What are grammar and speech?

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Grammar and speech are the building blocks of the human communication systems known as languages. The study of language structure has enhanced growth in a number of areas in psychology, including language acquisition, the biological basis for language, and the relationship between language and thought.
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Human beings everywhere, despite differences in geography, culture, and ethnicity, have a capacity for language, a system of communication primarily involving a patterned, rule-governed sequence of oral sounds. The rules that human beings implicitly use to produce and understand such communication are collectively known as grammar, and the vocalizations that serve as the vehicle of the communication are called speech.

When people think of grammar, they usually think of a set of arbitrary rules learned in school about correct and incorrect ways of speaking or writing. Indeed, such rules do constitute a grammar of sorts, one that prescribes standards of appropriate style. Grammar, however, has a wider and more important meaning, because without a grammar, no language is possible. In fact, every speaker of a language knows the rules of the grammar of that language without being explicitly taught them. Grammar, in its most important sense, is the set of rules that each language has and that each native speaker of that language knows even before going to school; it determines what the basic building blocks of the language are (the words, the morphemes, and the sounds) and specifies the rules for combining those basic elements into meaningful utterances. Grammar is simply the structure of that unique human behavior called language.

Language Subsystems

Language scientists generally subdivide language into a set of structural subsystems, each of which has its own set of rules, or regular patterns. When discovered, these rules can be seen to operate in every utterance of that language. Each of these subsystems—syntax, morphology, and phonology—therefore is a grammar, although the term “grammar” in its everyday use is usually associated only with syntax.

The syntax of a language is the set of rules that govern how meaningful elements, the words, are combined into the permissible sequences known as sentences. Syntax also dictates how sentences can be combined with other sentences to form more complex utterances and how elements within sentences can be rearranged to change the focus of a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, speakers of English know that the sequence of words “the dog chased the cat” means that an instigator of an action, a dog, behaved in such a way to affect the second participant mentioned in the string of words, the cat. Moreover, they know that the word “the” must precede and never follow words such as “cat” and “dog.” Finally, they know that the sequence “the cat was chased by the dog” is merely a paraphrase, a restatement, of the original string and not a contradiction of it.

The morphology of a language, the second subsystem, defines the basic set of elements that operate in the formation of words. Each of these basic elements is called a morpheme. Many morphemes may be words in a language, but some morphemes are less than an entire word. For example, the English suffix-s attached to a word such as “cup” states that there is more than one cup; it is apparent to any speaker of English that this suffix (ending) is considerably less than a word. Nevertheless, the -s is a meaningful element in the English language and constitutes a morpheme, or minimal meaningful unit, of the language. The way words are constructed is governed by rules and is therefore a kind of grammar; for example, the -s that signals “more than one” is always attached to the end of the word, not to the beginning of it, and it cannot be inserted in the middle. This fact about English is predictable. If English speakers encounter a new word that designates some object, they know that talking about more than one of these objects usually requires the addition of the-s suffix to the new word. This implicit knowledge is a kind of grammar known as morphology.

The third important structural subsystem of language is phonology, or the sound system of a language. Each of the world’s languages uses only some of the vocal sounds, or phonemes, that human beings are capable of producing, and this limited set is further constrained regarding what sounds may follow one another at the beginnings, middles, and ends of words. For example, the English language has both /t/ and /l/ as sounds that may be used in words, and though /l/ may follow /t/ in the middle of words such as “antler” and “butler,” there are no English words beginning with this sequence of sounds, nor are there likely to be any. The sequence tl simply does not occur at the beginning of English words, although there is no physiological reason that it cannot. Human beings are perfectly capable of producing such a sound combination, and it does exist at the beginning of words in other languages. It is the grammar of the sound system of English—its phonology—that prohibits such a possibility.

