Category Archives: Week 3: Intro Linguistics

Love Notes

Elizabeth-Burton Jones
Week 3: Love Notes

There are infinite quotes about music and it’s ability to transcend your words, quench your soul, and make your feelings known.  However, it is difficult to actually grasp the meaning of the notes that strike your heartstrings and the notes that “take you to another place”.   For this week, I would like to skim the surface of music’s position in linguistic studies through the actual meaning of the language and the use of language.

Use of language:

When reading about symbolic language, I could not help but go back to the example of music. By looking at language as a form of expression, new definitions of meanings come out to play. These characters are useful specifically when “symbolic” language is compared with music. So I would like to look at the contruction of words and how they are paired with music.

Music has many uses. It can be used to add a pinch of style to a presentation or it can be turned on for jamming in the car. But it can be used to  fill the void. When language is combined with music, it changes the form of music and adds another dimension to the music. It changes the meaning not only in the possibility of changing the  actual arrangement but it changes the meaning of the words. By adding lyrics it changes the whole feeling of the song.  Adding lyrics changes the body of the musical work.


Oftentimes when a musical or an opera begins, there is a musical prologue. This prologue not only introduces the audience to the music, but the prologue gives the audience something to look for. The tease of the prologue changes when the lyrics are added. Therefore, in the beginning of the opera, the music was something to listen to detached from any meaning other than an introduction. But, during the performance, the notes from the beginning start to have depth and meaning.

“Les Toreadors” from Carmen Suite No. 1 (1:10)

Toreador Song (2:49)

Pink Martini- Words vs. No Words

Another area of interest, includes the power of words. These videos below exemplify the power of words compared to the power of humming. Both videos are powerful and create certain emotions. Also, both of the videos have meanings. The difference is the way that the meanings are portrayed by the voice. To connect to the theories from last week, the voice often becomes the gatekeeper. For instance, in the Lullaby song, a multitude of meanings could have stemmed from the notes. However, we are not allotted a specific meaning because of the lack of words. Therefore, the “Lullaby” meaning is up to interpretation and in a way is more marketable for corporations.

Pink Martini Sympathique

Pink Martini Lullaby

Language and Context:

Next are examples of using the same words but in different contexts. By plucking the lyrics from the music and placing the lyrics in another environment, the creator of the remix could portray the original meaning of the lyrics, but it is difficult to bridge the gap between musical space and time. Therefore, the original meaning of the lyrics is often lost and remixed into a new meaning when it is inserted into a new musical content.

However, what about the reverse. If the producer plucks the music from the lyrics is the meaning the same? For instance, the notes in the Ray Charles song “I Got a Woman” are used in the Kanye West song “Gold Digger”. The notes are similar, but the lyrics are different. The meaning of the song is changed.

Ray Charles – I Got A Woman

Kanye West feat. Jaime Foxx

In addition, some musicals change the lyrics but keep the music. By doing so, the meaning is changed by the language of the lyrics. Below are some examples from the musical Les Miserables.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

On Parole/The Bishop (2:05)

In the beginning of the musical, Jean Valjean meets a Bishop that introduces him to the saving power of God. Later in the musical (SPOILER ALERT) in the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” the character Marius remembers his friends that fought for what they believed and how they gave up their lives for the cause. He wonders why his life was spared.

Another Les Miserables example: Look Down (1:01)

Both of the songs use the same notes and seemingly same tempos, but the meanings of the lyrics are completely different. The Kanye West feat. Jaime Foxx example and the Les Miserables examples, demonstrate how the act of keeping the musical notes in a song but changing the lyrics of the song,  obviously changes the meaning. But, this leads to the idea that the lyrics are a form of “expression” and how they can be a form of music. But, the music does not necessarily have to be a lyric.

*This does not happen in all musicals for instance in Wicked, the songs “I’m Not That Girl” and “I’m Not That Girl- Reprise” evoke the same meaning.

I’m Not That Girl

I’m Not That Girl- Reprise

Language and Language:

In music, people can move in and out of different musical languages. In one part of the song, there can be a heavy jazz influence and in another section of the song, there can be a heavy rock influence (ex: Santigold). If we take the definition of languages to be something similar to a dialect or a different language (English or Spanish) we can see that the usage of different languages in one song adds so much depth and meaning to the song. In some cases, the multiple languages doesn’t change the meaning it just adds beauty and romance to the song. However, in other cases the multiple languages can have different translations from the original meaning.

Does it change the meaning? For instance in Volare, couldn’t the lyrics just be “Fly Oh oh oh oh” or “Let’s fly”. By singing “Let’s Fly” or “Fly” completely changes the smooth quality of the song.

Dean Martin

Pronoucing the words makes the difference. In Mambo Italiano, Rosemary Clooney is singing words that could be easily translated to English, yet she adds the Italian pronounciation to the song and this makes all of the difference.

Rosemary Clooney – MAMBO ITALIANO

 Add some Oh’s. The same could be said about adding notes to the songs. For instance in the song “Please Mr. Postman” The Marvelettes could have easily taken out the “Ooos”  and they could have not repeated some lyrics “Please, please, Mr. Postman” could have been “Please Mr. Postman”. But those changes drastically change the sound and the quality of the song.

Please Mr. Postman

By changing the songs by taking out repeats or not adding other languages, changes the classic status of these songs. Therefore, in many cases the musical language of the lyrics transforms the musical notes. This transformation would not be possible without wonderful singers, but that argument is for another time.

The Drama of Singing

Why is this important? It is important because, of the difference. In reality, most of these songs could have avoided all of the verses by simply saying the feelings. An artist could probably say that they are in love or are one way or another. But, that would decrease creative expression (ex: expression in Ella Fitzgerald‘s voice).

For instance, there are only so many ways that a person can say that they are in love. But, when an artists expresses his or her love on a record, the whole meaning is changed.

In Love:

Elvis Presley – “Love Me Tender”

Perry Como – “And I Love You So”

Adele – “One and Only”

Beach Boys – “God Only Knows”

“God Only Knows” Awesome Cover

Beatles – “And I Love Her”

The Civil Wars – “Poison & Wine”

The Civil Wars – “Dance Me to the End of Love”

The Civil Wars – Forget Me Not

Norah Jones – “Come Away with Me”

Deon Jackson – “Love Makes The World Go Around”

Aretha Franklin – “Call Me”

Nat King Cole – “LOVE”

Whitney Houston – “I’m Your Baby Tonight”

Whitney Houston – “I Will Always Love You”

Justin Nozuka – “After Tonight”

Out of Love:

Bonnie Raitt & Norah Jones – Tennessee Waltz

Adele – “Someone Like You”


Language in the form of music is continuously linked to meaning. The meanings are ever-changing depending on the context of the content. Through musicals, the observance of two languages in one song, and love songs we can see that music has a powerful message. This message is an extension of the expression of language. Not only does music express “what feelings sound like” but it also gives more depth to feelings that can be hard to explain. When language is paired with notes and lyrics a a bridge to the gap of linguistics is formed. Linguistics from a musical angle creates another definition of the meaning maker. More actors are present. Every role (from the producer to the singer to the guitarist) is given a new opportunity to create a different meaning and a different opportunity to express that meaning.



