The Echoes of the Mind (43) Language


The chattering of monkeys often sounds very much like human conversation. ~ English archeologist Steven Mithen

A language is a system of symbols with interrelated (correlative) meanings. The structural rule set that establishes context is syntax.

Grammar is overarching and regards the proper use of language for a certain cultural milieu. Grammar includes semantics, syntax, punctuation, and spelling.

Our species’ symbolically based systems of meaning do not depend upon a clear correspondence between symbol and referent. Indeed, it is only since the invention of dictionaries and written linguistic systems that people have commonly assumed that individual words have specific meanings. ~ American psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

◊ ◊ ◊

There are 2 dominant word orders across spoken human languages: subject-object-verb (sov) and subject-verb-object (svo). 47% of human languages use sov, 41% svo, and 8% verb-subject-object (vso). The remaining 4% of languages are exceptions to these dominant word orders.

The subject coming first follows innate human preference for recapitulating old information before introducing new information. The subject first establishes context, which otherwise may be confused.

sov is the default word order. In trying to communicate solely via gestures, people invariably employ subject-object-verb (sov).

svo evolved from sov. The reason for preferring subject-verb-object (svo) over sov as a language construct is noise. svo has a better chance of preserving some information if the communications channel is noisy.

Language comprehension and production operate via a noisy channel. ~ American cognitive scientist Edward Gibson et al (This statement corresponds with a well-known communications theorem proposed by American mathematician Claude Shannon in 1948.)

sov languages commonly compensate for potential confusion between subject and object with case marking: changing words based upon their syntactic function. In English, “she” as a subject becomes “her” as an object. Besides personal pronouns, case marking is rare in English. Japanese is sov and is a strongly case-marked language.

There is a great deal of functional design in seemingly arbitrary patterns of variation across languages. ~ Steven Pinker

◊ ◊ ◊

Conceptually, written language is nothing more than stale monologue via a transposition of audible expression into a system of symbolic convention. Other graphic language constructs are conceivable, but, given the evolutionary nature of human language, they have never been considered.

Writing systems basically bifurcate into alphabets (e.g., English) and syllabaries (e.g., Japanese). Both aim at constructing pronounceable syllables.

Whereas the atoms of syllabaries are themselves symbolized syllables, alphabets further quantize syllables into individual letters of consonants and vowels, where vowels may stand alone, but consonants always carry a vowel with them in composing a syllable. Vowels act as consonant modifiers and vice versa.

Character (semanto-phonetic) writing systems are an extension of the syllabary concept, with individual symbols representing complete concepts. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are exemplary. Whereas pictograms visually resemble objects, ideograms are graphic representations of abstractions, such as numbers.

Such expression requires an extensive symbol set. Classical written Chinese involved tens of thousands of characters. While character writing is time-consuming compared to alphabets, such languages read much faster once mastered.

The mental demands of character-based writing to become literate (and to write) are such that countries which use them have in modern times have reduced the number of common characters and simplified the strokes needed to scribe complex characters. Japan officially simplified its Chinese-derived character schema in 1946, 1981, and 2010. In many instances, the shinjitai (new character form) were codifications of long-used simplifications.

Syllabic alphabets, common to southern and southeast Asia, are something of a hybrid. The main element is a syllable representing a vowel, or a consonant with an inherent vowel, visually presented as an alphabet.

◊ ◊ ◊

The languages used for interpersonal communication are a subset of those that humans regularly employ. Every extended conceptual realm has its own language. Music and the graphic arts, including cinema, are languages in their mental construction, conveyance, and comprehension.

Each language has its own distinctive symbols that serve as building blocks of reality. ~ American sociologist John Macionis