The Echoes of the Mind – 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

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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

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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.

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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


“Go is to Western chess as philosophy is to double entry accounting.” ~ American novelist Trevanian in the novel Shibumi (1979)

Go is the world’s oldest board game, invented 4,000–2,500 years ago in China. Go has long been popular and respected as an intellectual art form throughout East Asia, notably China, Japan, and Korea. There are over 40 million Go players worldwide.

A Go game begins with the board vacant. 2 players alternate placing black and white stones on the intersections, eventually forming groups of stones that create patterns delineating territory of empty intersections (spaces).

At the end of the game, each space under control of a player is counted as a point. The player with the most points wins.

Stones connect – horizontally and vertically, but not diagonally – to form groups. Any stone or group that is completely surrounded by enemy stones becomes captured: taken off the board, and at the conclusion of the game reducing the point count of the player whose stones they are.

Stones in captive groups not completely surrounded – dead stones – end up counting as 2 points: 1 for the space the stone sits on, and 1 for the captured stone, which hypothetically fills in an empty space on the territory of the player whose stone it is.

A group with a single eye (empty space), or which can be reduced to a single eye, can be captured by being surrounded externally, and then the single eye filled in to capture. Thus a group with no eyes or 1 eye can be killed.

In contrast, a group with at least 2 eyes is alive, and cannot be killed, as it can never be surrounded and captured as a 1-eyed group can. At the end of a game, territory is delineated by groups which cannot be reduced from having 2 or more eyes.

Despite simple rules, Go is a strategy game with a vast number of permutations: 10761 compared to 10120 in chess.

The apprehension of Go is a language and learns like one. Its patterns are like sentences, subject to syntax for forming live – grammatically-correct – groups.

The vocabulary of formations that may arise and give a roughly equal result in the corners to secure territory, and influence play across the board – joseki – number some 3,500.

Similarly, there is surprising complexity in the potential life or death of groups, with especially adroit plays (tesuji) to effect and outcome. The shapes which define life-or-death situations number in the hundreds.

Go players are ranked according to skill. 45 different ranks are recognized, from rank beginner (30-kyu) to top-level professional (9-dan). (Go ranks ascend from 30-kyu to 1-kyu amateur, then 1-dan to 6-dan amateur. A 6-dan amateur is one step away from 1-dan professional. Professional rankings are 1-dan to 9-dan.) The difference between ranks is modest but discernible, equivalent to an extra (free) play on the board at the beginning of the game.

Historically, there have been professionals at the top (9-dan) level so strong that their potency against other players is estimated to have been up to 3 hypothetical ranks better (12-dan).

Go is played professionally in the East Asian countries where it is most popular, and the mental acumen required for skill in the game highly respected.

A child must begin playing Go early to have any chance of becoming a top professional. An ideal age to begin is 4–5 years. Even a 10-year-old novice is unlikely to become fluent enough to be able to go pro in Go.

“The subtleties of this game are beyond the reach of the lazy, its triumph is too exquisite for the vulgar and materialistic man.” ~ English diplomat and sinologist Herbert Giles


Every living quantum and being has a mind. The mind works symbolically. Symbolism is the root of language. Language is a rule-based structuring of symbols. Hence, every organic entity employs language. Though language sophistication differs widely, language is a universality in Nature, whose expression can be characterized in the language called mathematics.

Physics expresses the energetic mechanics of Nature mathematically. As the objects and forces behind the objects that comprise Nature are coherently composed, Nature itself is a continuous linguistic expression.

Obviously, the faculty for language is innate. Language forms the basis for sociality. Languages used for communication evolve through, and as part of, culture.

“A person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws or patterns of which he is unconscious. His thinking itself is in a language – in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese. And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others.” ~ American anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir & American linguist Benjamin Whorf, positing the linguistic relativity hypothesis

The idea that language and thought are intertwined is an ancient one. Going against the grain, Plato argued against those who embraced the linguistic relativity hypothesis, preferring his theory of forms, wherein pure ideas have an independent existence. In that language is a universal of Nature, and the inclinations for our language structures are innate, the idea of Platonic forms is not as far-fetched as it might otherwise seem.

“Words aren’t just labels. They also provide a scaffold for complex networks of ideas and concepts, spiritual beliefs, medical theories, social mores, and expectations.” ~ English philosopher Tiffany Watt Smith

As languages embody structured symbolic systems, the languages one knows greatly influence the way one thinks, and thereby one’s worldview.

