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The Structure of Language
This lesson suggests the more we know about the structure of language the better our communication. And the better our communication the better are our decisions. (Last Updated Sept 2023)

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July 3, 2019

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Understanding the structure of language will help us talk and listen more effectively.


Just as buildings can be different yet built with the same structure.

Languages can be different yet built with the same structure.

Understanding the “Structure of Language” is fundamental to using communication to achieve our goals.


Languages are different.

  • In English, an adjective comes before a noun (“red house”), whereas in Spanish, the adjective comes after (“casa [house] roja [red].”)
  • In German, you can put noun after noun together to form giant compound words.
  • In Chinese, the pitch of your voice determines the meaning of your words.
  • In American Sign Language, you can convey full, grammatical sentences with tense and aspect by moving your hands and face.

Even though languages appear different, they all share basic structural underpinnings that make them logical for the people who speak and understand them.

Two things are important about this:

  • A reason languages all share common basic structures is because languages are built by humans and humans share common biological systems, particularly cognitive structures. Human brains all function similarly in terms of neuroprocessing, so it makes sense that languages would share similar structures.
  • Understanding how languages are different is critical to understanding the value we place on the differences. We need to understand the differences because they greatly affect the meaning we attach to the information we receive. .

So the better we understand the structure of language the more likely we are to create more effective messages. And the better we are at creating more effective messages the more likely we are thrive.


Linguistic Bias

The influence that language structure has on communication and information is called “Linguistic Bias.

Understanding this “linguist bias” and adjusting for it is critical to effective communication.

  • Grammar is a set of rules for generating logical communication.
  • All languages have a “grammar,” and native speakers of a language have internalized the rules of that language’s grammar.
  • Every language has a lexicon or the sum total of all the words in that language.
  • Phonetics and phonemics are the studies of individual units of sound in languages.
  • Morphology is the study of words and other meaningful units of language.
  • “Syntax” is the study of sentences and phrases and the rules of grammar that sentences obey.
  • Semantics is the study of sentence meaning
  • Pragmatics is the study of sentence meaning in context.

Key Terms

  • Lexical: Relating to the words or vocabulary of a language, especially as distinguished from its grammatical and syntactical aspects.
  • Grammar: The set of rules a language obeys for creating words and sentences.
  • Lexeme: The set of inflected forms taken by a single word.
  • Phoneme: An indivisible unit of sound in a given language.
  • Morpheme: The smallest linguistic unit within a word that can carry a meaning, such as “un-, ““break,” and “-able” in the word “unbreakable.
  • Context is how everything within language works together to convey a particular meaning.

The Importance of Understanding The Structure of Language

Language is the ability to produce and comprehend spoken, mathematical, textual, graphical, video, auditory, olfactory, and in the case of sign language “signed” signals.

Understanding how language works means reaching across many branches of physics, biology, chemistry, physiology, and psychology.

Everything from basic physics to neurological functioning to high-level cognitive processing.

Language shapes our social interactions and brings order to our lives.

Language is how we socially connect through a set of “shared codes.”

Complex language is one of the defining factors that make us human.

Most of the time, if not all of the time, we communicate with each other using language without considering the complex activity we are undertaking, forming complex words and sentences in a split second.

We know immediately when someone uses language structures that are inappropriate or incorrect because we have learned the rules that govern the language(s) we use.

In this lesson, we will look at the structures we use in more detail, in order to help us to understand the structures we find in languages that may be arranged in ways quite different from what we may be comfortable with.

There are many approaches to the study of language. Some linguists are more interested in discovering the basic, innate structures that we all have in our brains, regardless of which language(s) we speak.

Linguists working in what is known as the generative tradition seek to understand universal grammar, the structures that human languages have in common, and that we may be born with the capacity to use. The generative approach focuses on the formal characteristics of language structure, seeking to uncover the rules that ‘generate’ well-formed sentences.

Other linguists take a more functional approach, studying language use in context; in other words, what actually comes out of our mouths rather than what may be stored in our heads. Functional approaches seek to incorporate the meaning and broader context of language in order to fully understand language structure.

My lessons focus more on the functional approach.

The question for me is not how we structure language, as much as how we structure language best to achieve a specific intent.


2 Key Concepts

#1 – Grammar

Because all language obeys a set of combinatory rules, we can communicate an infinite number of concepts.

While every language has a different set of rules, all languages do obey rules.

These rules are known as grammar.

Speakers of a language have internalized the rules and exceptions for that language’s grammar.

There are rules for every level of language—word formation (for example, native speakers of English have internalized the general rule that -ed is the ending for past-tense verbs, so even when they encounter a brand-new verb, they automatically know how to put it into past tense); phrase formation (for example, knowing that when you use the verb “buy,” it needs a subject and an object; “She buys” is wrong, but “She buys a gift” is okay); and sentence formation.

#2 – Lexicon

Every human language has a lexicon—the sum total of all of the words in that language.

By using grammatical rules to combine words into logical sentences, humans can convey an infinite number of concepts.


The Taxonomy of the Structure of Language

Phonetics and Phonology

Phonetics is the study of individual speech sounds; phonology is the study of phonemes, which are the speech sounds of an individual language.

These two heavily overlapping subfields cover all the sounds that humans can make, as well as which sounds make up different languages.

A phonologist could answer the question, “Why do BAT and TAB have different meanings even though they are made of the
same three sounds, A, B, and T?”

