Language as it Relates to Cognition Term Paper

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Language as it Relates to Cognition

What comes first, language or the concepts that generate a language? This question has divided and perplexed linguists for decades. However, recent advances in the field of cognitive science have been able to illuminate this debate, although it provides no final answers -- in fact, it may make the question even more complex. What constitutes a language, as well as the mechanisms such as culture and cognition that affect and may or not produce language itself still remain something of a mystery.

Defining language and lexicon

Although the term is less familiar than that of a 'language' the notion of a lexicon cannot be separated from the definition of a language. A language may be defined as an arbitrary and dynamic system of expression characterized by an enclosed but permeable vocabulary, grammar, and conceptual system. "Every language has a different vocabulary, but every language provides the grammatical mechanisms for combining its stock of words to express an open-ended range of concepts. A lexicon is defined as a bridge between a language and the knowledge expressed in that language" (Sowa 2005). In short, a lexicon answers the question of how are words and sounds used to transmit concepts in a coherent fashion -- through the medium of a lexicon that limits and defines what types of words, sounds, and grammatical structures are acceptable.

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The key features of a language are that it is characterized by a system of sounds, forms, meanings, and that the language is capable of changing to some degree with the environment. These sounds are accidental no matter how well-defined and distinct the rules of grammar in the lexicon of the language. For example, there is no intrinsic 'handness' to the nature of what we English-speakers conceptualize as the human hand. In Russian, the corresponding word ruka extends all the way to the elbow -- the concept and the word are different, and the boundary defining the appendage is entirely arbitrary. But because of the structure of the language, on a cognitive basis, a Russian is unlikely to think of the portion of the arm from wrist to fingertips as a separate body part, because it is not defined by the language as separate. In contrast, hand in English and mano in Italian constitute different words and thus also show that sounds are not intrinsic to certain objects, even though both define the same portion of the arm, in contrast to the Russian sense of 'hand' (Sowa 2005). But the fact that both the English and Italian speaker sees the same body part as self-contained is not due to the nature of the physical world, but their use of language.

To have a coherent form or grammar a language must also be systematic -- in short, the order of words and sentences must mean something, else it would be nonsense."The grammar of a language determines how the conceptual structures are linearized as strings of words in a sentence. English and Chinese, for example, put the subject first, the verb in the middle and the object at the end for an SVO word order. Irish and Biblical Hebrew are VSO languages that put the verb first. Latin and Japanese are SOV languages that put the verb at the end" (Sowa 2005). In other words, a subject does not innately precede a word, even though we as English speakers may be accustomed to this formation. However, word order is not the only component to grammar. "The grammar also determines how the units of meaning, called morphemes, are combined to form words. Chinese is an extreme example of an analytic language in which almost all the morphemes can be used as stand-alone words. German is an agglutinative language, which forms compound words like Lebensversicherungsgesellschaftsangestellter (life insurance company employee). Old English was an agglutinative language like German, but as it evolved into modern English, it became almost as analytic as Chinese" (Sowa 2008). Some ungrammatical phrases can, of course be understood, depending upon the language -- while in other languages, such as Latin, where placement means a great deal, fundamental misinterpretations can occur due to improper use of grammar, even if the vocabulary is relatively consistent with the intended meaning.

But although it is rule-bound, language must still be dynamic, because it exists in culture, and is changed by the interaction of human beings in a particular environment, performing certain activities who need language to 'work' for them. This is the inherent distinction between human and animal languages: "Language, on the other hand, has a recursive grammar capable of generating a potentially infinite set of expressions" (Szab 2004). Perhaps the most obvious example of the interaction between environment and language is the multiplicity of words for snow amongst the Eskimo, for different types of snow that seem irrelevant and go unnoticed in our environment. Cultural shifts also occur certain words to be incorporated "Since French, Chinese, and Indian cuisines are based on very different ingredients, methods of preparation, and cooking utensils, the people who cook and eat each kind of food use words for it that have no counterparts in the other cultures" (Sowa 2005). However, now 'wok' has been incorporated into English, just like new words like 'Internet' reflect shifts in cultural interactions, new technology, and new concepts. "Cultural and conceptual shifts occur across time as well as space. A book on science or business, for example, is easier to translate from modern English to modern Japanese than from modern English to the language of Shakespeare" (Sowa 2004)

Four levels of language structure and processing

Typically, psycholinguistic studies focus on four levels of language; sound, meaning, syntax and pragmatics (Luger 1994). This underlines the fact the sound and syntax of a language lie not simply its repertoire and order of words, but how different emphasis, tone, and pitch affect word and sentence meaning. However, although how we communicate may affect 'reality' on a pragmatic level, many linguists such as Noam Chomsky pointed out that most evidence shows that different grammatical patterns bear no "interesting relation to the structure of reality," not do they evolve under any particular evolutionary pressure that interaction with our environment may have created (Szab 2004).

The role of language processing in cognitive psychology

Ultimately, the mechanisms and need language resides in the human mind. Noam Chomsky first observed "having a language is a species property of homo sapiens, both in the sense that linguistic competence (what speakers of a language know in virtue of being speakers) is remarkably uniform across members of our species, and in the sense that a similar competence cannot be found underneath the apparent diversity there are certain universal principles of human languages, principles not evident in the simpler verbal interactions that result amongst other species without our cognitive framework. Although we humans do employ language for the purpose of communication (as well as for the purposes of self-expression, clarification of thoughts, constructing and strengthening social ties, and so on) Chomsky denies that communication is an inherent function of our language and in general rejects the contention that language should be studied in the context of human interactions"(Szab 2004). In other words, although the drive to communicate may be innate, and although there may be some superficial commonalities between languages, the fact that there are different words for men and women does not mean that bodies conceived of as male and female (or black and white) are inherently different, and language describes this -- rather language causes us to take note of such differences. In support of this thesis lies the lack of a consistent racial typology through the ages (birth, religion and ethnicity, rather than skin color have been used to define race) as well as different 'genders' or ways… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Language as it Relates to Cognition.  (2008, September 22).  Retrieved December 3, 2020, from

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"Language as it Relates to Cognition."  22 September 2008.  Web.  3 December 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Language as it Relates to Cognition."  September 22, 2008.  Accessed December 3, 2020.