Unique Grammar of Languages

These subsystems of language are found in every one of the world’s languages, even though each subsystem’s particulars and importance are unique for each language. As an example, languages such as modern English can be compared to classical Latin, the ancestor language of French, Italian, and Spanish. In English, the ordering of words is of paramount importance. A sentence such as “The boy loved the girl” has only one meaning, and changing the sequencing of words would drastically change that meaning. That is, if the words “boy” and “girl” were interchanged, the resulting sentence, “The girl loved the boy,” would mean something entirely different: the initiator of the state of love is now the girl, not the boy. Thus, in English, the critical information of who is doing what to whom is given in the syntax, in the ordering of words. In Latin, on the other hand, although there is surely word sequencing, since words can be expressed only one at a time, the word order—the syntax—does not indicate relationships as it does in English. Instead, the matter of who is doing what to whom is given by morphology, by suffixes attached to the ends of words. The sentence “The boy loved the girl” could be expressed by any of the following: puer puellam amabat, puellam puer amabat, amabat puer puellam, puellam amabat puer, and so on. The arrangement of words has little effect on meaning; the endings on the words tell speakers of Latin who does what. The-m at the end of the word for “girl” (puella) signals that the girl is affected by the action and is not the initiator of it. These facts about the two languages show that word order is more important to English than it is to Latin and that endings on words are more important to Latin, even though English continues to make use of endings to some degree (the -ed on “love” indicates, for example, that an action or state occurred at some past time).

The fact that all languages have a grammar, a predictable pattern underlying every utterance, allows human languages to be unique among all the communication systems found in nature. Grammar allows people to talk about new things, about events that occurred in the past, about events that might possibly occur in the future, and even about things that can never be. A grammar allows people to produce an infinite number of possible sentences because words can be combined and recombined in many ways to generate many different meanings. This possibility makes language qualitatively different from the songs and calls of birds, which are rigidly structured to allow only a limited number of meanings; from the dances of bees, which have the single function of indicating the location of nectar; and even from the gestures of the apes, which can indicate only a limited set of communications.

Language Acquisition

The complexity and variation in systems of grammar have led to a number of speculations about the nature of the human mind in particular, about the relationship between language and thought, and about how such complex systems could be achieved by human children before they are capable of logical thought. The first of these two areas is also known as linguistic relativity. The second, the possibility that at base all languages are essentially the same because they are constructed by human beings who have an innate capacity for language, has been proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky, the founder of the field of syntactic inquiry known as generative grammar. Generative grammar can be defined as a grammar that projects the structure of a potentially infinite number of sentences, including both those already produced and those yet to be uttered.

Examining the complexity of the syntax of English, Chomsky suggested that the capacity for language must be innate, that human beings have an inborn language-acquisition device that enables them to determine the grammar of the language spoken by the people who rear them. Chomsky explained that much of what young children hear must be full of errors and false starts, and yet, before age five, most children speak their native language with a high degree of accuracy. He suggested that the language-acquisition device must act as a kind of analyzer that assigns a structure to the incoming stream of speech. The resulting analysis then becomes the foundation of the grammar that permits children to produce new, original sentences in the language they hear all around them.

This speculation fueled much research during the 1960s and 1970s, and the result is that most language scientists—linguists and psychologists alike—agree that indeed the capacity for language acquisition is innate; the actual nature of the innate capacity, however, remains uncertain. Research has generally found that parents and other caregivers tend to be extremely careful in the kinds of speech they address to children; that is, they tend to speak without the errors and the false starts Chomsky had supposed. Moreover, they tend to pause and change the pitch of their voices at precisely those places in an utterance where the grammar would assign an important boundary. In many ways, then, the speech addressed to children seems an ideal teaching device, and so Chomsky’s hypothesis that children formulate a grammar on the basis of fragmentary and poorly structured input has been disconfirmed. It also has been found that even very young infants tend to prefer the sound of human voices to other sounds and are capable of telling the difference between very similar but distinct speech sounds. Thus, it is clear that human beings are predisposed to acquire language.

Critical Period Hypothesis

Other evidence supports the notion that there is a biological predisposition to language. In his book Biological Foundations of Language (1967), Eric Lenneberg proposed that there is a critical period for language acquisition, an age beyond which the acquisition of a first language would not be possible. That is, Lenneberg contended that a child deprived of the opportunity to acquire a language—any language at all—would never be able to do so if the deprivation continued past the onset of puberty. Supporting evidence for this hypothesis suggested a discontinuity in language abilities at adolescence. Children who suffer trauma to the parts of the brain where language is processed, for example, tend to recover if the injury occurs before puberty but typically do not recover their language abilities if the injury occurs in their mid-teen years. In addition, children who are exposed to a second language during childhood seem to acquire that language with little difficulty when compared with adults facing the same task. This, too, seems to support the hypothesis of a critical period for language acquisition. Moreover, case studies of feral children raised without language by nurturing animals such as wolves have indicated that these children failed to acquire language when introduced into civilization.

