Category Archives: Week 4

Thought, Language, Semiotics and Semantics

For this blog post, I would like to focus on two aspects of the introduction to linguistics that come into confrontation with other theories that I am more familiar with: (1) the concept of thought existing outside of language, and (2) Chomsky’s division between the lexical/semantic and the grammatical/syntactic. Both of these have implications on using linguistics to understand other sign systems.

First, I would like to focus on Pinker’s claim that thought can exist outside of language. The evidence he uses to back up this claim is that (1) tacit knowledge is needed to understand language, and (2) thought must exist prior to language in order to exist—otherwise, where would it come from? Personally, I have neither a strong background in linguistics nor neuroscience, so I am by no means capable of disproving these claims. Instead, I have only questions. For structural linguistics, and those influenced by it, nothing exists outside of language, or rather, something may exist outside of language, but, whatever it is, it’s too murky and indistinct to be of use. “In Problems of General Linguistics,” Benveniste quotes Saussure, thusly:

Psychologically, our thought—apart from its expression in words—is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. […] Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. (45)

Granted, Saussure developed his theory of semiotics about 100 years ago, but such conceptions of language prevailed for a long time afterward (Benveniste published this in the 1970’s). Pinker’s claims rest on the assumption that language is derived from thought, Saussure’s that thought can only exist as such when derived from language. Neither appear to cite scientific evidence to support their claims, but Pinker presents his as if it were not possible for one to disagree. So my question is: has this debate been settled? If so, who won?

Secondly, Pinker identifies three criticisms of Chomsky: (1) no one has proven UG is specific to language itself, (2) he uses a small sample size, and (3) other learning models might be capable of showing how grammar works. However, he overlooks (or omits) what I am finding to be the most interesting criticism of Chomsky, particularly the complication of his division between the lexical/semantic and the grammatical/syntactic. For Chomsky, and many semioticians, there is a clean divide between words (historical, semantic) and syntactic structures (which are perceived as ahistorical patterns, and not semantic). In my Digital Approaches to Literature class, we’ve been discussing how Fillmore challenges this division, and how syntactic structures are also historically and culturally determined. While words have retained a privileged position in the field of semiotics, we can also think of semantic structures as signs. While Saussaurian semiotics have traditionally focused on the semantic function of words, might Peirce’s triadic theory of the sign prove more useful in understanding the semantic function of syntactic structures?

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Coral Gables, Fla: Univ of Miami Pr, 1973. Print.


Codevelopment of language and cognition

After going through the readings, I was able to identify certain commonalities about what a language is. Hoping that my thoughts are resting on an adequate level of abstraction, here is what I was able to come up with, in regards to defining and characterizing the concept of “language.”

  • Understanding a language is different than understanding how a language works.
  • Languages consist of structures.
  • There are multiple structures in a language.
  • The structures in a language are interdependent.
  • Spoken languages differ from other symbolic systems
  • Natural acquisition of languge suggests what is evolutionary about language
  • What differentiates a native language from a computer language, or any other structural meaning system is due to its relation with cognition.
  • Cognition and language co-developed.

Natural acquisition of language is the most prominent cue that tells us what is really significant about a spoken language. Language has an inherent ability of being naturally acquired at young ages – and this is a difference that makes a difference, and defines why spoken languages differ from software languages.

Acknowledging that a certain part of the brain is structured to acquire a language suggests something evolutionary about language. Languages did not only evolve in relation to cognition; they have also provided contextual basis for cognition to evolve. Therefore, languages do not only function for interpersonal communication, it also provides a neural basis for thought. Considering the co-development of cognition and language, it is not possible to differentiate cognition from language.

This awareness can shed light on other social concepts, like how to words function to create emotion, and how acquired language renders human brain path-dependent to the already acquired language. Furthermore, understanding language can give insight to development of certain cultures, cultural trends, and whether lacking certain abstractions or conceptual frameworks restricts human understanding as well.


Pragmatics and Lexicon: Why What You Say (Or Can’t Say) Means So Much

Your mind is constantly churning for the “right” thing to say – even at the most inconvenient of times. As I partake in my nightly face-washing routine, I find myself trying to map out adequate words for this blog response. I turn on the radio; one of my favorite songs by rapper J.Cole comes on and my mind scurries to remember the words, so that I can recite the lyrics on beat. My iPhone beeps, I read the text message and my mind races as my fingers hover over the screen before I type a clever, succinct message.

