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How Language Works

Indispensable to effective daily communication, the two functions of language.

We all take language for granted, yet we rely upon it throughout our lives in order to perform a range of functions. Imagine how you would accomplish all the things you might do, even in a single day, without language: buying an item in a shop, providing or requesting information, passing the time of day, expressing an opinion, declaring undying love, agreeing or disagreeing, signalling displeasure or happiness, arguing, insulting someone, and so on. Imagine how other forms of behaviour would be accomplished in the absence of language: rituals like marriage, business meetings, using the Internet, the telephone, and so forth. While we could conceivably accomplish some of these things without language (a marriage ceremony, perhaps), it is less clear how, in the absence of telepathy, making a telephone call or sending an email could be achieved.

In almost all the situations in which we find ourselves, language allows quick and effective expression, and provides a well-developed means of encoding and transmitting complex and subtle ideas. In fact, these notions of encoding and transmitting turn out to be important, as they relate to two key functions associated with language, the symbolic function and the interactive function, ideas that I introduced in an earlier post: What do we use language for? Here, I consider in more detail what these functions are, and how they work.

The symbolic function of language
One crucial function of language is to express thoughts and ideas: language encodes and externalises our thoughts. The way language does this is by using symbols. Symbols are ‘bits of language’. These might be meaningful subparts of words (for example, dis- as in distaste), whole words (for example, cat, sprint, tomorrow), or ‘strings’ of words (for example, He couldn’t write a pop jingle let alone a whole musical). These symbols consist of forms, which may be spoken, written or signed, and meanings with which the forms are conventionally paired. In fact, a symbol is better referred to as a symbolic assembly, as it consists of two parts that are conventionally associated. In short, this symbolic assembly is a form–meaning pairing.

A form can be a sound, as in [kæt] – here, I am representing speech sounds using symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet. A form might be the orthographic representation that we see on the written page: cat, or a signed gesture in a sign language. A meaning is the conventional ideational or semantic content associated with the symbol. A symbolic assembly of form and meaning is represented in the following image.

Vyvyan Evans (2019)
A symbolic assembly of form and meaning
Source: Vyvyan Evans (2019)

It is important to be clear, however, that the image of the cat in this image is intended to represent not a particular referent in the world, but the idea of a cat. The image represents the meaning conventionally paired with the form pronounced in English as [kæt]. The meaning associated with a linguistic symbol is linked to a particular mental representation termed a concept.

Concepts, in turn, derive from percepts. For instance, consider a piece of fruit such as a pear. Different parts of the brain perceive its shape, colour, texture, taste, smell and so on. This diverse range of perceptual information deriving from the world ‘out there’ is integrated into a single mental image – a representation available to consciousness – which gives rise to the concept of Pear. When we use language and utter the form pear, this symbol corresponds to a conventional meaning, and therefore ‘connects’ to a concept rather than directly to a physical object in the external world (see Figure below).

Vyvyan Evans (2019)
Levels of representation
Source: Vyvyan Evans (2019)

Our cognitive abilities integrate raw perceptual information into a coherent and well defined percept. The meanings encoded by linguistic symbols then, refer to a mental representation of reality, as construed by the human mind, mediated by our unique perceptual and conceptual systems.

I observed above that the symbolic function of language serves to encode and externalise our thoughts. We are now in a position to qualify this view. While our conceptualisations – the ways in which we construe or ‘see’ the range of sensations, experiences, reflections and so on, that make up our mental life – are seemingly unlimited in scope, language represents a limited and indeed limiting system for the expression of thought; we’ve all experienced the frustration of being unable to ‘put an idea into words’. After all, there are a finite number of words, each with a delimited set of conventional meanings. From this perspective, then, language merely provides prompts for the construction of a conceptualisation which is far richer and more elaborate than the minimal meanings provided by language.

Using language to build rich meanings
Accordingly, what language encodes is not thought in its complex entirety, but instead rudimentary instructions to the conceptual system – our repository of concepts – to access or create rich and elaborate ideas, known technically as simulations. To illustrate this point, consider the following example:

(1) The cat jumped over the wall.

This sentence describes a jump undertaken by a cat. Before reading on, select the diagram (a) to (d), in the Figure, below, that best captures, in your view, the trajectory of the jump.

Vyvyan Evans (2019)
Possible trajectories for: "The cat jumped over the wall"
Source: Vyvyan Evans (2019)

I anticipate that you selected the fourth diagram, (d). After all, the conventional interpretation of the sentence is that the cat begins the jump on one side of the wall, moves through an arc-like trajectory, and lands on the other side of the wall. Image (d) best captures this interpretation.