Works Cited:

Irvine, “Linguistics: Key Concepts

John Searle, “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

From Andrew Radford, et al. Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Noam Chomsky, “Form and meaning in natural languages.” Excerpt from Language and Mind, 3rd. Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Steven Pinker, “How Language Works.” Excerpt from: Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, 1994: 83-123.



Reading, Writing and Pittsburghese

Reading about Chomsky’s views on linguistics, and the syntax-heavy thoughts behind it, originally didn’t make much sense to me. I mean, I understood what he was saying, but I didn’t understand how one could remove the meaning from a sentence. To me, especially as a writer, they’re intrinsically connected. Sentences without meaning are gibberish. Searle pointed out that Chomsky’s critics do not separate syntax and semantics. They believe that grammar starts with the meaning of the sentence, and the syntax are merely rules forming the system (Searle). I tend to agree. In the intro readings, the idea of a literate culture was brought up. Language is inseparable from writing and reading once a culture has become literate; or once a person has become literate. Chomsky would argue that even the “dumbest” kids learn their native tongue, and education teaches how to read and write. While that may be true, finding the meaning behind the written word is often left up to the reader. Once someone has learned how to read, language is spewn at them constantly. From advertisements to the newspaper to novels, people are constantly reading language. And I think in modern culture, it’s tough to separate syntax and semantics from written communication. While we all probably learned how to map out sentences in school, and to break them down by the roots and the participles, that didn’t teach us how to communicate with each other. That taught us how to “correctly” construct something. (And keep in mind, I used to be a grammar nerd copyeditor, so I love my grammar.) But language goes beyond native tongue when it comes to understanding and transmitting messages.

Chomsky’s views of native tongue and the arguments against the idea of being born with Locke’s tabula rasa made me consider the different kinds of languages that we use. We all learn how to speak differently. Even just within English, there are tons of different accents and dialects. British English sounds different than American English. Southern American accents are much different than, say, a Minnesota accent.

I was raised mostly in Ohio, but most of my family is from Pittsburgh. If you’ve never heard “Pittsburghese”, then you’re in for a real treat one day. Some words are literally just made up. Here are a few examples: “red up” means clean up or tidy up. “Jeet” means Did you eat? “Gumbands” are rubber bands. “Yinz” means basically you guys, or is the Pittsburgh equivalent to y’all. Spicket means faucet. Nebby means nosey. But none of this really even touches the accent. Downtown sounds like dawntawn. Steelers is really Stillers. This made me think about how we learn language. While children can figure out their native tongue, Chomsky’s point is that they only hear bits and pieces and not necessarily the greatest version of the language, and yet they still learn. However, children learn with an accent. My Pittsburgh cousins have Pittsburgh accents, but I don’t. I wasn’t immersed in the culture of place in my formative language years. However, even as a little kid, I understood what they were saying. I picked it up without having to be told what they meant – even if it’s not how I spoke or how I would chosen to get that message across. That’s just how my family spoke. Additionally, my mother was born and raised in Pittsburgh and has none of the accent or the language, but my father does. The difference is that my mother was raised by two Italian immigrants who spoke Italian in the home as well as English. Is that why? And how did she pick up both languages at the same time? How much influence do different cultural groups have on language? There’s your family, which tend to have a language of their own. Every family has their own sayings and stories. Every baby is raised with the catchphrases their parents baby-talked to them. Then there’s also the place you grew up in; the language of the place. There’s your friends and the slang of the time period you’re in. And, finally, then you have the syntax and the proper grammar language. The stuff that’s taught in schools, and how you learn to read and write. This is probably why my cousins don’t write the way they speak, which is another interesting point to understanding what a language is. If people know the “correct” way to read and write English, then why do they still speak in slang and in accents?

universal grammar, subcultures and linguistic fillers

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Rules of Grammar

Chomsky’s concept of universal grammar is the springboard for human language development. In the right environment, humans learn how to communicate with each other via language. However, we are often taught the “rights and wrongs” of language as it relates to grammar and syntax. The conventions we are taught to adhere to are called “prescriptive” rules. These rules are prescribed to us within our culture, often by means of certain gatekeepers. It is interesting to consider that if language is a system–a discipline which has its own discourse–than it is not immune to having gatekeepers who write and/or enforce the rules. In this case, prescriptive grammar is taught to humans by means of English teachers (who themselves were taught by English teachers and professors), copy-editors, style-manual and handbook writers, etc (Pinker 385). Society’s construction of grammar creates a framework of etiquette for us to follow.

In direct opposition to this lies the concept of “descriptive rules,” an idea centered on describing how people actually talk and make use of language (Pinker 383). Pinker writes that linguists and scientists are more likely to look at descriptive language because prescriptive language is comprised of “bits of language that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since” (Pinker 385). As someone who had been raised according to the prescriptive rules of grammar in and outside of the classroom (yes, my mother was an English teacher) and who has a tendency to freak out over grammar, this concept was entirely novel to me.


Slang as Linguistic Innovation

Studying descriptive language enables one to look at the impact of slang upon our cultures. The creativity involved in the creation of new words is something to be remarked upon.

Pinker describes how words used by groups such as college students (“blow off”) and rappers (“dissing”) and other various groups (“banter, sham, stingy, junkie, jazz”) started as slang but have made their way into our socially acceptable language dictionary (415).

He notes that slang and colloquialisms within particular cultures act as a badge of membership, which is true of academics, advertising agency executives, culinary maestros, and musicians. A shared lexicon among these different disciplines simultaneously has the potential to springboard innovation through incubation, as well as for isolation and relative creative stagnation.


Pragmatics and Linguistic Fillers

Linguistic fillers (some commonly attributed to various subcultures, others to humans across the board) are often indicators of power dynamics within the relationship of two or more people communicating with each other. Language has political and social implications. It’s interesting to note that pragmatically, these fillers have no linguistic value; yet when one takes their semantic meaning into account, they can provide more information about one’s cultural background. Combined with the nonverbal and contextual language cues that Chomsky does not give much attention to, one can learn a lot about the sociological implications of the use of fillers.

