welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Question of the Month

How Does Language Work?

The following answers to the question of linguistic meaning each win a random book.

The human vocal tract can make a wide range of sounds, which allows us to move beyond the grunts and shrieks of our primate cousins, at least some of the time. As many as fifty regions in the human brain are involved in language, controlling the complex movements needed to produce speech, translating vibrations in the air into neural activity in the brain to hear, and manipulating the symbols that make up the thoughts and ideas of our minds to reason. These adaptations of the individual are all necessary for full language use, but language isn’t much use to a solitary individual, and would never have arisen were we not a social species.

Sounds alone, of course, are not enough to create meaning, since a non-English speaker won’t understand the word ‘cat’ although they hear the sound. Language works by attaching a symbol e.g. ‘cat’ to the idea of a cat, which itself is produced by the reality to which it refers (i.e., a cat). When language doesn’t work, we can sometimes revert to pointing – say, at a cat. But this also requires shared intentionality, ie, a common recognition that the pointing is about something. This perhaps tells us something about the origins of language, and how language works at a very basic level. The small bands of hunter-gatherers who first developed language would have first pointed to animals and objects in their environment. But given that making physical movements in the line of sight of a predator is dangerous, it’s far better to represent that action with a sound that can be whispered, like “Lion!”

Jon Wainwright, by email

Fish swim, birds fly, and people talk. How do we display this talent for language? As Noam Chomsky argued, for language to work, there must be an innate biological linguistic capacity. We are born with a ‘universal grammar’ in our brains, which is the initial condition through which the grammars of specific languages arise, and which allows us to learn particular languages.

This is the prime mover for all language. There are many other essential components in how language works: phonetics, morphology, etymology, pragmatics, graphology, lexicography and semiotics, to name but a few. I will look at what I consider to be the two most essential elements, philosophically speaking. Firstly, syntax, which encompasses the structure or form of a language – its grammar, rules of language and what generally goes to make up a well-formed sentence. Sounds not following the syntactical rules for structuring sentences are not words, for they follow no pattern which can allow us to derive any significance from them. However, if, as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, syntax is simply pure logic – logic being the foundation of meaning in any language – and is essential to language, then by itself syntax is senseless or meaningless (sinnlos). For instance, saying “all bachelors are bachelors” doesn’t explain anything, even if it does display logical form (it’s a tautology). This also applies to contradictions, which are meaningless.

Syntax defines the structure upon which meaning is built. The other side of that coin is semantics – the meaning that’s understood. The question is, how is this meaning created? I would argue that it is derived within the contexts of shared activities or public actions, not just in the minds of individuals. When I speak I am not attaching a verbal sound as a label to something going on in my mind. Rather, I am using a verbal sound which has a function in communication and has a place in public behaviour. There is no private meaning. Meaning occurs within social activities, philosophy itself being one of those activities, with its own shared language; and its problems regarding meaning are the result of a misuse of language. But that’s a whole other issue.

Ivan Trengrove, Victor Harbor, South Australia

We could take the word ‘fork’, for example, and learn to say it and spell it in a variety of foreign languages. We could even make up our own word. However, regardless of the variety of identifying signs we could use, our understanding of the word remains. We quickly realise that simply ‘identifying and naming’ is not how language works. How then, when learning a language, is it that we understand what the words mean?

Wittgenstein advocated the idea that an account of the meaning of a word cannot be given without looking at the part the word plays in our lives and speech behaviour. In what is now famously known as his ‘Private Language Argument’, Wittgenstein attacks the idea that meaning is a mental process. He uses the following example: if I attach the word ‘S’ to a (private) sensation, how do I know I’m using the word ‘S’ correctly next time I want to refer to the sensation, since I would already have to know the meaning of ‘S’ to check my use of that word? Thus, how could I know my use of a word is correct without having the external standard of a language community who are already using the word in an established, common way? Or, if I say ‘toe’ when I mean ‘thumb’ you can correct me, but I cannot correct myself. Language therefore cannot work solely in the private arena, as there is no criterion of practice or rule against which to check the private use of language. Thus, although it is absurd to suppose we could experience each other’s feelings, we can only understand what is meant when someone refers to being happy through the public criteria for ‘happiness’, such as smiling broadly while acting exhuberently. People identify when someone is ‘happy’ due to the communal use of the word within the context of our lives and the behavioural manifestation of ‘happiness’. In the words of Sir Anthony Kenny, “Language is not my language, it is our language.”