Speaking of text, I was particularly intrigued by Radford’s featured psycholinguistic model of how linguistic competence meshes with linguistic performance. The mind begins by finding the sounds or symbols within the input; subsequently the words, the structure of the words and finally their literal meaning. However, why does this model neglect the consideration of pragmatics? For example, a text messages lacks vocal inflections, tones, volumes and such, leaving room for much ambiguity behind a message’s meaning. This explains why many a text message exchange has escalated into unnecessary misunderstandings. (See: Key and Peele skit). Moreover, the appearance of text alters the pragmatics associated with symbols. Whether particular words are bolded, underlined, italicized, CAPITALIZED and even striked out triggers the mind to distinguish one set of text from another. This is clearly exhibited when a parent texts their child to “COME HOME” versus “Come home,” as capitalization juxtaposes to one having a raised vocal tone. Particular typographical font styles serve this purpose as well; some fonts, like Curlz, Chalkduster, and Elephant are more appropriate for non-academic writings, unlike Helvetica, Times New Roman, or Arial.

The tug of war between pragmatics and semantics has also been at the heart of debates about racial and cultural epithets. Once derogatory words have become “reclaimed” and morphed to fit new meaning in 21st century contexts of discourse. The term “gay,” once meaning happy or joyous, now categorizes an individual’s sexuality. In terms of the “n” word, not only is the pragmatic value heavily emphasized, but also the phonetic form. Replacing the “a” for the “-er” suffix changes the implication of the word entirely – an argument which has made its way into widespread debates over the use of the term.

In addition to the concept of pragmatics, the term lexicon allured me. Despite taking a few undergraduate courses in grammar and linguistics, I had never been exposed to this concept. I considered the widening gap between individuals’ personal dictionaries and how these rifts came to be. The detachment exists amongst generational, socioeconomic, cultural and even educational lines. I’ve found this to be true when explaining to older family members my daily toils being a CCT student; much of what I learned and what I attempt to describe is foreign to them. It amazes me how intertwined yet independent each person’s lexicon is, and these vocabularies overlap constantly in everyday interactions. As I mentioned in last week’s discussion, the emergence of the emoji has added a new layer of possible picturesque language, thus adding a new bank in its users’ lexicons. This raises the question: Is pictorial language a more universal and easily accessible language to bridge the aforementioned gaps versus a language that uses alphanumeric symbols?



*Side anecdote/note:

I remember two summers ago, stepping out of the aircraft in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and being not only greeted by the sweltering South American heat and humidity, but also by sounds of an unfamiliar tongue: Portuguese. Yet, I wasn’t as startled as my accompanying middle-aged travelers – I had studied Spanish five years consecutively from middle to high school.

You may be reading this and saying to yourself, “I hope she knows she just referenced two separate languages.” Yes, I am aware; this is no typo. I was moderately confident in my ability to translate a portion of the foreign language, because both the Spanish and Portuguese languages operate under similar grammars. My comfort level was so evident amongst my travel group, that I somehow became the linguistic liaison between “us” and “them” (them, including our two tour guides). As Radford’s text explains, some languages possess a Universal Grammar, following similar rules for language use. What I found interesting and also neglectful was Radford’s focus on children as subjects for language acquisition. The model featured within the text explains that children are exposed to language by adults and as their language faculties develop (i.e. voice, teeth to make “th” sounds, etc.), they will soon implement the grammar of the language. Given my previously stated anecdote, I’d like to know if there is a cultural or age-based gap in learning a new language. Most primary education institutions, particularly elementary schools and even daycares, are including various languages in their curriculum. Does a particular native language make it easier to learn a new language versus another? Does the ability to readily learn a language dwindle with age? What is the difference in America’s emphasis on learning a language versus other nation’s insistence on rearing multilingual citizens? This isn’t much of a theoretical question as it is of mere curiosity and supplementary for class discussion.


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.



Building a Little Brand Universe (by Word, by Phrase, by Lexicon)

Between now and June, I’m responsible for “transcreating” significant portions of the website I edit,, into Spanish. Translation is never trivial. As our readings make clear, language is a multi-layered system and we have many options for how we say things and how we interpret them.