Examples of subcultures:

Northern Californians:

  • “hella”

Southern Californians:

  • valley girl accents:
    • “like, totally” ;
  • surfers:
    • “stoked”
    • “sick”
    • “sketch”
    • “epic”
    • “radical”

Language and Identity

Southern Californians become upset when Norcal words like “hella” starts infiltrating their lexicon.

Language is used to foster perceptions of the “other,” us vs. them, particularly in cultural/national conflicts. Example: Spain’s autonomous communities (Catalonia vs. Madrid vs. The Basque Country).


// one last note on language and creativity //

an example of comments in a piece of code I wrote. comments are denotated by ” // “.

In programming in particular, coders were accustomed to being extremely liberal in how they chose to write their code, particularly in regard to commenting. Commenting code is important because it provides readers with a clue on why a certain piece of code was constructed in the way that it was written. Initially, most programmers were fluid in the way they commented (if they did at all) because only readers that would have stumbled across their code were themselves. However, as programming languages have become essential to digital culture (front and back end design, user interface coding, etc.), more and more programmers end up working on the same piece of code, and some kind of uniformity had to occur in order for coders to build off of each other.

This kind of creative collaboration within a network of programmers stems from their ability to communicate via a shared language. Computational linguistics could argue that this serves as a springboard for innovation.


//* works cited *//

Noam Chomsky, “Form and meaning in natural languages.” Excerpt from Language and Mind, 3rd. Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Irvine, “Linguistics: Key Concepts.”

Lynch, Sally. “Filler Words Become Regular Practice.” Elon Pendulum. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Perennial Classics, 2000. Print.

Pragmatics of culture

Discussing language as a system may initially strike us as a strange endeavor, given the huge importance language plays in all cultures and means of communication. Inherently, the way we study subjects in school separates languages from mathematics, so combining the two seems a bit odd – after all, we have spent our entire lives studying the two realms separately. However, given the ever evolving digital culture and the importance computing plays in our lives, linguistics bridges the gap between the two subjects and allows us to think more broadly about the faculty of language.

Noam Chomsky’s influence in linguistics seems to be more applicable to the initial stages of computer coding. His studies and sentence structure mapping allow sentences to be considered grammatically correct, regardless of whether or not the sentence itself makes sense. The mapping aspect of Chomsky’s take on linguistics makes sense universally because people do not arbitrarily speak for the sake of speaking, and do have patterns in what they say, regardless of culture or language. This concept is demonstrated in the universality of computer coding, since virtually all computers tend to follow the same coding language and command breakdown.

However, given the vast amount of multimedia communication existing online, the pragmatic aspect of linguistics seems to be more relevant in the digital sphere. It would be difficult to interpret what a meme is saying without knowing the relevant context. Additionally, it would be equally difficult to understand what a #hashtag refers to without knowing the cultural source of its reference. As Searle wrote, “Chomsky’s picture … seems to be something like this: except for having such general purposes as the expression of human thoughts, language doesn’t have any essential purpose, or if it does there is no interesting connection between its purpose and its structure.”

It is possible to question whether the purpose of language is even necessary, as long as the patterns described by Chomsky are expressed and received, but in the digital sphere (especially in social media), purpose seems to be the essence of communication. There is so much information, that we are constantly interpreting its purpose of existence, this purpose is what allows some social networking sites to flourish while others are looked at less favorably and lose users. The context and the pragmatics of a site entirely are what make Facebook the huge success it is, and what made Myspace re-work its user focus.

On another note, as an immigrant who had to learn a different language largely through immersion, the concept that struck me as most interesting in this week’s readings was the “head first” and “head last” language distinctions. The sentence mapping patterns (albeit less formally taught) were the main way my family and I learned how to communicate in English. However, personal experience still leads me to feel that the pragmatic element of linguistics plays a huge role in the structure of sentences. For example, in Russian and in many other languages, we use a formal “you” to address strangers, professors, people in high-ranking positions and generally people who are older than we may be. This structure does not exist in English, and although both versions of “you” serve the same purpose, the sentence’s intentions and the intentions of the communication are completely changed if the versions of “you” are interchanged.

Therefore, structurally, Chomsky’s version of language is successful in demonstrating the fact that patterns are what allow languages to be formed, but culturally, language seems to be the essence of all human intention.

Language and Communication: German, linguists, chimpanzees

John Searle writes that, as Chomsky and his followers showed, “in spite of surface differences, all human languages have very similar underlying structures.”  Steven Pinker details some of these similarities when he compares the structure of English with that of Japanese.  With a lot of detailed branching sentence diagrams, he shows that English is a “head-first” language, and Japanese a “head-last” language.  This means that in English phrases of all shapes, types and sizes, the “head” word –or the word that dictates how the phrase functions in the sentence appears at the beginning, and in Japanese phrases on the other hand, the head word is found at the end.  This conception go a long way in explaining the amazing rapidity and accuracy with which children the world over learn language: the universal existence and structure of phrases can be innate in humans, and children would only have to learn a few parameters of their particular language.

This theory is elegant, and thus highly seductive.  I have studied it far too briefly to even hope to notice and articulate any flaws in it.   That’s not what I intend to do in these following comments.  I am performing more an intellectual exercise than a real critique, so I ask for your indulgence: I’m wondering if there might be something missing, the result of the particular window through which Chomsky, Searle, Pinker and others chose to look at language.

My first humble question is what about German?  It is neither a “head-first” nor a “head-last” language, but one that does both.  When a verb phrase is part of the main clause of a simple sentence, the head-word, the verb comes first:

Ich liebe dich. Literally: I love you.

But when the verb phrase is part of a subordinate clause, the verb come at the end:

Ich denke, dass ich dich liebe.  Litterally: I think, that I you love.

The issue is probably mine; I probably don’t understand Pinker’s structures well enough, but it is worth pausing asking if the innate grammar works particularly well because of the two languages Pinker chose to illustrate it, or if it can say something profound even when applied to pesky languages like German where word order within phrases is not always the same.

A bigger issue I have is this: Chomsky’s asserts, summarized by Searle that: “Language doesn’t have any essential purpose, or it does there is no interesting connection between its purpose and its structure.  The syntactical structures of human languages are the products of innate features of the human mind and they have no significant connection with communication.” If this is true that what, if not communication was the complex, evolutionarily costly innate syntactical faculty inherent in the human mind evolved for?  Is Chomsky asserting communication is a byproduct of an unrelated brain structure?  It seems the simpler logic would argue for humans having evolved complex structures for the sake of communication, which is obviously useful and helpful to human survival.