Madeleine Maggs, Basingstoke, Hampshire

Wtihuot lnagugae it wuold be ipmsosilbe to coodrnitae or fnutcoin as a scoeity. But how deos lnagugae wrok?

Cmouminaciton ivnloevs at laest two poelpe – smooene to sepak and smooene to lsietn (tihs is one of the mian raeosns mnay piholoshpres bleieve taht lnagugae dsirpvoes slopsiism – the bleeif taht you are the olny mnid and the etnrie uinevsre, and eevyrhtnig in it is a fgiemnt of yuor iamignitaoin.)

The way we laern lnagugae has been udner dbetae for cneutires. Smoe agrue we hvae an inntae konlwdege of lnagugae ptaetnrs. One of the key peieces of eivedcne for tihs iade is taht cihdlern, wehn laenrnig to sepak, use wrods or prhsaes scuh as “I did-ed it” as oppsoed to “I’ve done it”. If tehre is no inntae konewelgde of lnagugae and we laern lnagugae pulyre trhuogh epxrinece, tihs sguegtss taht tehy hvae haerd lnagugae uesd in taht way bferoe, wihch celraly isn’t ture.

Wtigtnetsien condisread the cnoecpt of a piravte lnagugae: a lnagugae olny you can udnretsnad. Hwoveer, it’s esay to ciriticse taht cnoecpt, as we’ve arlaedy siad taht for a lnagugae to fnutcoin as a lnauagge, tehre has to be an itnrecaiton bteewen at laest two poelpe – one to tlak, one to lsietn – and addtinolaly an udnretsnaidng. If lnagugae wree to ohtres jsut a sreeis of maeinlgses nioess or lteetrs, cmouminaciton wuold be ipmsoislbe.

Isabel Cullens, Sandbach, Cheshire

The basic answer is that language works if the people engaged are members of the same interpretive community or network. But it is useful to ask: When does language not work?

Two people using the same language can misunderstand one another. Indeed, Person A and Person B may not even grasp the fact they do not fully understand one another. But if it becomes obvious to them, then A may think that B is using words (such as ‘God’) incorrectly. A may say that B is making a ‘semantic’ mistake. A neo-pragmatist linguist influenced by C.S. Peirce might correct A, and say that B is making a ‘pragmatic’ mistake. The linguist will argue that every sign requires both an interpretive community (the interpretant) and an operational definition of the meaning and applicability of that sign (the representant). Hence, there is a triadic (three-way) relationship between a sign, its semantics (its commonly understood meaning) and its pragmatics (the ways in which people use the sign). This triad can then constitute a dialectical progression, where what was once the interpretant may become the representant, and so forth.

J.I. Hans Bakker, semioticsigns.com, Canada

Language works by virtue of the relationships between it, us, our minds, and the world. The philosophies of the later Wittgenstein and of John Searle underpin this idea. We invest language with meaning by using the various representational functions of words strung together through the application of grammar, punctuation and syntax. As for the meaning of ‘representation’, it is helpful to borrow from the vocabulary of semiotics, the science of signs. Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of semiotics, points out that a signifier, say the word ‘horse’, when used, brings to mind the concept ‘horse’ – the signified. The horse itself, the thing that can kick you, is the referent.

However, within language there are many occasions when there is no referent: for instance, with abstract nouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. So with ‘conspicuous’, ‘before’, ‘in’, ‘and’, ‘but’, and ‘cheers!’, etc, we cannot point to what the words mean (as we may think we can with a horse in the world) although we typically do give example of a word’s use, as tools with particular functions in the language.