Bedsider wasn’t developed by linguists, but it was developed by marketing and design professionals who carefully crafted its approach. We often talk internally about voice, tone, and style. If pressed to parse these descriptors, I would say “voice” refers to the core language we use as “Bedsider.” (For instance, we refer to Bedsider as “we” and address “you.”) Tone would be the overall feel of the language on the website – informal, friendly, approachable, authoritative. Style would be the linguistic and visual tools we use to create our brand.

A lot of research and thought went into developing the brand and as it’s grown, a lot has gone into extending it to produce new digital content that fits with the original vision. When I edit a new article, it’s a little like I’m trying to channel a spirit to figure out how “Bedsider” would say something. When I edit a contributor’s work (to appear with a byline), I have to negotiate a line between their writing voice and their contribution’s place within the environment of the site.

After several years of refining and extending the English brand, we’re now tasked with creating a Spanish-language version that we hope will resonate with the audience we want to reach just as well as the English version does with our current audience. (An evaluation has shown that Bedsider actually does what it was designed to do – decrease rates of unplanned pregnancy among young adults. In a controlled trial, people who were exposed to Bedsider were less likely to have an accidental pregnancy than the control group.)

The Bedsider brand was designed to address a problem – the problem that authoritative information about birth control tends to be delivered in jargon-ey, unrelatable language that may be boring or difficult to understand. This information tends to be delivered in a clinical setting where the last thing people are thinking about is sex. A primary insight in developing Bedsider was that people don’t care about birth control – but they do care about sex. So in addition to making information easy to understand, a key element of our approach is to connect birth control to sex. This needs to come through in the tone and the style, not just by throwing the word “sex” around. Could this mean that the Bedsider brand is in some sense its own little language? And if so, what could be lost in translation?

In a sense, we are generating a lexicon based on the pragmatics of our target audience. Ideally, I would like to bring as much nuance to the language we use in Spanish as we bring to English. Our first step is to build or identify the English lexicon of the brand. I’m not sure whether phrases can technically be included in a lexicon, but it will be crucial to go beyond individual words. For example, we often use the phrase “We’ve got you covered”, which refers both to our service of providing information about sexual health and to birth control covering individuals against pregnancy. Knowing the Spanish translation of the verb “cover,” for example, doesn’t take us very far in conveying the intended message.

We will need to think beyond individual words and even beyond phrases to translate the essence of the brand’s approach. Once we have some starting points for Spanish versions of the core messages and terms of the brand, we’ll look for feedback from members of our target audience of U.S.-based Spanish speakers to learn whether the language we’ve chosen resonates with and engages them. This is similar to the process we went through in English. The hope is that with the right language, the core approach of the program will translate.

Challenge of Applying Language Models to Visual Genres

This week’s reading is about linguistic theories and the potential of applying language models to other nonlinguistic semiotic systems. As you all know, I did research on building film cognition models based on Parallel Architecture. I re-read the materials again for this week and in this post I want to think through the challenge of applying linguistic model to visual genres. One big challenge laying in front of me is that after realizing the parallel cognitive model of visual images or films: How can we go further on top of this realization to do more valuable research?

In film studies, there’s a branch that focuses on film narration structure since 1960s. The mainstream film narrative analysis is to look film as a structured language. Based on Chomsky’s generative grammar, they build multiple theories based on the methodology called film semiotics. Within this approach, scholars try to synthesize possible narrative structures of film generally. Figure 1 is a famous film narrative model called grande syntagmatique, built by Christian Metz. He believes that based on these film specific syntax, we generate stories and meanings, which echoes Chomsky’s generative grammar theory that the sentence and meaning/semantics is produced on the based of grammar/syntax.


Figure 1

But after this week’s reading, we know that meanings are in networks (Figure 2.) Syntax, however, is not the presumption of meaning. Same for film meaning construction. The process of encoding and decoding of meaning in film is embedded in larger cultural context and the syntax (narrative structure), semantics, sound and other elements work together at the same time.


Figure 2

However, I think the big challenge for me so far is that after realizing the model of film meaning construction, it is hard to go further. There are indeed so much potential to start with things I talked above. But how to frame further possible research? I do get lost in this sense.

The Evolution and Power of Language

Even today, modern language is continually expanding. With the development of new technologies, fields of study, and industrial processes, new words are being added to lexicons to enable us to incorporate these advances into society and communicate their applications in a universally understood manner. Words may be borrowed from other languages, existing words may assume supplementary definitions, words may be combined to represent new symbols, acronyms may be developed comprised of contemporary words, or entirely new combinations of the fundamental phonetic components of a language may be created to develop new words.