The faculty for intricate syntax is what sets humans apart from other species.  This is the assertion, well supported by evidence so far, of the Chomsky linguists.  A few months ago, I watched a documentary called Project Nim, which detailed a 1970s experiment with a chimpanzee, cheekily christened “Nim Chimp-sky,” which was trying to prove that chimpanzees, properly trained from childhood, have the ability to learn language similar to humans.  The scientist behind the project was a behaviorist (as portrayed by the filmmaker, he was also a irresponsible, arrogant, sexist fool… but that’s a separate issue).  After years of human-chimp bonding, and the clear evidence that the chimp had deep emotions, thoughts and wants he was both eager to and quite capable of communicating, the final results were analyzed and declared: Chimpanzees, despite the behaviorists’ hopes were not capable of learning language.

My first reaction to the film, and the results of the study, was confusion.  Weren’t the scientists missing a major point? Fine, Chimpanzees couldn’t learn grammar like humans, and this is a potentially important difference between species, but language as I have always understood it is a specialized and deeply refined form of communication, and ignoring the refined communication that the chimpanzee was capable of seems to obscure as much about the human mind as it reveals. I have this same question after the readings for this week. Chomsky and the other linguists who want to separate communication from language, well, maybe they can and should do this as an intellectual exercise to answer some particular questions, but should they loose sight of the very real connection between language and communication?

When colorless green ideas sleep furiously

I was born and raised in a city where people spoken two languages: Nanchang dialect and Mandarin, which was relatively normal in China since each place had its local dialect apart from Mandarin Chinese. However, if taking a 40-minute bus from the city center of Nanchang to a neighbor town Nanchang county, I wouldn’t understand what people spoke there because they had a different dialect, an unknown tongue to me. This was also normal in China, especially southern China. Certainly, I would be able to communicate with people all across China since there exists the universal language for Chinese people – Mandarin. Language makes us apart, and in turn it brings us together.

Map of Chinese languages and dialects













Chomsky would say that the universal grammar is the language faculty in human brain instead of on their mouth. One point that Chomsky attempted to make in his “revolution” was that the purpose of language is NOT essentially communication, but “the syntactical structures of human languages are the products of innate features of the human mind, and they have no significant connection with communication”. (Searle, p I) As for me, this happens when I see the written characters of the word “ice cream” in Chinese OR listen to the pronunciation of “ice cream” in English, both expression gives me the visual image and taste sensation of an ice cream. Even if I don’t know any language to express the meaning of ice cream, I’d have recognition of it once I’ve formed its spiritual idea in my mind. What’s tricky in this is that, in reverse, when I see the word “ice cream”, I may run at the mouth since the language gives me the natural perception of a certain concept and recalls my sense. 

I found Chomsky’s conclusion of transformational components pretty interesting: “the syntactic component consists of rules that generate deep structures combined with rules mapping these into associated surface structures”. (Chomsky, pg 124) This structure appears notably in Chinese language, and usually people are doing the opposite works – since there is a deep structure lies behind the surface structure, people would interpret both the surface structure and phonetic representation to figure out its semantic meaning, including the literal meaning and deeper meaning. For example, a world-renowned linguist, Yuanren Zhao, who also named the Father of Chinese language and linguistics, once composed a 92-character poem to illustrate how Chinese language could tell a story with only one phonetic symbol. When written in Chinese characters, this poem below tells the history of a person named Shi living in a stone room loves going to the market and eating ten lions. (The words “history, stone, room, love, go, market, eat, ten, lion” can all be pronounced as Shi in Chinese.) Although a ridiculous false tale, it did represent the semantic meaning and fit in the grammar with a transformation of the deep structure within the author’s mind.

Yuanren Zhao, 1916


<< Shī Shì shí shī shǐ >>
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì,shì shī,shì shí 10 shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
10 shí,shì 10 shī shì shì.
Shì shí,shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì 10 shī,shì shì shì,shī shì 10 shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì 10 shī shī,shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī,Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì,Shì shí shì shí shì 10 shī.
Shí shí,shǐ shì shì 10 shī,shí 10 shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.


The creativeness of language can never be limited even though the terms syntax, phonology and semantics have been constraining our thoughts and natural abilities, no matter rational or perceptual. In Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957), he composed a famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as an example to demonstrate the distinction between syntax and semantics: the sentence was grammatically correct but semantically meaningless. However, the sentence can be given an interpretation through polysemy, and Yuanren Zhao was the first one who attempted to provide the sentence meaning through context. (Zhao, 1997) This definitely reminds me of the nonsensical poem Jabberwocky in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll, pg 64-65), which inspires us to explore the wonderland of linguistics as infinite understanding always creates infinite meanings and expression.

Jabberwocky in Alice in Wonderland 











John Searle, “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

Noam Chomsky, “Form and meaning in natural languages.” Excerpt from Language and Mind, 3rd. Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Chao, Yuen Ren“Making Sense Out of Nonsense”. The Sesquipedalian, vol. VII, no. 32 (June 12, 1997).

Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass pp 64–65 Createspace ltd. 2010

Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, The Hague/Paris: Mouton. 1957

#whatwouldChomskydo: Language Structure in the Realm of New Media

#whatwouldChomskydo: Language Structure in the Realm of New Media
Sara Levine

John Searle argued in “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics” that Chomsky did not explore the relationship between language and communication. However, meaning seems to have become more difficult to separate from abstract notions of language as new forms of communication come into being. Writing code and using tags are just a few forms of media that can be investigated as both forms of expression and language.

The use of code and coding language borrows many components from the basic language structure as described by Chomsky and other linguists. Code has rules, a lexicon of words, grammar, semantics, and makes use of context much like any sentence in the English language. For example, a line of code is constructed with a function and then an argument in parentheses followed by a semicolon called the “terminator”. When put together in a certain order, these statements then take on meaning in that they are issued as commands to the computer. The computer interprets this language and carries out the instructions (LeMasters “Computational Expression”). Here are a few lines of code for demonstration:


Each statement can be broken down into segments much like the syntactic structure of a sentence. The functions are the words outside of the parentheses, and the arguments are the numbers inside the parentheses. If one semicolon is missing, the computer will refuse to run the program. In the last line of code, there is a function to draw an ellipse followed by an argument for that ellipse. The argument’s structure contains the coordinates for the center of the ellipse followed by the width and height. Code structure can become more complicated as coders add IF, ELSE, and OR statements. We can study lines of code based only on these components. However, that type of investigation would not yield everything there is to know about that line of code. Chomsky revolutionized the study of language by recognizing the importance of meaning, but he seemed to neglect the semantic component of his theory (Searle). When studying the function of language structure within the use of code, it would also be important to study the semantics of the coding process. When those sample lines of code are read and carried out by the computer, they are translated into a program that the coder intended to create. The green circle it draws may serve a purpose of some sort for the coder. Taken further, other coders might borrow and “edit” that line of code to produce their own creations. This brings up the question of how to go about investigating the meaning of the code in relation to the interaction between two coders who may be simultaneously editing the code.

