I promise there are logical sequences between my paragraphs – Yasheng

What is Language?

Before feeling sad and confused by all the linguistic math, I came across this post on Tumblr (best place to procrastinate):

  • Am I the only one that finds it weird that I can transfer data from my brain to someone else’s by opening my mouth and pushing air with vibrations in their direction.
  • How high are you?
  • 5’4”

LOL aside, whoever this person is, s/he is correct. In the wonderfully informative video by Steve Pinker with the good hair, he explains that the noises we make using our mouth are called language, which we use to share ideas and create meaning. [1] There is, of course, a difference between written language and spoken language within one culture. Like I can write s/he, but I have to say she and he when I am reading it out loud. Despite this difference, both written and spoken language follow one specific grammatical structure. Language is symbolic in nature, which allows us – beings with semiotic competence – to understand each other as long as we are following certain grammatical and contextual rules. But if someone were to ask me about what language is, I’d probably refer them to the Tumblr post I cited earlier.

Though I just complained about how I am not good at math and the all the logic equations made me sad, I did found Jackendoff’s parallel architecture exceptionally useful in explaining how we use language once I understood (I hope I did) how parallel architecture model works.

“…language as a whole can be thought of as a mapping between sounds and meanings; phonological structure is the specifically linguistic encoding of sounds, and conceptual structure is the encoding of meanings. Syntactic structure serves as a ‘way- station’ between these two structures, making the mapping between them more articulate and precise.”[2]

This quote perfectly explained the components of language and this makes me wonder, can we use this mapping to understand other things?

What about idioms?

Jackendoff’s writing made me thinking about idioms, especially because idiom’s syntactic structure is somewhat unique. Idioms make the language richer, more colorful, and unique, which makes translation of idioms often difficult. Because of this uniqueness, idioms are exclusively connected to their culture.

I am wondering what idiom’s CC-CS interface looks like because idioms have to be within certain allowance of its syntactic structure to be understood. For instance, “it’s raining cats and dogs” makes sense to most English speakers, yet how big of change to this expression can make it less comprehensible? Would the phrase “it’s raining pigs and goats” convey the same meaning? Would the phrase “it’s pouring cookies and cream” convey the same meaning?

Another question: I am also curious about what idiom’s interface between semantics and pragmatics look like? I think I will read chapter 6 to find out.

What about Chinese idioms?

I know I am getting off topic, but this has been on my mind ever since I started reading syntactic structure. So Mandarin Chinese’s grammar is modeled after English grammar and tMandarin Chinese is digraphia for it has both Chinese characters and pinyin (Romanization system for Chinese characters). Because we now learn Chinese using grammar modeled after English, we constantly need to make exceptions or introduce new grammatical rules when learning idioms and ancient Chinese (Wen Yan Wen).

Here is an example:

Screen Shot

贤妻良母:Xian (Smart) Qi (Wife) Liang (Good) Mu (Mother) is an idiom to describe virtues of women (very patriarchal and Confucian indeed). Break it down, we get:


Seems pretty straight forward right? But there is a special grammar ancient Chinese often use (mostly in Min Dynasty: 1368–1644) called Hu Wen. This is when the adjectives in a phrase simultaneously modifies nouns, noun phrases, or other elements. So if we follow this logic, the phrase 贤Xian (Smart)妻Qi (Wife)良Liang (Good)母Mu (Mother) becomes difficult to represent in English grammar because English syntactic structure is linear. When I rearrange Xian (Smart) Qi (Wife) Liang (Good) Mu (Mother) following Hu Wen, the meaning of such phrase becomes: smart and good wife / smart and good mother. Two virtues for being a woman as two roles. The syntactic structure should look like this:


Why the circles, you may ask. The outer circle is similar to the function of S to represent the idiom as an independent phrase. The middle circle represents the two adjectives simultaneously modifying the two nouns. And center empty circle represents women as the invisible implied subject of the idiom. This makes the idiom more powerful and meaningful as it is in its original context.

The unfortunate truth is that we do not know if the person who created this phrase meant as a linear manner or Hu Wen manner. Because Chinese has changed a lot to chase after global standardization, the Chinese language might have lost something in this process.

Syntactic structure for art?

Chinese idioms are considered as a form of art in China alongside of painting, music, opera, and so many others. Chinese aesthetics are imbued with the concept of emptiness – the invisible and intentionally emptied space in things. Because of this, how can syntactic structure to illustrate such emptiness and can it be represented as computing codes for others to appreciate?

[1] Big Think. Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. Accessed September 19, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-B_ONJIEcE.

[2] Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.