The separation of signifier, signified and referent may be misleading. This is brought out where referents are absent. Take abstract words such as, ‘contrary’ and ‘mitigation’. There is nothing to point to – but more importantly, we cannot grasp their meaning without the word. Try thinking of the meaning of ‘contested’ without bringing the word itself to mind. With such abstractions, meanings and the words standing for them fuse. So in an important sense, language use is virtually inseparable from what we intend to convey – signifiers co-exist with their signifieds and their referents. This is apparent when we try to learn a word: we use the word fluently when meaning and word appear no longer separate, but rather to coalesce.

Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire

In addressing the question, I want to extend it to How does language work in the human mind? Outside that context, language is fairly straightforward: it’s portraying information via symbols called words, and combining them in structures via grammatical rules. Any system doing these things is a language. A computer does this, producing linguistic output: but it cannot understand it the way a human mind does (thus the Turing test for distinguishing between the two). That difference is the key to this difficult question.

The difficulty is elucidated by our wondering what it might be like to think without language, and sometimes struggling to put thoughts into words. What, exactly, is the thing (thought, perception, idea, feeling) that precedes its own linguistic expression?

A computer represents information by encoding it using a binary system of ones and zeroes. Our brains must do something roughly analogous using neurons, although we haven’t yet cracked the code. And there are important differences between brains and computers. Neurons don’t only function like a computer’s simple one/zero logic gates: many respond only to specific stimuli or sensory inputs. But the biggest difference (and why computers fail the Turing test) is that computers lack a self – which could be called a meta-program to make sense of linguistic output. Explaining how such consciousness works is of course a deep problem; but we do experience it as a system that understands and synthesizes, in a global way, the sum total of the relevant neuronal encodings, processing, and representations. That self operates when putting thoughts into words.

Words are representations of objects or concepts. A thought of heroism may arise in the brain and precede naming it; yet thinking the word ‘heroism’ evokes a panoply of connotations. Thus words, as labels, act like keys or triggers for the penumbra of mental associations each word entails. Hence we understand words not merely in terms of their definitions, nor sentences merely through literal meaning, but in a wide context bringing into play the entire mind, with all its personal history, memories, and psychology. Putting it differently, there’s a little homunculus in your brain that understands thoughts employing language, and passes that understanding along to you.

Frank S. Robinson, Albany, NY

The words of which language is composed have ‘dictionary’ or definitional meanings. For a computer these meanings are irritatingly precise, and a computer will respond exactly as commanded. But most words incorporate nuances of meaning and so may be understood by a human audience in a number of ways according to the experience of the user and the context.

The key to language lies in the agencies using language. Try thinking of yourself and others as musical instruments. Language is the tool by which the instruments are tuned to each other. The particular language code is immaterial; language works through its effect on the attuned audience. Language works best when a speaker is able to find the tunes the audience can recognize, including for communication with other species. Each linguistic exchange generates thought in the listener, which most likely will not be identical with the thought of the speaker. The listener will assemble her understanding still using words, and often with new insight. The response will show how well the audience understood, and further modify the thinking of the speaker. Successive exchanges may be needed to achieve perfect understanding between the parties. Over a lifetime, each one of us becomes attuned to the general intention of a steadily increasing vocabulary, and will modify our own. So language works by successively re-tuning understanding between participants. Sadly, it works only in part.