Twitter trends from the night of January 29, 2013

Another form of media that can be mapped out according to the basics of language structure are tags and hashtags. Although they are rarely formed as full sentences, the structure of tags adheres to certain spatial and syntagmatic rules. Tags are often found at the end of tweets and at the bottom of blog posts. A hash mark must come before it in order for it to be considered a tag. On Twitter, hashtags that contain multiple words do not have any spaces between them. For example, the tag “#MyLifeIn5Words” is trending on Twitter. The hash mark denotes the presence of a tag, and any words following that mark and between the next spacing is the tag itself. “#MyLifeIn5Words” is just an empty phrase without looking at all of the structural, semantic, and communicative work that goes into putting that particular hashtag at the end of a tweet. It is tied to the text within the tweet, the person who tweeted it, and the reasoning behind a person’s decision to tag their tweet with “#MyLifeIn5Words”. Similarly, Tumblr utilizes hashtags at the end of blog posts. Bloggers use this space to make sure that their posts show up in tags that any Tumblr user can search. If a blogger posts a picture of his or her dog and tags it “#puppy” followed by “#dog pictures” and “#I love my dog,” then anyone who searches for those terms in Tumblr will see the blogger’s post. The syntagmatic and spatial structures in Tumblr’s tagging system is different from Twitter’s structure because there are spaces between words. Bloggers can therefore form entire sentences under one hash mark. Many bloggers also use the tags to provide running commentary. Sometimes they use hash marks to emphasize a phrase. For example, here is a screenshot taken from a post made about fanfiction:

There’s an Awful Lot of Gray to Work with. N.p., n.d. Web. <>. <>.

Someone reblogged a blog post, and added his or her commentary in the space reserved for tags. It is important to note that instead of using commas the blogger utilizes tags as a grammatical way to break up sentences. The hash mark signifies a pause when reading the tags. Once again, this new format for communication makes it difficult to separate the content of the tag from its context. Bloggers are using their knowledge of how a sentence works, but re-formatting it for the space under the main blog post.

Finally, there are also forms of media that deliberately destroy language structure in order to create meaning. Artists such as Pogo and The Gregory Brothers remix sounds and segments of dialogue in order to create music. These artists purposefully rearrange syntax, phonological structure, and semantics in order to produce a melody. Pogo takes short sound bites from movies and composes them into full-length songs. “Alice,” for example, features a selection of sounds from the movie Alice in Wonderland. Without knowing the context of the song, “Alice” sounds like vocals without lyrics. There is a certain structural component to the notes and composition of the piece that Pogo created, but the English language was sampled and remixed in order to construct the melody. These songs explore the idea of meaning conveyed through music. The abstract components of “Alice” by themselves do not represent the song’s artistry, message, or context. The Gregory Brothers use a similar method of remix, but they use phrases instead of sounds. Their “Auto-Tune the News” series made melodies out of phrases from politicians’ speeches and news anchors’ reports. “Bed Intruder Song,” which seems to be their most popular song to date, contains parts of a news report about a home invasion. Antoine Dodson’s commentary is auto-tuned and certain phrases are repeated in order to create a chorus for the song. The phonological structure, or how the language sounds, is fundamentally altered in order to create the song. The Gregory Brothers also change the syntax, but the auto-tune method directly affects the context of the news report. Antoine Dodson was not singing his report to the news team, but anyone who downloaded the song without context would not be aware of that. The process and culture of remix art bring in an entirely different perspective to how language is structured.

New media forms seem to possess the fundamental structures of language, which indicates that these structures are so heavily ingrained in our minds that it is imperative that they be used in most forms of communication. This brings up the fundamental question of whether there is an innate faculty that humans possess for language learning (Searle, Chomsky 120, Radford 7). The answer may lie in the study of these new forms of communication and which structural components they all have in common.

Works Cited

Alice. Nick Bertke. YouTube. YouTube, 18 July 2007. Web.

BED INTRUDER SONG!!! (now on ITunes). Prod. Michael Gregory. Perf. Antoine Dodson and The Gregory Brothers.YouTube. YouTube, 31 July 2010. Web. <>.

Bertke, Nick. “POGOMIX.” POGO Music Producer Remix Artist. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Chomsky, Noam. “Form and meaning in natural languages.” Excerpt from Language and Mind, 3rd. Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Irvine, Matthew. “Linguistics: Key Concepts”

LeMasters, Garrison. “CCTP 764: Computational Expression.” Georgetown University. 18 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

Radford, Andrew et al. Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Searle, John. “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

“The Gregory Brothers.” The Gregory Brothers. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

There’s an Awful Lot of Gray to Work with. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Linguistics, AI’s and Cowboys, Oh My!

The linguistic skills that develop through childhood, which permeate our culture, media and digital technology are often overlooked in judging media and communication processes. At the same time, the way we interpret boundaries of language in media and how we use sociolinguistics as a cultural identifier goes beyond tthe innateness Chomsky proposes. Two recurring concepts that struck me were the analysis of human language and technology and the formation symbolic systems with sociolinguistics. The examples of word play and the speed in which human cognition can affirm and respond in forming a “coherent”  assemblage found in Pinker’s “How Language Works” was fascinating in understanding the part semantics plays in differentiating human and computer interaction. Pinker gives several examples of the Turing Machine and other human/computer experiments that demonstrate a computer’s or artificial intelligence agent’s inability to “sound human” when attempting to understand abstract concepts that come more naturally in human comprehension and response in making sense of language.

The video below gives a comical and extreme example of two AI systems attempting to have a conversation with each other. While both are “aware” that the other is a robot, it does show that there is more at work than words and grammar. The nonsensical nature of the conversation displays the the power of the faculty of language in how humans comprehend word/grammar meaning and its context all in a manner of seconds.

I found Pinker’s notions that “language conveys news” and that “language makes infinite use of finite media” to be extensions of the idea of creating our “humanness” through symbolic meaning. The AI bots attempt to convey an informational conversation but fail to recognize semantic components of the other because they are programmed pieces of technology. While AI’s could continue making infinite sentences, they would do so out of memory or program, not in the same cognitive or meaningful way in which a human constructs sentences, behavior and in some instances, reality. However, as digital technology and AI are continually improved, it will be interesting to see if it is possible to create an artificial being that can copy the innate capacities of language that Chomsky believes we are born with.