“For young children, language plays an especially potent role in learning about the mind. There are consistent and strong correlations between children’s language abilities and their understanding of the minds of others. After all, a major way that we come to understand what is going on in other people’s heads is by hearing what they say.” ~ Alison Gopnik

A broader vista of language opens a wider world and vice versa.

“So complete is the human reliance on language that it often seems as if language actually determines the possibilities for thought and action in any given culture.” ~ American sociologist William Kornblum

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Microbes live in a world of chemical reactions. Their language is of molecules and genetic sequences, with ions and epigenetic marks as part of their vocabulary. In this, microbes’ language sophistication exceeds that of animals, who simply name things and concepts, and describe events within a spatiotemporal frame.

Similarly, chemical comprehension is essential to plants. Flora can converse with other life forms fluent in molecular communication. Beyond their exquisite sense of smell, plants are also sensitive to energy (e.g., light) and mechanical vibrations (sound and touch). Manipulating energy plays an especial in plant communications with animals. The allure of flowers is exemplary. The extensive communication abilities of plants with other realms of life are unsurpassed.

Language Development

Neonates naturally understand the import of certain facial expressions, such as smiles and scowls. The noises that those oversized caretakers make is something else, even as some are more pleasing to the ear than others.

“Language development starts in utero. Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born.” ~ Japanese linguist Utako Minai

A fetus develops the ability to hear at ~30 weeks gestation, and so is able discern its mother’s voice during the last 2 months of pregnancy.

“Even in late gestation, babies are doing what they’ll be doing throughout infancy and childhood: learning about language.” ~ American psychologist Christine Moon

A newborn already has familiarity with certain sounds. A baby’s first cries correspond with its mother’s native tongue.

“Babies a few days old are sensitive to the differences between languages.” ~ Utako Minai

As a generalist species, humans have a broad-ranging faculty for symbolic pattern-matching, which is employed in every cognitive area, including perception. One of the earliest and most demanding challenges is acquiring language skill. It happens surprisingly quickly.

Language learning requires that children segment continuous events into discrete units.” ~ American psychologist Sarah Roseberry Lytle et al

“We have a whole lot of little statisticians running around.” ~ Australian psycholinguist Joanne Arciuli

Statistical learning is the process of using the probability of co-occurrence to group elements. This predictive craft is essential to language acquisition. For infants learning language, identifying regularities from a small number of samples quickly leads to generalizations.

(The capacity for statistical learning varies among individuals. This goes a long way in explaining the relative ease or difficulty different people have in learning languages, beginning in infancy.)

“Babies are constantly looking for language clues in context and sound.” ~ American psychologist Jill Lany

At just ~3 months, infants are successfully segmenting words out of fluent speech. Mentally mapping syllables based upon the probability of their occurrence leads to categorization. Shortly thereafter, babies are distinguishing nouns and verbs in the sound stream.

“By soaking up the statistical regularities of seemingly meaningless acoustic events, infants are able to rapidly structure linguistic input into relevant and ultimately meaningful units.” ~ American psychologist Jenny Saffran et al

Discovering words is only the first step. Children must also determine how the distribution and modification of these elements combine to convey meaning. Given only a few examples, babies correctly ascertain rules that generate an infinite set. If the capacity was not innate, doing so would be an impossibility.

“Infants at a very young age already understand the referential relationship between auditory words and physical objects, thus show a precursor in appreciating the symbolic nature of language, even if they do not understand yet the meanings of words.” ~ Hungarian psychologist Hanna Marno et al

Assigning meaning to words is a gradual process. That sounds refer to objects (nouns) is easier to apprehend than associating a sound with a specific action (verbs).

The inborn programming for language acquisition is illustrated by quantifiers, such as “all,” “none,” and “some.” Children master words denoting relative quantities in the same order, regardless of their native language. Terms referring to totality are learned earlier than those which cover only part of a set. This corresponds with math education, where whole numbers are understood before fractions, which take some getting used to for most students.

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“Infants acquire knowledge through spoken descriptions of phenomena they haven’t observed.” ~ American psychologist Athena Vouloumanos

At 1 year, infants can glean intent from others’ communications. The implications for survival are obvious.

“For 12-month-olds, speech can transfer information about unobservable aspects of the world, such as internal mental states, which provides preverbal infants with a tool for acquiring information beyond their immediate experience.” ~ Athena Vouloumanos et al”

Being able to access information beyond personal experience, including insight into others’ intentions, accelerates social and intellectual development. That infants can do so before they themselves can talk shows how quickly statistical learning proceeds.

