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The Structure of Language

The Structure of Language

Can we think without using language? Research on imagery indicates that we can. But, without language, each of us would live in a largely solitary and isolated world, unable to comunicate or receive much information. Scientists define Language as a means of communicating thoughts and feelings, using a system of socially shared but arbitrary symbols (sounds, signs, or written symbols) arranged according to rules of grammar.

The Structure of Language

Psycholinguistics is the study of how language is acquired, produced, and used and how the sounds and symbols of language are traslated into meaning. Psycholinguistics devote much effort to the study of the structure of language and the rules governing its use. These vital components of language are phonemes, morphemes, syntax, semantics and pragmatics.


The smallest units of sound in a spoken language are known as phonemes. Phonemes form the basic building blocks of a spoken language. Three phonemes together form the sound of the word cat -the c (wich sounds like k), a, and t. Phonemes do not sound like the single letters of the alphabet as you recite them, a-b-c-d-e-f-g, but like the sounds of the letters as they are used in words, like the b in boy, the p in pan, and so on. The sound of the phoneme c in the word cat is different from the sound of the phoneme c in the word city.

Letters combined to form words, such as thin the and chin child, are also phonemes. The same sound (phoneme) may be represented by different letters in different words, as the a in stay and the ei in sleigh. And, as you saw with c the same letter can serve as different phonemes. The letter a, for example, is sounded as four different phonemes in day, cap, watch and law.

how many phonemes are there? About 100 or so different sounds could serve as phonemes, but most languages have far fewer. English uses about 45 phonemes whereas some languages may have as few as 15 and others as many as 85 (Solso, 1991). However, phonemes do not provide meaning. Meaning is conveyed by the next component of language, the morphemes.


Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language. In almost all cases in the english language, A morpheme is made of two or more phonemes. But a few phonemes also serve as morphemes, such as the article a and the personal pronoun I. Many words in english are single morphemes -book, word, learn, reason and so on. In addition to root words, morphemes may also be prefixes (such as re- in relearn) or suffixes (such as -ed to show past tense, as in learned). The word reasonable consists in two morphemes: reason and able. The addition of the prefix un- (another morpheme) form unreasonable, reversing the meaning. The letter s gives a plural meaning to a word and is thus a morpheme. The morpheme book (singular) becomes two morphemes , books, (plural).

So, morphemes, singly and in combination, form the words in a language and provide meaning. But single words alone do not constitute a language. A language also requires rules for structuring, or putting together, words in orderly and meaningful fashion. This is where syntax enters the picture.


Sintax is the aspect of grammar that specifies the rules for arranging and combining words to form phrases and sentences. For example, an important rule of syntax in english is that adjectives usually come before nouns. English speakers refer to the residence of the U.S. President as the White House. But in Spanish, the noun usually comes before the adjective, and Spanish speakers would say, "la Casa Blanca" (the House White). In English we ask, "Do you speak German?" But speakers of German would ask, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" (Speak you German?). So, the rules of word order, or syntax, differ from one language to another.

It is important to point out here that grammar includes both the rules for the combining morphemes and those that govern syntax. For example, The rules for combining morphemes determine the difference between "sock" and "socks." The difference between "Is it here?" and "Here it is." involves syntax. Both kinds of rules contribute to the grammar of a language.


Semantics refers to the meaning derived from morphemes, words, and sentences. The same word can have different meanings, depending on how it is used in sentences: "I don't mind." "You mind your manners." "He has lost his mind."

The noted linguist and creative theorist Noam Chomsky (1986, 1990) maintained that the ability to glean a meaningful message from a sentence is stored in a different area of the brain than are the words used to compose the sentence. Moreover, he distinguished between the surface structure and the deep structure of a sentence. The surface structure of a sentence refers to the literal words that are spoken or written (or signed). The deep structure is the underlying meaning of the sentence.

In some sentences, the surface structure and the deep structure are the same. This is true of the sentence "Lauren read the book." But if this sentence is rewritten in the passive voice-"The book was read by Lauren"-the surface structure changes, yet the deep structure remains the same. Alternatively, a single sentence may have one or more different deep structures. For example, in the sentence "John enjoys charming people," two competing deep structures produce ambiguity. Does John enjoy people who are charming, or does he enjoy exercising his charm on other people?


How do you know whether a person is making a statement or asking a question? The pragmatic characteristics of a language help you tell the difference. Pragmatics is defined as the characteristics of spoken language that help you decipher the social meaning of utterances. For example, one aspect of pragmatics is prosody, or intonation. Every language has prosodic rules that are followed when producing statements or questions. In English, statements fall in intonation at the end, while questions raise. So, if someone sitting near you in an airport says to you, "newspaper," with rasing intonation at the end of the word, you know that she is saying "Would you like this newspaper?" Other nonverbal cues may accompany the question. She may be holding a newspaper out to you or motioning to a newspaper lying on a table. Such gestures represent another aspect of pragmatics.

Think for a minute about how amazing language really is. It allow us to form and comprehend a virtually infinite number of meaningful sentences. If this were not the case, we would be limited to merely repeating statements we had heard or read. Moreover, language is not bound by space or time. Language enables us to communicate about things that are abstract or concrete, present or not present, and about what has been, is now, or conceivably might be. Thanks to language, we can profit from the experience, the knowledge, and the wisdom of others, and we can benefit others with our own. Language  makes available the wisdom of the ages from every corner of the world.

The World of Psychology p. 240 -1

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