The second concept that struck me was the effect of language and how all its components of grammar play into the field of sociolinguistics where our cultural, societal and individual identities are formed. This focuses less on Chomsky’s theories than those that account for the structure and function of a language in society. A recent article from my home state of Texas displays the nature of cultural associations through linguistics.

Is the Texas Twang Dyin’, Y’all? Other Accents Blend In.

This article brings up a number of interesting points and questions that coalesce with this week’s past readings.To some of those who live in Texas and other parts of the south, this “southern slang” represents a way of life and sense of identity of belonging to the southwest.However, these seemingly innocent phrases take different meaning for others who finds the grammar to represent an antiquated less educated form of language that can symbolize a number things such as conservatism, backwardness and cowboys among other stereotypes. This example goes to show it is more than the simple ability to learn a language or regional dialect, but the semantics of how we interpret the users in society. As the article points out, politicians and musicians have used thesouthwest or “Texan” grammatical syntax and slang to their benefit. However, these “trademark” linguistics phrases are, according to the article, being homogenized by the media as well as by the influx of new Latino populations to the area. As linguistics creates meaning between individuals and in  the media, the idea of technology reshaping our perception and learning of language is an interesting concept. So is the process of diverging and growing populations slowly coming together to form new dialects, such as the Spanglish that I heard so commonly in my hometown of El Paso.

Linguistics appeals to me beyond Chomsky’s dissection of grammar and innateness, but as the overall cognitive focus of how live our daily lives in communication with others and in forming our identity, Additionally, it is intriguing to see how language and linguistics is the basis for all functioning technology when you look at code in addition to the attempt to reproduce human linguistic capabilities through our technologies

*On a personal note, I still occasionally say y’all and use the word “wrangle” in conversation and emails. However, the biggest response I have gotten since moving from Texas to Washington DC has been “Oh, you don’t have an accent, you talk like a normal person.”

Courtesy ABC News/Getty Images

John Searle, “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

Steven Pinker, “How Language Works.” Excerpt from: Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, 1994

From Andrew Radford, et al. Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

An Attempt at a Sociolinguistic Analysis: How Language is Used by Filipinos on Twitter with #Marcos

The relationship between the structure of society and language use are the focus of Sociolinguists, who incorporate into their analysis (1.) the backgrounds of the speaker and the addressee such as age, sex, class, race, religion, sexuality, etc., (2.) the relationship between the two such as mother-daughter, classmates, etc., and (3.) the context of the interaction such as Facebook message, face to face, while fighting, etc. (Radford et. al. 2009). This analysis is an attempt to use the sociolinguistic framework and use such concept from the field as diglossia, orthography, phonology, and morphology. The analysis will be done on Tweets from #Marcos.

On September 21 in 1972, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos infamously signed Proclamation 1081 thus declaring a state of martial law in the Philippines. He did this in order to extend his presidency beyond just the two terms he is constitutionally allowed. During his 20 years as president of the Philippines, his administration was greatly marred by human rights violations, corruption, and political oppression that reached a climax when he was implicated in the murder of his primary political opponent, Benigno Aquino. His dictatorship ended in 1986 through the People Power Revolution, which ended his power and forced him into exile in Hawaii. Until today, there are billions of dollars of embezzled public funds that are in Swiss and American banks. Though Marcos has died whilst in exile in Hawaii, his wife Imelda (who holds the infamous title of woman with the world’s most pairs of shoes) still lives and is a governor while all his children are in the Senate. What is unique about the Twitter hashtag “Marcos” is not only that today marks the anniversary of the signing of the document that abolished the checks on Marcos’s power, but that the current President of the Philippines is the son of Benigno Aquino.

When reading the tweets with hash tag Marcos, the linguistic differences are based on location (urban vs. rural; capital city Manila elitism vs. provincialism; and Marcos political family ties in the province of Leyte), which is closely linked to class (English-speaking educated elites vs. Pure-Tagalog-speaking educated elites vs. “Tagalish”-speaking masses), and opinion of Marcos (nostalgia for Martial Law vs. bitterness).

There is a pattern in the way those tweeting from Manila, Cebu, and other metropolitan areas tweet about Marcos. The tweets are usually written fully in un-slanged English or un-slanged Tagalog, which are the two high, formal forms of Filipino diglossia. For example, one person from Manila (the Philippine capital) tweets: “Today in history: In 1972, President Marcos signed Proc. 1081, declaring a state of martial law in the Philippines” while another from Quezon City (another large metropolitan area) tweets, “Itinuring kong isang sinasapiang aso ang rehimeng Marcos na gusto kong wakasan.” Both of these statements are written very much like the news: formal, correct, and void of any odd orthography or use of phonology. This is because Filipinos from big cities are more likely to be exposed to a strict scholastic curriculum and business decorum that are conducted strictly in either completely fluent Tagalog or fluent English.

The tweets that were in these high languages almost exclusively profess anti-Marcos sentiments such as “Hindi garapal ang kayamana ng pamilyang Marcos” or “Martial Law is Marcos Larceny”. They even go a step further by tagging links to reference more information in order to back up their value and judgment statements: “FDC: The Marcos’ Legacy of Fraudulent and Illegitimate Debts”, or “In his own words: Marcos on martial law #RememberML40”.

This utilization of the high languages is further reinforced and exacerbated by class. The tweets coming from parts of the city that are posh, such as the Makati district in Manila, are only conducted in fluent English sans abnormal morphology. This is because the Philippine intelligentsia and upper-class elites, who tend to be politically very liberal and who were greatly represented in the anti-Marcos People’s Revolution, speak English as their primary language and to each other. They go to English-speaking schools, conduct business in English, and go to elite private schools that only teach in English.

These elites actually have to learn the other form of high language in the Filipino diglossia: Tagalog. It is taught to all Filipino citizens and is used fluently in the contexts of formal occasions where the Lexicon should be pure i.e. there are no ad-hoc borrowed words from English. Pure Tagalog is solely used by those in public office, newscasters, and academics. Based on how the has tag Marcos sentiments are proclaimed via twitter, we can thus postulate that the upper-classes, the urban elites, and intelligentsia are generally anti-Marshall Law, with a proclivity for providing sources that back up their claims about Marcos.

