component, where meanings are interpreted.
We think of these components as being in some ways finite and in
other ways non-finite. And the building blocks of one component
form the units of the ones higher than it.
but not exactly the same for
every speaker. Some meaningful units have only grammatical
meaning, e.g. suffixes on words such as -ing, -s, -ed, -th (as in
width etc.) and so on. So we distinguish between
- The sound-system is capable of infinite minute differences
in sound, but no language uses all, or even a large part of the possible
differences. Sound systems divide things up into finite units (called
"phonemes" or classes of sounds) and therefore the number of sound units
is finite i.e. English has a finite number of vowels and
consonants; the number of vowels is around 11 or 12, varying by dialect.
- A set of vocabulary items (the "lexicon"). The set of meaningful
units is finite, or sort of: there are often 'old' (archaic, obsolete)
words floating around in the language, especially in print. Some may be
used by older speakers; some may be recognized for their meaning in
context, but wouldn't be 'known' in isolation. So old meanings are going
out, and new words are constantly being invented.
The set of meaningful
units in the lexicon is therefore more or less
- grammatical meaningful units.
The grammatical morphemes are more finite in number than the former. One example of
a fairly new grammatical marker is the suffix 'guys' as in 'you-guys' which marks
plurality for a lot of people. Other dialects have 'y'all' for this. The fact that
it is becoming a grammatical marker is shown by the way some people make it
possessive, i.e. 'you-guys's' [yugayzIz], or in southern dialects 'yallz':
- 'You guys needs to give me you-guys's receipts so you can get
- Y'all need to give me y'all's receipts so you can get
A grammatical system ("morphology") which puts meaningful elements together
into 'words'. The grammar is finite, at any given moment.
A syntax, or set of rules to state what the order of elements is in
larger utterances, such as 'sentences.' But the output of the syntax,
i.e. the sentences people know and recognize, is
A semantic component, where meanings are interpreted. Number of
possible meanings is probably also infinite.
Put these together in a kind of hierarchical structure, using the sound
system as the first building blocks and working upward from
there, gives us the following structure:
| Level of structure:|| Possibilities:
rather rigid and fixed. |
Innovation at this level is slow
| Vocabulary, meaningful units: |
somewhat open-ended, but
| Sound system, units of sound
| Phonetic level ||
We see this kind of structure, built from the ground up, as possessed
solely by humans, and not observed for other animals, even primates such
as chimps, gorillas, etc. The structure of their communication system is
much simpler: fewer 'vocabulary' items, simple syntax, very little