Phonemes

A phoneme is the basic unit of phonology.

It is the smallest unit of sound that may cause a change of meaning within a language, but that doesn’t have meaning by itself.

For example, in the words “bake” and “brake,” only one phoneme has been altered, but a change in meaning has been triggered.

The phoneme /r/ has no meaning on its own, but by appearing in the word it has completely changed the word’s meaning!

Phonemes correspond to the sounds of the alphabet, although there is not always a one-to-one relationship between a letter and a phoneme (the sound made when you say the word).

For example, the word “dog” has three phonemes: /d/, /o/, and / g /. However, the word “shape,” despite having five letters, has only three phonemes: /sh/, /long-a/, and /p/.

The English language has approximately 45 different phonemes, which correspond to letters or combinations of letters.

Through the process of segmentation, a phoneme can have a particular pronunciation in one word and a slightly different pronunciation in another.

Morphology

Morphology is the study of words and other meaningful units of language like suffixes and prefixes.

A morphologist would be interested in the relationship between words like “dog” and “dogs” or “walk” and “walking,” and how people figure out the differences between those words.

Morphemes

Morphemes, the basic unit of morphology, are the smallest meaningful unit of language.

Thus, a morpheme is a series of phonemes that has a special meaning.

If a morpheme is altered in any way, the entire meaning of the word can be changed.

Some morphemes are individual words (such as “eat” or “water”). These are known as free morphemes because they can exist on their own.

Other morphemes are prefixes, suffixes, or other linguistic pieces that aren’t full words on their own but do affect meaning (such as  the “-s” at the end of “cats” or the “re-” at the beginning of “redo.”)

Because these morphemes must be attached to another word to have meaning, they are called bound morphemes.

Within the category of bound morphemes, there are two additional subtypes: derivational and inflectional.

Derivational morphemes change the meaning or part of speech of a word when they are used together. For example, the word “sad” changes from an adjective to a noun when “-ness” (sadness) is added to it. “Action” changes in meaning when the morpheme “re-” is added to it, creating the word “reaction.”

Inflectional morphemes modify either the tense of a verb or the number value of a noun; for example, when you add an “-s” to “cat,” the number of cats changes from one to more than one.

Lexemes

Lexemes are the set of inflected forms taken by a single word.

For example, members of the lexeme RUN include “run” (the uninflected form), “running” (inflected form), and “ran.” This lexeme excludes “runner (a derived term—it has a derivational morpheme attached).

Another way to think about lexemes is that they are the set of words that would be included under one entry in the dictionary—”running” and “ran” would be found under “run,” but “runner” would not.

Syntax

Syntax is the study of sentences and phrases, or how people put words into the right order so that they can communicate meaningfully.

All languages have underlying rules of syntax, which, along with morphological rules, make up every language’s grammar.

While every language has a different set of syntactic rules, all languages have some form of syntax.

An example of syntax coming into play in a language is “Eugene walked the dog” versus “The dog walked Eugene.”

The order of words is not arbitrary—in order for the sentence to convey the intended meaning, the words must be in a certain order.

In English, the smallest form of a sentence is a noun phrase (which might just be a noun or a pronoun) and a verb phrase (which may be a single verb).

Adjectives and adverbs can be added to the sentence to provide further meaning.

Word order matters in English, although in some languages, the order is of less importance.

For example, the English sentences “The baby ate the carrot” and “The carrot ate the baby” do not mean the same thing, even though they contain the exact same words.

In languages like Finnish, word order doesn’t matter for general meaning—different word orders are used to emphasize different parts of the sentence.

Semantics

Semantics, most generally, is about the meaning of sentences.

Someone who studies semantics is interested in words and what real-world object or concept those words denote, or point to.

Pragmatics

Pragmatics is an even broader field that studies how the context of a sentence contributes to meaning—for example, someone shouting “Fire!” has a very different meaning if they are in charge of a seven-gun salute than it does if they are sitting in a crowded movie theater.

Rapping in American Sign Language: Shelby Mitchusson performs an ASL translation of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. ASL and other sign languages have all the same structural underpinnings that spoken languages do.


When we think about the components of human language, we think of it as consisting of the following:

  1. A sound system (or phonological component).
  2. A set of vocabulary items (the “lexicon”).
  3. A grammatical system (“morphology”) that puts meaningful elements together into ‘words’.
  4. A syntax, or set of rules to state what the order of elements is in larger utterances, such as ‘sentences.’
  5. A semantic component, where meanings are interpreted.

We think of these components as being in some ways finite and in other ways non-finite. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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 finite, 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 lexical meaning and grammatically 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 reimbursements.
    • Y’all need to give me y’all’s receipts so you can get reimbursements.
  3. A grammatical system (“morphology”) that puts meaningful elements together into ‘words’. The grammar is finite, at any given moment.
  4. 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 infinite.
  5. 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:   
Semantics:Infinite.
Syntax: sentencesINFINITE
Grammar: rather rigid and fixed.
Innovation at this level is slow
finite
Vocabulary, meaningful units:
somewhat open-ended, but essentially
finite
Sound system, units of soundfinite
Phonetic levelInfinite

We see this kind of structure, built from the ground up, as possessed solely by humans, and not observed by other animals, even primates such as chimps, gorillas, etc.

The structure of their communication system is much simpler: fewer ‘vocabulary’ items, simple syntax, and very little innovation.