Because there are 175 regional dialects in the Philippines, not everyone who tweeted tweeted in this high form of Tagalog or English. In fact, most of the tweets were conducted in “Tagalish”, or a colloquial combination of Tagalog and English. The tweets that are written in this manner have no real formal rules i.e. they differ greatly in terms of orthography. For example are the following tweets: (1) “Happy 40th Anniversary! Hindi ko inabutan yan. Pero medyo idol ko rin talaga si Marcos :)”, (2) “My Lola totally misses yung Martial Law because the Philippines was better with it- sobra!”, and “How I wish Marcos Era still exist, edi sana walang nag-hihirap na mga Pilipino ngayon, Idol parin kita #FerdinandMarcos :).”

A significant difference between these tweets and the high tweets is the discourse elements and punctuation. These tweets, unlike the high tweets, have iconic happy faces to emphasize the sentiment that they are either celebrating the anniversary of martial law, or that they look up to Marcos. These low tweets also tend to use more exclamation marks than the high tweets. This shows that while the low tweets tend to not have much depth of content (like the high tweets do with their references and links), they tend to however garner a lot more expression with their exciting syntax and punctuation. They have a lot more character with their use of happy faces as emphasis of their sentiment, and are a lot more conversational with their use of natural interjections.

Another difference between the high tweets and these low tweets is that Tagalog words here are mostly misspelled to make them shorter but this is the unofficial, colloquial way of shortening words when you write them as Tagalog words, especially certain verb tenses which are extremely long. A writing system has developed for Tagalish in which Tagalog words are purposely but consistently misspelled. In the lexicon of these two tweets, or of any of the Tagalish tweets, there is an obvious borrowing of words. If the tweeter is tweeting primarily in Tagalog (or any other dialect), he/she will borrow words from English, and likewise if the tweeter is tweeting primarily in English, he/she will borrow words from an abbreviated/shortened form of Tagalog to tweet in the low language of the Philippines.

The Tweets that are in Tagalish are overwhelmingly nostalgic for the days of martial law, or reveal that written Tagalish is a mode of language for those who are pro-Marcos. This is not surprising because Marcos marketed himself very well during his campaigning as a man of the people. He was after all, a “probinsyano”, or provincial man who made his way up in Philippine politics because of sheer hard work, intelligence, and gumption.  The Philippines under Martial Law also was very oppressive with curfews, strict punishments for criminals, and a strong presence of the military in people’s lives. Many probinsyanos view that era as safe, more prosperous, and more respectful. This is echoed in the way Tagalish is used in sentiments that are very protective of Marcos and of Martial Law.



Radford, Andrew, Atkinson, Martin, Britain, David, Clahsen, Harald, and Spencer, Andrew (2009) Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Visual “Language”? Some Thoughts on the naturalness of the Visual System in Films

The phrase “visual language” has been thrown around quite a lot, yet most of the time it has been used as a catch-all term for a vast variety of ideas. In fact, is it even really a “language”? Most would agree that the visual component of our cognitive system has countless similar features as the language system, but few would go as far as claiming that it should be regarded as a language in the strict sense. However, visual cognition itself is too complicated and vague a field to investigate on its entirety, so here I will only attempt to tackle the tip of the iceberg of visual aspect of films, which is itself a small part of the visual system.
First of all, the definition of language itself is much debatable. But one major perspective in modern linguistics considers it a “cognitive system which is part of any normal human being’s mental or psychological structure”, with some social aspect to it as compensation to Chomsky’s strict syntactical perspective. The language would have a grammar, and there exists a universal grammar that has been biologically endowed in human beings. Beneath the surface structures of the language there would be deep structures, ones that are generative from the innate universal grammar. So how similar is “visual language” in films compared to this generative linguists’ idea of language? Let’s take a scene from the Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, 1979) as an example. (Suggestion: perhaps have the sound turned off when watching it.)

Here we see a very standard use of basic film language. The scene first starts with a wide/establishing shot (1), showing the entire classroom, facing the teacher. Then it cuts to a reverse shot (2a-2b), facing the students. This is also a dolly shot, moving in until we see a medium shot for the protagonist. Next it cuts to a low-angled medium-wide shot (3) of the teacher. Then back to the protagonist (4). Back to teacher, this time in a medium shot (5). Cuts back to the protagonist again (6), followed by a moving shot (7a-7b) from the medium of the teacher to a medium-wide two-shot containing both characters. Then a medium-wide (8) on the teacher. After this there is a quick-cutting back-and-forth sequence (9-12) of extreme close-ups of the teacher and the protagonist. This is followed with the camera backing out, to a high-angled medium-close-up of the protagonist (13) and a moving low-angled medium-wide following the teacher (14). Finally, this scene is ended with a close-up of the protagonist (15).

Structure-wise, this is a very classic example (although one might argue that this is more like a “paragraph” than a “sentence”). It starts from an establishment of the environment, then closes onto the main characters, and finally ends on the protagonist. This can be seen as a typical presentation of natural human experience, when people would usually take in the surroundings at first, then focusing in onto the details. However, this is just the surface structure. What is the deep structure underlying it? Also, how about the “naturalness” of such structure? Without proper experimental studies, we cannot know if there is an innate language faculty in it, or if it’s just the result of cultural stimuli.
Certain rules can also be seen from this example. One is that although the editor is allowed to use items of the same composition/nature, he/she cannot juxtapose two similar items next to each other (In this case, the editor never put two shots of the same character together). Another is the 180-degree rule, according to which the camera have to always stay on one side of the characters’ eye line. Of course there are many more if we look more carefully, but for the moment let’s stay focused on these two. Also, there are many socio-economic reasons for the forming of such system/rules, but here let’s stay on hypotheses in the realm of nature. One plausible reason for the first rule is that human eyes are like prime lenses: they cannot zoom in/out or have sudden changes of angles. One may be curious about the reverse shots, then. An explanation is that in this case viewers would be taking up the point of views of different characters, but that may not seem satisfactory to everyone. After all, the reverse shots are rarely actual point-of-view shots, but over-the-shoulder or other third-person-view ones. Compared to this, the 180-degree rule is mostly considered settled, with its reason in human recognition of two-dimensional space. (Essentially this rule is aimed at a result of the character always looking at one direction on the screen.)
These are just some disjointed, unsystematic thoughts on mapping the visual system in films onto the theories of modern linguistics. There are much more to be investigated and many more fields that one can draw from to form a more comprehensive view on the subject.

