Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Linguistics, the scientific study of the structure of language, is a field in its own right, but it makes contact with psychology at every turn. Linguists address speech perception, language development, and language comprehension, while cognitive psychologists (psychologists who study human thought) study memory for exact wording, the relationship of language and thought, and language disorders, among other topics.
The work of linguists (especially that of Noam Chomsky in the 1960’s) has been instrumental in launching American cognitive psychology by drawing attention to the importance of abstract rules that characterize behavior, the distinction between performance and competence, and the distinction between “surface” behaviors and the “deep” structural basis of those behaviors. It might be said that, before Chomsky, the best theory of language structure had amounted to the art of drawing diagrams of sentences.
The best psychological account of how people learn language had been B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist account. The behaviorists refrained from theorizing about invisible processes within the mind, so they limited their accounts to physically observable events, namely imitation, practice, and reinforcement. They used general principles of learning to account for all behaviors, so their theories applied to mice and pigeons as well as to humans.
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Chomsky’s Theory (Psychology and Mental Health)
Chomsky developed a theory of grammar that changed these assumptions forever. Linguistics no longer consisted of mere structural descriptions, but a set of rules with the (theoretical) capacity to generate all and only well-formed utterances of any given human language; linguists hoped to discover rules that were accurate reflections of the process of using language. Chomsky set the standard of “explanatory adequacy” for a linguistic theory, by which he meant that the theory could account for actual psychological processes in the use of language, not merely describe what language is like. Thus, Chomsky’s revolutionary ideas about linguistics were also revolutionary ideas about psychology.
He argued that the rules of language are so complex that humans could not possibly learn them, especially not young children with no training in linguistic theory, who are exposed to confusingly faulty examples of language every day. Yet normal four-year-old children across the world effortlessly master all the basic complexities of their native languages, despite the lack of formal (or even much informal) language training. If children do not consciously learn the rules they master, they must have those rules programmed into their brains by genetics.
Chomsky did not claim that any particular language is programmed genetically into human beings. Rather, he claimed that all human languages are more similar to each other than...
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Basic Linguistic Concepts (Psychology and Mental Health)
Linguistic theory has come to make several basic distinctions among the various aspects of language that can be studied. Each aspect is a system of rules. The job of each rule system is to create. The rules create (or generate) all the possible (well-formed) utterances of a language. Any structures that cannot be generated by the rules are not well formed and are therefore considered illegal or anomalous. These rules are not the kind one goes to school to learn. Rather, they are the rules that every speaker of the language already knows. Every time one says something, one uses these rules without even thinking about them, or realizing they are there. In fact, people are so unaware of these rules, which they all use, that it takes a great deal of clever effort for linguistic researchers to figure out what the rules are, and there still is not agreement on the subject.Phonology
Phonology refers to the system of distinctive sounds (or phonemes) used in a language. Phonemes are not to be confused with letters of the alphabet. A letter may stand for a sound (a phoneme), but then a letter may stand for several different phonemes (the letter c stands for at least three: cat, ceiling, and ancient) and several different letters can stand for the same phoneme (cat, kite, quiche). Every language has a somewhat different set of phonemes. Not many languages other than English have the phonemes for th (either,...
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The Significance of an Utterance (Psychology and Mental Health)
The meaning of a person’s statement is not purely a matter of semantics, but of pragmatics as well. Linguists have identified a variety of types of meaning conveyed by language.
Propositional content is the set of claims made by a declarative sentence (and if the sentence is a question or command, the claims made by the corresponding declarative sentence). Thus “You eat cake,” “Do you eat cake?” and “Eat cake!” all have the same propositional content, namely the claim that “eating” is performed by “you” on an object of the type “cake.” There can be multiple propositions in a single sentence: “The tall, dark stranger thought the statement I made was clever” includes the propositions that (1) the stranger is tall; (2) the stranger is dark; (3) I made a statement; (4) the statement was clever; (5) the stranger thought so.
The speaker is not committed to the truthfulness of every proposition in the utterance. The stranger may have thought the speaker’s statement was clever, but the speaker need not agree. Furthermore, each proposition constitutes a description of some part of the common universe. One of the jobs of semantic theory is to determine the conditions under which such a description would be true (these are called truth conditions). Propositions are understood in terms of their truth conditions and in terms of their relationships to other propositions....
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Speech Acts and Indirect Speech Acts (Psychology and Mental Health)
Sometimes an utterance is more than just an utterance: It actually does something. When the justice of the peace says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the very words cause the couple in question to become husband and wife. When a person says “I promise to stop,” that person thereby makes a promise. Any time an utterance does the thing it says it is doing, whether it be promising, commanding, asking, refusing, or whatever, that is a direct speech act. If an utterance accomplishes the same thing, but without coming right out and stating that it is doing so, that is an indirect speech act. “I won’t do it again” is an indirect promise, since the speaker never actually said it was a promise.
There are many more kinds of meaning attached to utterances, but these serve as an introduction to the variety that linguists have identified.
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Evidence for Evaluating Linguistic Theory (Psychology and Mental Health)
Both linguists and psychologists have debated about the nature of human language and language processes for decades. Linguists and psychologists use different kinds of data for testing their claims about language. For the most part, linguists use language judgments (of whether a given utterance is acceptable or not) to confirm or refute a proposed rule or rule system. That is, they ask native speakers of a language to judge whether this or that utterance is well formed. Linguists focus on the idealized competence of a speaker and try to avoid performance issues (such as whether an otherwise perfectly good utterance is too difficult to produce or comprehend).
Psychologists, on the other hand, use subjects’ performance at perceiving, remembering, interpreting, and utilizing language as clues about human language abilities. They tend to consider idealized rules that overlook actual performance to be less satisfying.
Nonetheless, psychologists are indebted to linguists for proposing an impressive array of linguistic structures and abilities, which psychologists have then taken and tested, using their own methods. Often this endeavor is referred to as testing the psychological reality of a linguistic construct. Basically, the psychology researcher is trying to find out if the rules and structures that linguists have come up with using linguistic research methods will actually make a difference in...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Carnie, Andrew. Syntax: A Generative Introduction. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007. Comprehensive coverage of syntax and how it fits into the theory of linguistics. Includes information on phrase structure, case theory, and locality conditions.
Chomsky, Noam. “Review of B. F. Skinner, Verbal Behavior.” Language 35 (1959): 26-57. Reprinted in The Structure of Language: Readings in the Philosophy of Language (1964), edited by Jerry A. Fodor and Jerrold Katz, and in Readings in the Psychology of Language (1967), edited by Leon Jakobovits and Murray Miron. Quite readable. Chomsky’s review and criticism of Skinner’s book in many ways marked the beginning of the revolution in the field of cognitive psychology and language acquisition.
__________. Syntactic Structures. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1957. Presents Chomsky’s earliest theory of language, which revolutionized linguistics. Though this work is dry, it is much more readable than Chomsky’s later theorizing.
Davis, Flora. Eloquent Animals: A Study in Animal Communication. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978. A passionate excursion through examples of animal intelligence and communication.
Fromkin, Victoria, and Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 8th ed. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2007. A typical introductory-level college textbook...
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