While children do not typically begin talking until around 18 months, vocal expression begins early. By 3–4 months infants are uttering a full range of emotions. This wide-ranging flexibility is critical in learning language, as perceiving and producing a range of symbolic sounds affords attaching meaning to them.

Whereas limiting sounds and circumscribing patterns of sounds defines a language, their unlimited potential expression and combination is what makes language an infinite set. That these sounds have emotional resonance is critical to learning, as retention is keyed upon emotional impact.

“Functional flexibility is a defining characteristic of language, because all words or sentences can be produced as expressions of varying emotional states, and because learning conventional “meanings” requires the ability to produce sounds that are free of any predetermined function.” ~ American psycholinguist Kimbrough Oller et al


As humans are altricial, specific capabilities, such as language fluency, are honed during adolescence as a cultural dynamic. This contrasts with precocial species, which possess more immediately applicable precocious knowledge and skills which often prove critical to survival.

The differences in mentotype between generalist and specialist species are the result of economical evolutionary tailoring. Specialization is more efficient. In contrast, generalization offers malleability, but requires devoted skill acquisition, which often occurs by cultural transmission. While life-history variables vary, all organisms have a mixture of precocious knowledge and the means for learning.

The ability of humans to discriminate among and produce many different vocalizations is inborn. This innate faculty becomes constricted through practice in learning to categorize sounds into the phonemic categories of a specific spoken language. Such shrinkage is why exposure to multiple languages and a variety of music from an early age maximizes acumen relating to audition.

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The Jiwarli and Dhalandji Australian aboriginal languages are syntax-free. Words may be in any order.

The Inuit language – Inuktitut – builds sentences out of prefixes and suffixes, creating humongous words in the process. Stock phrases become part of the vocabulary.

Salishan, a group of indigenous Pacific Northwest languages, are polysynthetic, with very loose syntax. These languages are filled with words made of multiple morphemes: word portions with independent meaning but typically not words unto themselves.

Whereas the aptitude for learning language is innate, the divergent variety of languages seems to indicate that languages themselves are entirely cultural. The actuality is not so clear-cut.

The independence between sound and meaning is believed to be a crucial property of language: across languages, sequences of different sounds are used to express similar concepts. However, a careful statistical examination of words from the world’s languages reveals that unrelated languages very often use (or avoid) the same sounds for specific referents. A considerable proportion of basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). ~ Swiss psycholinguist Damián Blasi et al

In many instances, the associations between sounds and meanings in human languages correspond. Prominent among consistent relations include terms for body parts and words related to property. This suggests a natural inclination toward a matterist and materialist worldview.

One consistency across languages is color naming. Warm colors – yellows and reds – are expressed using more words than cooler colors – blue and green. This may reflect the fact that most objects that stand out in a scene are warm-colored, whereas cooler colors tend to be found in backgrounds.

“Every language has this amazing similar ordering of colors, so that reds are more consistently communicated than greens or blues.” ~ Edward Gibson

Another language universality is a sense of optimism. Word analysis of bodies of texts found a surfeit of positive words, and a relative paucity of negative ones. (70% to 88% of the words used in texts in 10 languages were positive. The languages analyzed were English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, and Arabic.)

Though optimism is outstanding, positivity in prose does vary among cultures. Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese texts are most effusive. By contrast, Russian, Arab, Korean, and Chinese writings are subdued.

“The way we think, the way that we form our ideas is inherently, intrinsically positive. We just don’t have as many ways of putting together negative thoughts or negative ideas as we do have for positive ones.” ~ Australian mathematician Lewis Mitchell

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Perception is a process of recognition via categorization. In providing labels language strongly influences categorization. As such, language plays a seminal role in perception.

“Language acts as a top-down signal to perceptual processes. What we consciously perceive is deeply shaped by our knowledge and expectations.” ~ American psychologist Gary Lupyan

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“Without words to objectify and categorize our sensations and place them in relation to one another, we cannot evolve a tradition of what is real in the world.” ~ Austrian American biologist Ruth Hubbard

As our mental constructs of existence are semantic, language represents a restriction in worldview. What cannot be expressed loses cultural currency. From this, ignorance becomes codified at the societal level.

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“Language is very difficult to put into words.” ~ French philosopher Voltaire