Andrew Radford, et al. Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

The Language of Linguistics

“Linguistics is a classificatory science.” This was stated by CF Hockett  in 1942 and is still applicable today. This quotation was included in John Searle’s  analysis of Chomsky (1972), who is perhaps the most widely recognized name in linguistics. Considering linguistics as a classificatory tool helps to better understand how humans have used language to communicate and interact. For instance, we can easily classify Non-English speakers from English speakers simply by observing the noise of verbal or written messages. Think of the last time you were browsing the aisles of a grocery store and overheard someone talking in a different language. Typically, we tune out other’s mundane conversations in passing but yet when we hear something different (i.e. another language), our brains are attempting to decode this new information source. What about in the learning environment?  When faced with the task of sitting through a class lecture, communication, language, and symbolic systems are all interrelated.According to Shannon’s theory, understanding entails, in theory, a completion of  Shannon’s Communication system.

This would mean that information (such as learning a new topic, in both written form and verbal traditions) needs to be transmitted  from instructor to learner (the receiver).  It is during this process where the importance of understanding linguistics and its place in communication is crucial. Students are only able to understand an instructor if he or she follows a proper set of rules that make sense in a linguist’s point of view, which would be through a procedural grammatical structure. For instance, if  a teacher said “History DC we’re today gonna learn about” to a class, that would result in a complete breakdown in the intended message getting through to the receivers as opposed to “Today we’re going to learn about the history of DC.” Although there are many branches in which one could take with the concept of linguistics, two main concepts I took away from this weeks readings involve 1) the “universality” of languages and 2) sociolinguistics, particularly identity formation.

Sentence not following grammatical rules: Notice the occurrence of “fragments”

Sentence following grammatical rules.


The “Universality” of Languages

Despite drastic differences among languages many researchers argue there they all have universal characteristics. Chomsky found value in the meaning behind syntax, or the “grammatical rule underlying the construction of sentences.”(1972). Although “Σήμερα είναι μια καλή μέρα” might not make sense to non-Greek speakers, [1] that phrase was not formed arbitrarily; chances are to create that set of words, it had to follow a general set of rules and structure that makes sense to its users (Greek speakers). This is where Chomsky comes in. He attempted to tackle the burgeoning question of how do we, humans, learn to talk in our natural context? [2]  By “natural context” I mean one’s own geographical locale or native tongue. A baby born in Russia will learn to use  Russian language, while a child born in the United States (and who presumably remains in the same location with English speaking parents) will grow up to learn English without being “told” to do so.  Chomsky counters empiricists’ beliefs that the mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) and instead claims that it comes down to the child having “…the form of the language already built into his mind before he ever learns to talk” (1972). In his view,  we are all equipped with a universal grammar that is “programmed” in our brains. But what happens when we aren’t babies anymore? Searle critiques Chomsky’s theory noting that he fails to “see the essential connection between language and communication, between meaning and speech arts” (1972). Perhaps there is a breakdown in the universality of meaning between language and communication since, alas, they are not the same thing. According to Foulger, communication is not a “thing” but a process (2004).  So if we look at language as a process, there may be universality in the early stages of linguistic acquisition, but once individuals learn to associate their cultural context to how they speak, language goes back to being a narrow classification of what communication means.


The second linguistic concept that I wish to touch upon is sociolinguistics, or how the social characteristics of people shapes language (“WordNet”). To continue with the first concept, culture plays a significant role in understanding language and our identity that is tied to language. But what begs to be questioned is where media’s role is in all of this. Folger’s discussion in “Models of the Communication Process” notes that “people invent and evolve media” just as they do with language (2004). If that is the case, can this claim be supported by considering the culture of computers? Computers, as a medium of transmitting multiple forms of media, were invented by humans. And indeed, people have contributed to their evolution in past 30 years. One could argue that our social characteristics (inclination to computer use), has created an entirely new language system. For example, anyone who’s taken a web design course, may recall how learning this skill requires the learner to translate new meaning into their current vocabulary (such as the color black being equivalent to #00000 or the fact that the “{“ and “}” are more than symbols-  they indicate a set of rules for a web page). In my view, computer code is a language in itself – a social one that humans have created. This is an area that could use deeper analysis of combining the social influence of non-human devices on humans and what semantic/ linguistic implications they do (or do not) have on us.

One Last Word… 

In the field of contemporary linguistics, exploring how communication and symbolic expressions result in our understanding of languages is key. This macro-level overview of just two concepts of linguistics indicates how easy it is to jump from one area to another. Having at least a basic understanding of linguistics is key to delve deeper in the understanding of media theory and digital culture. Nearly all cultures have words for “media,” “communication,” and “information” but their meanings vary depending on the language being used. People’s reactions and social influences from the term “media” (and how it is created), differs drastically if you’re in North Korea or France. Attempting to understand media and communications requires just as much of a structural approach as is required for understanding language through the lens of linguistics.



[1] According to Google translate this means “Today is a good day” in Greek.

[2] When thinking what exactly a language is, it helps to first address the notion of “FOL”, or  Faculty of Language. FOL is simply  humans’ ability to learn a natural language, namely, the language that he or she was born into  is learned first (“Linguistics: Key Concepts”).

Irvine, M. “Linguistics: Key Concepts

Foulger, D. “Models of the Communication Process” 2004.

Foulger, D. “An Ecological Model of Communication” 2004.

Searle, John.  “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

Shannon, C.  The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1948). The Bell System Technical Journal Vol. 27, pp. 379–423, 623–656, July, October, 1948.

WordNet Search.

Working with linguistics: theory and models

Introduction to The Nature of Human Language and Human Symbolic Systems

The fact of the human capacity for language is the starting point of many disciplines and research programs in all aspects of communication, symbolic culture, and media. Much of the research questions and the terminology for the study of language and human symbol systems (“vocabularies” of description, as Rorty would say) has been set by the various specialities of modern linguistics. The terms and categories for analysis in linguistics have also been widely used heuristically by other disciplines, and all students studying media and communication need to be familiar with the basic agenda and research programs in the major branches of linguistics. 

Familiarity with the concepts, terms, and assumptions of contemporary linguistics is thus essential for discussing and describing all other symbolic combinatorial systems that use language or function as language-like systems. An important open question for interdisciplinary research in all related sciences is whether we can accept the faculty of language (FOL), and the cognitive “triggers” that happen in language acquisition, as the foundation of all human symbolic processes (all those based on combinatoriality, recursion, and intersubjective material-conceptual symbols) from writing to mathematics and multimedia, or, rather, should we research further the evidence for a more generalized symbolic faculty of which language is one major (or the major) implementation. Either model leads us into the central questions about communication, culture, and technology.

We can only do a top-level overview here, but with some familiarity in the problems and core concepts, you can advance to topics of interest in your own research.

Key concepts to be used in this course: generativity, combinatoriality/compositionality, intersubjectivity, pragmatics (contextual and situational analysis, shared assumptions, speech and discourse genres and speech acts), sociolinguistics (language in everyday use and language in social group formation and identities).