Culture also contributes to expansion of language. New words and alternative definitions can be created by trending culture, and culture can even modify the rules of syntax when popular “catchy” phrases take root in commonplace vernacular, especially if that phrase originates from popular music, movies, or art. If a person several decades from the past were to jump into a time machine and arrive in the present, certain words and phrases which have been adapted by modern society would not be recognizable outside of their literal meaning if that person did not understand the context of the reference.

This continuing evolution of modern, standard language raises questions about the origins of language and how language has impacted hominids as a species. To examine the inception of language in early man, it would be appropriate to revisit arguments from last week’s blog post. Biological evolution of species is a process which enables a species to adapt to its environment. Simply stated, nature created a mysterious mechanism is all species to allow for genetic intervention to develop biological tools which afford a species a greater chance for survival.

An attribute afforded to early hominids which made them distinct from all other species was the ability to create artefacts. This unique trait combined with the innate instinct of hominids to congregate in social orders created a need to communicate so that technology could be passed along and built upon by others in the social order and to subsequent generations. In early environments in which humans were physically at a disadvantage to larger, quicker, and more powerful prey, the ability to communicate technology and collaborate on collective hunting and foraging activities created a survival necessity to communicate complex task. Therefore, the development of a language faculty was a result of evolutionary intervention.

The development of spoken language likely did not transpire over a few generations. This likely took thousands of years as the language faculty and physical anatomy of early hominids continued to develop to accommodate the necessity to communicate escalating sophistication in technology and increasing complexity in social orders.

In his book “Linguistics: An Introduction,” Andrew Radford described the development of language in children. Children generally produce their first recognizable word around their first birthday. From then until the age of about one and a half years, children’s speech consists largely of single words spoken in isolation, at which point they begin to form elementary phrases and sentences. From then on, children experience rapid growth in grammatical development, so that by the age of two and a half years most children are able to produce adult-like sentences.

Early hominids likely experienced the same progression of speech over thousands of years. What began as grunts transformed to phonetic sounds as cognitive and anatomical capabilities in the species progressed. Phonetics and phonology matured into the morphology, which enabled hominids to develop words to symbolize and distinguish objects. This was the foundation of the first lexicons. As technology and social dynamics became increasingly sophisticated, morphology matured into syntax which enabled early hominids to construct simple phrases and sentences, allowing them to issue instructions in collaborative activities and communicate threats.

Nurtured by thousands of years of cognitive and biological development, the analogous congregation of early humans in homogenous social and cultural sects made possible the development of a commonality of expression which incorporated nouns to represent objects, people, and animals; verbs to symbolize actions; and interfaces such as conjunctions, prepositions, articles, modifiers and reflexives. These content and functional words assembled with syntax provided the building blocks of language. Much later, written language enabled humans to record information on physical mediums. Written language likely contributed immensely to the pragmatic standardization of language, providing rules of sentence structure and standard speech.

A question which many scientists have pondered over is why so many languages exist. As early populations grew, groups of hominids migrated away from each other from Africa to Asia and Europe, likely in search of scarce or competing resources. These early hominids did not have developed languages. Therefore, languages among different groups of hominids developed independently of one another. The assumption that all early groups of hominids developed language, reasoning that all humans today utilize language, I think would be an error. It is just as probable to assume that those early groups which did not develop language did not survive, or maybe that some which did not were later absorbed into cultures which did.

Evolution provided early hominids the essential aptitude of language faculty to survive, but conversely, did language further develop the human mind, enabling hominids the ability to explore new frontiers of cognitive thought? Another question is whether this expansion of the mind and cognitive thought contributed to the explosive growth in the development of the human brain? Being that the human brain has developed considerably more than that of any other species over the past hundred thousand years, and language is the most discernable distinction between humans and other species, it is difficult to dismiss the causal relationship between the development of early language and the development of the early brain.

Regardless of whether language developed the human brain, or whether language is simply the product of a developed brain, language has provided humans a vehicle to generate infinite series of expressions and ideas from a finite means. It allows humans to share and expand knowledge, explore cognitive curiosity, build upon technology, and innovate. Language is arguable the most powerful gift afforded to any species in existence.