Colorless Green Ideas- The Phenomenon of Language By: Sasha DeWitt
As humans we use language everyday to live and communicate. We have created words that give sound and meaning to objects and abstract concepts as well as created grammatical structures to give form to the messages we convey. This paper is a look into the way that language, a uniquely human creation, works.
The definition of language can be considered to be either a “culturally specific communication system” or “an internal component of the mind/brain” (1). Language allows humans to convey information to one another through sounds, gestures, symbols, and rules. Through various processes in specific areas of the brain humans are able to communicate through a system of “sound-meaning connections” (1).
Language is processed in mainly the left hemisphere of the brain particularly in the Primary motor cortex, Primary auditory area, Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, the Supramarginal gyrus and the Angular gyrus (2). These areas have all been identified as language processing areas because, cases in which any one of these parts of the brain has received lesions or damage, resulted in language impairment called aphasia. Damage to particular areas produce specific aphasias such as Broca’s aphasia and Wernicke’s aphasia. Damage to Broca’s area causes extreme difficulty with speech and impairs reading and writing, however, comprehension remains intact (2). Wernicke’s aphasia patients have fluent verbal output but their speech can be unintelligible and patients have difficulty comprehending what they read or hear (2). Global aphasia is the total loss of the ability to understand or produce language and results from damage to every language area in the brain listed above. This information and research from various other aphasias supports the fact that language is a product of the brain.
By understanding that language is a product of the brain, deciphering how language works becomes more tangible. According to Steven Pinker, a professor in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at MIT: “The way language works is that each person’s brain contains a lexicon of words and the concepts they stand for and a set of rules that combine the words to convey relationships among concepts (a mental grammar)” (3). If the brain functions through inputs and outputs at various stages and in various areas in what would appear to be a highly organized fashion, it would make sense that languages have defined structures of grammar and that specific sounds can be interpreted to have a specific meaning and cause a certain response. Words can be interpreted to be like any other stimulus the brain would create a response to; touching your hand to a hot stove causes an immediate reaction to move away in a similar way that hearing the word “test” would cause an internal reaction. However, what makes words and language so unique as well as difficult to comprehend in the abstract is that there isn’t always a distinct and open reaction that correlates with every word and every sentence.
Each individual has a unique response to a spoken word and those responses are bound to change over time due to changes in surroundings. For example, if two people were to hear the word “flower”, most likely they will not imagine the same image of a flower but based on previous experiences with flowers they will each recall a unique image of a flower.
In light of the fact that we each interpret or perceive images, objects, or sounds differently, we are still able to easily communicate with one another. With the brain being composed of so many neurons leading to almost an infinite amount of varying pathways, meaning a large amount of possibilities, we are still able to understand and relate to each others thoughts. This is perhaps due to similar genetic coding and an ability to mimic one another.
The last interesting observation is by Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of MIT, “that widely different languages have common underlying principles of grammar because the actual structure of languages is determined by conceptual constraints imposed by the structure of the brain” (4). So, we are able to not only understand each other in one language but there is actually a constraint on all human brains that causes us, despite different vocabulary or a “lexicon of words” to follow an actual structure for most languages- which is perhaps why we can learn numerous languages and communicate cross culturally. Even though the possibility for different pathways and forms of interpretation seems to be endless, all humans have a similar constraint which allows our brain to create different languages with similar sets of rules and ultimately allow us to somehow understand each other and communicate with ease.
1) http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20021122.pdf; The Faculty of Language: What is it, Who has it and How did it Evolve?, Hauser, Marc, Chomsky, Noam, and Fitch, Tecumseh, on the Noam Chomsky website.
2) Rosenzweig, Mark, Biological Psychology 4th edition, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, 2005.
3) Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct, New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.
4) Kandel, Eric and Schwartz, James, Principles of Neural Science, New York: Elsevier North Holland, 1981.