James Malcolm, West Molesey, Surrey

Schopenhauer divided our mental representations into the intuitive – the whole of sensual experience – and the abstract – concepts facilitated by reason. Reason has speech as its “first product and necessary instrument” and its most important achievements are attained through language, which is only indirectly related to perception, via concepts. Concepts reside in what neuroscientist Endel Tulving calls ‘semantic memory’ which connects ideas to objects. E.O. Wilson sees concepts as units of human culture, describing a concept as a “node of semantic memory and its correlates in brain activity” (Consilience, p.148, 1998). He reminds us that even if our lexical communication were removed, we’d still have “a rich paralanguage that communicates… basic needs: blushing… facial expressions… postures… our primate heritage.” Wilson also reminds us that language conveying information constructs culture, and that some think that this culture has acquired “emergent properties no longer connected to the genetic and psychological processes that initiated it.” Individual minds could then be seen as building blocks which can generate regularities in a functioning language environment. Configurations of these units then become meaning generators at a higher scale of organization, that is, on a cultural level.

Jim Farrer, Kirriemuir, Scotland

Sentences produce different kinds of speech acts: consisting for example in assertions and promises, respectively expressing the states of belief and intention. And all speech acts have conditions of satisfaction. For example, the expression of a valid belief is satisfied by its being true, and the making of a valid promise is satisfied by its fulfillment. Speakers may also learn metacognitive skills, distinguishing, for instance, between meanings of the same sentence across differing contexts. The meaning of ‘indexical’ words such as ‘I’ is not retained across contexts, for instance.

It has been argued that proper names are used to pick out a specific individual and lack any descriptive aspect. Conventions also apply to syntax: we have selected the sentence as the basic unit of communication, and use the order of its words to convey its meaning while allowing individual words to retain theirs – as demonstrated by the distinction between ‘The dog chased the fox’ and ‘The fox chased the dog’. Apart from understanding a sentence’s references, a listener must also understand a speaker’s purpose in using that sentence – assertive, promissory, or otherwise – which is usually revealed by its syntax.

Finally, whether they know it or not, speakers are committed to the condition of satisfaction of their utterances. For instance, those expressing beliefs are committed to their truth, and those making promises to their fulfillment. If we make a promise it is not to be easily discounted, because in making it we are simultaneously obliging ourselves to ensure that it is kept.

Maurice John Fryatt, Scarborough, Ontario

Linguistic meaning operates through a framework erected by the synthesis of grammatically-well-formed elements. A basic aspect is a common lexicon, in which the verbal symbols or tokens which we bestow upon objects and ideas are recorded. Meaning is often successfully aided by higher semantic devices, including irony, the implying of the opposite of what is meant in order to emphasise the true; another device is metaphor, when phrases are used to refer to other ideas of which they are images. And where would the world of literature be without the simile? Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s description in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner of a becalmed ship as “like a painted ship upon a painted ocean” leaves no doubt as to the intended meaning.

The art world use other languages. An outstanding example of this is music, where tonality, harmony, melody and rhythm contrive to be meaningful to a receptive ear. Some attempts are made to account for such meanings verbally, but sometimes it is more appropriate to bear in mind the closing line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”)

Ray Pearce, Didsbury, Manchester

Language is existence manifest. It is the expression of an entity both inwardly and outwardly. For instance, when we see an object in our environment, our awareness of the object results from our brain converting sensory data into electrical impulses which our mind recognises as an image. This image, or subsequent thoughts provoked by the image (which is internal language) can be communicated to others, with more or less distortion, by using the language of the senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

Where there is consciousness, there is language. As far as animals use language, they are also conscious. Despite our differences, both humans and animals read and respond to the messages created in their brains in a language appropriate to their desires and capacities. The degree of consciousness, and therefore the complexity of internal language, varies, as does the ability to project this externally.

Rocks are another matter. Rocks are commonly held to be beyond consciousness and language. Caution, however, is warranted. For instance, a rock is perceived to be green when it reflects that colour back to the observer. In doing this, the rock communicates without being alive. Language then operates on both sides of the life-death divide.

Adrian Fitzgerald, Adelaide

Next Question of the Month

The next question of the month is: What’s The Most Important Question, and Why? The prize is a surprise philosophy book. Justify your question in less than 400 words, please. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 20th August. Submissions must include physical address to have a chance of getting a book. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X