These kinds of evidence provide only partial (and debatable) support for the critical-period hypothesis. For example, no two injuries are exactly alike, so the successful recovery of one patient from a brain injury compared to the failure of another may stem from a number of causes. The facility of children compared to the difficulty for adults with respect to second-language acquisition may result from children’s lack of self-consciousness. Finally, children raised by wolves during the last several centuries may have been abandoned by their parents because they had some apparent disability; perhaps the children lacked the cognitive or speech skills necessary to acquire language.

The “Genie” Case Study

In 1970, a thirteen-year-old girl suffering from severe neglect was found. The child of a psychotic father and an abused and half-blind mother, “Genie,” as she came to be called, had been locked in a darkened room since infancy and deprived of all genuine human contact. She was absolutely devoid of any language skills, although her hearing was found to be normal. Since medical records indicated normal development during infancy, save for a hip defect, and since she was clearly past puberty, Genie provided a test case for the critical-period hypothesis.

Removed from her abusive environment and given the attention of caring adults, Genie made remarkable progress. At first, she seemed able to acquire language after all, and reports of her linguistic achievements were thought to herald the demise of the critical-period hypothesis. It soon became evident, however, that although Genie was making excellent progress with social and cognitive skills, her development of syntax and morphology lagged far behind. She was able to acquire a vocabulary of some size—a word list—but she failed to put words together in the ways that were typical of children acquiring language during the usual developmental period. She also had difficulty with those English morphemes that show relationships between elements in a sentence. In short, although Genie could understand words and word meanings, she was having considerable difficulty mastering grammar. Genie’s case provides partial support for the critical-period hypothesis; after puberty, parts of language may still be acquired, but a full elaboration of the grammatical patterns that underlie a language will not be achieved. The importance of the early childhood years to the acquisition of language skills is clearly demonstrated by this case.

Genie’s progress with language acquisition—or lack of it—could not be mapped without a knowledge of the parts of language, an understanding of syntax and morphology. Similarly, the accomplishments of young children with respect to language acquisition could not be appreciated without a knowledge of the structures underlying grammar and speech. The field of language acquisition is an entire area of study that crucially depends on knowledge of the structure of language. To study acquisition requires a knowledge of what is being acquired.

Evolution of Language Research

Although interest in language is as old as language itself, prior to the nineteenth century investigations were philosophical and speculative. Questions about language were likely to concern the origins of language or the identity of the oldest language. During the early part of the nineteenth century, newly discovered relationships between languages fueled interest in a field of study now called comparative linguistics, which attempted to ascertain which languages derived from the same prehistoric ancestor language. Late in that century, however, interest began to turn away from the comparison of languages and toward an investigation of languages on their own terms. In the early part of the twentieth century, the scientific study of language was encouraged by the great American linguists Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield.

Both Sapir and Bloomfield were spurred by the study of the indigenous languages of the United States, the languages spoken by the peoples often called American Indians. These languages were unwritten, so recording them involved a detailed investigation of their phonology, morphology, and syntax. The languages of Europe were also subjected to this new, rigorous scientific study, now called linguistics.

At first, scientific linguistics dealt mainly with phonology and morphology and studied syntax only as an afterthought. The publication of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957), however, revolutionized the field. This small book redistributed the rankings of the various subfields of language by showing the formal relationships among apparently diverse structures in syntax; what had previously been backgrounded in the study of language, the syntax, was now seen as the central focus of linguistic inquiry. In fact, syntax became so important within linguistics that Chomsky and his colleagues argued for an autonomous syntax, a system of structural relations that has an existence apart from sound and meaning. In the last decades of the twentieth century, many linguists abandoned this notion and opted instead for a pragmatic analysis of language, a description based on how particular words, syntactic structures, phonological features, and other patterns of discourse such as overlaps and interruptions among participants in a conversation are used to achieve certain effects in the real world. This approach has the effect of integrating the subsystems of language so that the focus is on the basic circumstance of communication: people talking.


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