When people think of language they think of the meaning of different languages such as English, Spanish, or French. It is not very often that the actual meaning of language is though of. In detail language has a very complex definition and meaning. This paper will examine the meaning and actual content of the English word language and lexicon and will also discuss the features and levels of language and discuss how language affects cognitive psychology.
Language and Lexicon
The main purpose of language is to provide a means of communication (Willingham, 2007) from species to species and interspecies. Language is the way people are able to verbally express their feelings, needs, desires, complaints, questions, and so on. Language comes in many forms given the species and requirements of the species. Some people are able to verbally communicate and others are not, relying on sign language and other means of communication. Humans are able to communicate with other species through words, patterns, sound, and body movement, or sign language as well. Identifiable words used in language are stored in the lexicon; a mental dictionary (Willingham, 2007).
A lexicon is a part of the memory that acts as a dictionary. When people hear words they are recognized in the lexicon. The lexicon stores components related to words such as; pronunciation, spelling, and a part of speech (Willingham, 2007). When people hear words the lexicon is able to recognize how the word is spelled, how it sounds, and understands speech factors. Definition of words is not housed in the lexicon. However, there is a pointer element of the lexicon that directs the word to another area that the definition is housed (Willingham, 2007). The lexicon has a close relationship with language and its functions.
Aspects that make words and means of communication are distinct. Properties of language are arbitrary, structured, communicative, generative, and dynamic. When discussing language the relationship between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. Words are nothing more than sounds and sound patterns that people connect with meanings. Language is arbitrary because there is no specific reason words are related to objects other than what a culture appoints them to be (Willingham, 2007). The relationship between words and their meaning are arbitrary; however, language is not.
Language is structured. To think of language as a whole, and not just the specific words, it must have a pattern or a structure. Meaning, words must be arranged in context appropriately to efficiently be able to communicate language. Though words are arbitrary in themselves, to be part of a language they must be used in appropriate context. This is the structure of language. It would not make sense to place words anywhere in a sentence, out of context; they must be used in the pattern that the culture has established to be able to communicate effectively. They are appointed; however, as a means of communication (Willingham, 2007).
The main reason people deem words to objects is to have a means of communication. To be able to communicate amongst other humans and species a language must be established. If words were not appointed to meanings communication would be based solely on body language or sign language; much like the images portrayed by cavemen. Therefore a language is communicative. However, some aspects of language are not restricted (Willingham, 2007).
There are no limits to the number of meanings a word can have. Words are a sector of language that is generative. Meaning, any word can have the same phonologic tone, pattern, and sound but have different meanings. The surrounding contents of a sentence indicate the appropriate meaning to a word. Language can be complicated, it is arbitrary, and it is not arbitrary, it must be structured, and some components are not structured; one stable function is that it is ever-changing (Willingham, 2007).
Language changes as evolution revolves and meanings of its functions change. One may have noticed that a specific phrase may have had a different meaning twenty years ago then it does today. This is meant, at the present time, to be dynamic. When something is dynamic it is always subject to change (Willingham, 2007).
Levels of Language
Language is broken down into different levels. One level of language leads to the next. The four levels of language are phonemes, words, sentences, and text. Phonemes are the lowest level of language. It is the part of language that delegates sound to parts of the words; such as the sounds of the alphabet. Each word has a sound as a whole word; but each word is compromised from many different sounds. In the English language words are composed from different words of the alphabet. Each sector of the word is either a letter or a vowel. Every letter and vowel of the alphabet have an individual sound; some letters and vowels have more than one sound. These sounds put together pronounce a word. It is the phonemes that make a word sound the way it does (Willingham, 2007).
Each individual phoneme creates a word when put together. Words are the next level of language. Though words may have many different meanings and are arbitrary they do have specific rules. Different cultures have different rules for their words. Different uses of phonemes create many different sounds and are governed in cultural language (Willingham, 2007).
It is appropriate for the next level of language to be sentences. As all the levels of language are connected, from the sound of each individual phoneme, to the combination of phonemes to form words, it makes sense that the combination of words would form sentences. Sentences are the constructs of words; though they are more complex than a single word or phoneme. Sentences, unlike words, are not arbitrary. The structure of the words must fit into a pattern so that the meanings of the words match the content of the sentence (Willingham, 2007).
Like words must fit the context of a sentence, a sentence must fit the content of its paragraph. Often time’s single sentences alone can be complex to understand. Text is considered to be the meaning of many sentences put together to further elaborate on topics, and is the highest level of language. If a person spoke of a topic using many sentences that did not relate together others would not be able to understand the concept the he or she were trying to convey. All the aspects of language must fit together to be comprehensive. The phoneme must fit in the word, a word must fit in the sentence, and a sentence must fit into the text. If one of the levels did not coincide with the next the cognitive process would not be able to comprehend the meaning of the word, sentence, or text (Willingham, 2007).
Language Processing in Cognitive Psychology
It is clear that language has a large influence on the way a person thinks. When people think of ideas or problems the thoughts consist of the person’s native language. The very thought, which will be in a persons respective language, is nearly impossible to imagine without words or language. Many have debated if thought would be possible without language. Without language what would thoughts consist of?
A perspective by Benjamin Whorf, known as the Whorfian hypothesis, explains that because of the strong bond between language and thought it would be nearly impossible to comprehend. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that if someone had words of a foreign language in their thoughts it would be impossible to tie the thoughts to anything relevant. People may be able to pronounce a word in a foreign language but without knowledge of what the words meant the cognitive process would not be able to comprehend the words.
When language is broken down and each aspect is analyzed it is very clear how complex language really is. Language consists of many components from the sound of phonemes to the sound of the words to the meaning of a combination of sentences in a text. Language can be thought of as the heart of communication. Without language communication would be so complex that the cognitive process would never be able to comprehend meanings.
Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.