Intersubjective system of meaning making: language and more

Language, as described in the readings has a lexicon composed of phonemes and morphemes, and a grammar, which employs morphology, syntax, and semantics.  But, technical terms aside, “Language is the expression and communication of thoughts” (Jackendoff). A language is a set of symbols composed of phonetics, morphology, lexicon, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse and text linguistics, agreed upon by a community or group of speakers. The essential features within a language are social context and culture among a community. While re-reading readings for this week and watched the video from Pinker again. I realized the most mysterious part about the origin of language is not only how this communication channel started from several precursors, but also how was the “language” community developed.

When mirroring language into other culture environment, there are basic forms an artist learns to get by and play the piano or the guitar made up of a “systems architecture” (Jackendoff, Irvine), but to become a virtuoso there is an assumed “talent” within that person; on the other hand many will argue that talent is nothing without practice. Much like Deacon’s discussion of the child’s ability to know to practice throwing a ball or a rock, you can learn to shoot pictures, make sculptures and paint, but becoming an artist depending much more than repetition and skills.

Though, practicing an instrument, or language features and components, is not done with a vacant capacity of only physical repetition, there is a “conceptual structure” (Jackendoff) for understanding the notes being played, the fingers used, and the force of the strokes to create specific sounds, notes, bars, breaks, etc… Jackendoff states, “It is the locus for the understanding of linguistic utterances in context … it is the cognitive structure in terms of which reasoning and planning take place.” This intertwined feature of parallel architecture of language reminds me an argument in art world. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a central figure in the Aesthetic movement in 1860’s, which was founded on the philosophy of “art for art’s sake” and emphasized artistic principles, elevated taste, and creative eclecticism in the conception and production of furniture, metalwork, ceramics and glass, textiles and wallpaper, and other objects. Whistler suggested the subject of this painting were not important and he paint the portraits just for esthetic value.


Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

As Parallel Architecture suggested, brains attach symbols and meaning to everything to make sense of a language. It automatically applies a symbol or meaning to a subject, and connected with people’s personal experience and cultural evenvironment. The fundamental feature of language is that it is an intersubjective system of meaning making dependent on collective cognition, and is not simply an individual cognitive function (Irvine). Therefore, people would transfer their memory/feelings/understanding of one object to another form. For example, Whistler found a parallel between painting and music, he entitled many of his paintings “arrangements”, “harmonies”, and “nocturnes”, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. In addition, for Wassily Kandinsky, music and color were inextricably tied to one another. In fact, it was after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre that he abandoned his law career to study painting at the prestigious Munich Academy of Fine Arts. He later described the life-changing experience: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” The neurological phenomenon Kandinsky experienced is called synesthesia. It’s a rare but real condition in which one sense, like hearing, concurrently triggers another sense, such as sight (Miller). Kandinsky said that he saw colors when he heard music, and heard music when he painted.


(Composition VII, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913)

Admittedly, I’m still confused about how language mirror on other meaning systems like visual art and music but obviously, different meaning systems share the “fundamental feature of language”, which is that “It is an intersubjective system of meaning making dependent on collective cognition, and is not simply an individual cognitive function.”


Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Linguistics and Symbolic Systems: Key Concepts.

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

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.

Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003. Excerpts and introduction to “the Parallel Architecture” model of Language.