Author Archives: Mia Gao

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.



Mind and brain evolution

After finished this week’s readings, I attempted to find their similarities and synthesize a framework that can represent the common threads in recent work on the origin of symbolic thought. Wong’s article (Wong, 2005) pointed out that the “behavioral revolution” of anatomically modern humans around 40 thousand years ago was not an incident. Like evolutionist advocated, it was a process took several million years. Additionally, C.S. Peirce’s framework of understanding sign systems in terms of icons, indices and symbols was commented on specifically by several authors, and following Deacon’s explanation of these categories as hierarchical (Deacon 1998).

These authors envision the overall course of the evolution as a symbolic system that have some traits in common. Donald’s concept of mimesis states that while Donald identifies a series of significant steps towards fully-realized symbolic thought (Renfrew 1999). Therefore, he thought the mimic skill is an essential ability acquired by aps, and it’s also the foundation of human language development. The most fascinating while puzzling reading for me was Barrett’s “Archaeology of Mind”. It challenged the basis of many other author’s arguments. First, it attacked materialist and solipsistic approach to understanding the mind. Barrett put, “When it comes to the problem of mind, we still seem to be stuck in a Cartesian trap wherein we think of cognition as something that happens within the mind– a place totally distinct from the body and the rest of the world.” This raised a question that lots of scholars tried to explain: they were looking for ways to explain consciousness and symbolic capability through some kind of “magic switch” in the brain. Donald stated there’s a nod to the importance of “cognitive collectivities”, however; the first spark of consciousness can attributed to some feature of “neuromania”.

The difficultly in this debate arises from the confluence of the insights of multiple. Compare to other theories, Pinker’s approach seems more testable and his theory assumes the benefit of multiple genetic advantages over time.  As Pinker pointed out, “sociality in natural environments is based on concepts and motives adapted to kinship, dominance, alliances, and reciprocity. Humans, when left to their own devices, tend to apply these mindsets within modern organizations. The result of nepotism, cronyism, deference to authority, and polite consensus-all of which are appropriate to traditional small-scale societies but corrosive of modern ones.” Besides the bright side, the deep-rooted dark side is also generated through out time. This generative phenomenon seems gave the strongest evidence of his theory.



Deacon, Terrence W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY, USA: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Pinker, Steven. “The Cognitive Niche: Coevolution of Intelligence, Sociality, and Language.” InProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Supplement 2:8993–99, 2010.

The Impact of Technology and Mediology

This week’s reading reminds me a study done by Carnegie Mellon University about a decade ago, led by Robert Kraut of the Human Computer Interaction Institute. He published one of the first major studies on the impact of Internet use by raising a provocative question: “Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Weil-Being?” This question mirrored Florid’s Information Theory: “Since the 1950s, computer science and ICTs have exercised both an extrovert and an introvert influence, changing not only our interactions with the world but also our self-understanding.” With more and more people adopting a new technology, people tend to be critical and sometimes cynical about its extrovert and introvert influence.

Carnegie’s research reveals that use of the Internet was associated with a general decline in communication with family members who lived in the household. Internet users tended to report greater levels of depression and feelings of loneliness and they did before the study began (Sparks, 2012). The possible reasons for the introvert influence of Internet on its users are activity displacement effect, which means people tend to have very limited amount of time to engage in other relationship building activities. Also, it was possibly because Internet relationship replaces traditional strong social ties. Just as Florid further explained: “In many respects, we are not standalone entities, but rather interconnected informational organisms or inforgs, sharing with biological agents and engineered artifacts a global environment ultimately made of information, the infosphere.” It seems the new informational environment comes with the fourth revolution is influencing our interpersonal relationships and the well-being of the society as whole.

The explanation of Carnegie’s research underscored the assertion that, “Internet users form more superficial relationships instead of connecting deeply to others.” His theory relies on the assumption that people won’t shift their face-to-face relationship to online relationship or vise versa. As Media Multiplicity Theory and Ledbetter’s research findings shows, Facebook users actually have more close relationships than non-users (Sparks, 2012). They use the tool to contact with old friends, and to deepen their real-life social support. I believe this founding is based on the fact that people often tend to communicate intensively with people they knew in real-life. For people who met online, most people are willing to meet each other face to face. Carnegie’s study was severely criticized due to new technology was seen as a medium that would substitute a conventional communication channel.

Debray acknowledged the nature of new technology in mediology by saying that, “A new medium or technology does not replace or substitute a prior technology, but creates a new configuration of the entire media system with the inclusion of the new.” Consequently, a new medium of communication won’t necessary jeopardize the preexisted and dominating ones. The content of a previously existing medium will be shown in a new medium. However, some information will be lost and some qualities of the medium will be mixed into the mediology process. Therefore, how to preserve a culture (language, art, music etc.) is still an interdiscipliary enigma.


Sparks, G. G. (2012). Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview (4 edition.). Australia; Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.