On first inspection, this exercise seems straightforward. However, even a simple sentence like (1) raises a number of puzzling issues. After all, how do we know that the trajectory of the cat’s jump is of the kind represented in (d)? What information is there in the sentence that provides this interpretation and excludes the trajectories represented in (a–c)?

Even though the sentence in (1) would typically be judged as unambiguous, it contains a number of words that have a range of interpretations. The behaviour described by jump has the potential to involve a variety of trajectory shapes. For instance, jumping from the ground to the table involves the trajectory represented in image (a). Jumping on a trampoline relates to the trajectory represented in image (b). Bungee jumping involves the trajectory represented in image (c), in which the bungee jumper stops just prior to contact with the surface. Finally, jumping over a puddle, hurdle, wall and so on involves an arc-like trajectory as in image (d).

If the lexical item jump does not in itself specify an arc-like trajectory, but is vague with respect to the shape of the trajectory, then perhaps the preposition over is responsible. However, over can also have a range of possible interpretations. For instance, over, in this sentence, might mean ‘across’, when we walk over a bridge (a horizontal trajectory). It might mean ‘above’, when an entity like a hummingbird is over a flower (higher than but in close proximity to). Equally, over could mean ‘above’ when a plane flies over a city (much higher and lacking close proximity). These are just a few of the possibilities. The point to emerge from this brief discussion is that the English word over can be used when different kinds or amounts of space are involved, and with a number of different trajectories or paths of motion.

Consider a further complication. Image (d) crucially represents the cat’s motion ending at a point on the opposite side of the wall relative to the starting position of the jump. Yet, no linguistic element in the sentence explicitly provides us with this information.

The sentence in (1) therefore illustrates the following point: even in a mundane sentence, the words themselves, while providing meanings, are only partially responsible for the conceptualisation (or simulation) that these meanings give rise to. Thought relies on a rich array of encyclopaedic knowledge. For example, when constructing an interpretation based on the sentence in (1), this involves at the very least the following knowledge:

i) that the kind of jumping cats perform involves traversing obstacles rather than bungee jumping;
ii) that if a cat begins a jump at a point on one side of an obstacle, and passes through a point above that obstacle, then gravity will ensure that the cat comes to rest on the other side of the obstacle;
iii) that walls are impenetrable barriers to forward motion;
iv) that cats know this, and therefore attempt to circumnavigate the obstacle by going over it.

We use all this information (and much more), in constructing the rich conceptualisation – the simulation – associated with the sentence in (1). The words themselves are merely prompts for the simulation construction process.

So far, then, we have established that one of the functions of language is to represent or symbolise concepts. Linguistic symbols, or more precisely symbolic assemblies, enable this by serving as prompts for the construction of much richer simulations. Now I turn to the second function of language.

The interactive function of language
In our everyday social encounters, language serves an interactive function. It is not sufficient that language merely pairs forms and meanings. These form–meaning pairings must be recognised by, and be accessible to, others in our community. After all, we use language in order to ‘get our ideas across’: to communicate. This involves a process of transmission by the speaker, and decoding and interpretation by the hearer, processes that involve the construction of simulations (see the Figure below).

Vyvyan Evans (2019)
Simulation at work
Source: Vyvyan Evans (2019)

The messages we choose to communicate can perform various interactive and social functions. For example, we can use language to change the way the world is, or to make things happen:

(2) a. I now pronounce you husband and wife.
b. Shut the door on your way out!

The utterance in (2a), spoken by a suitably qualified person – such as a member of the clergy licensed to perform marriages – in an appropriate setting – like a church – in the presence of two unmarried adults who consent to be joined in matrimony, has the effect of irrevocably altering the social, legal and even moral/spiritual relationship between the two people. That is, language itself can serve as a speech act that forever alters an aspect of our reality.

Similarly, in the example in (2b), the utterance represents a command, which is also a type of speech act. Language provides a means of communication, allowing us to share our wishes and desires. Moreover, the way in which these wishes and desires are expressed signals who we are, and what kind of relationship we have with our addressee. We would be unlikely to issue a command like (2b) to the Queen of the United Kingdom, for example.

Another way in which language fulfils the interactive function relates to the notion of expressivity. Language is ‘loaded’, allowing us to express our thoughts and feelings about the world; consider the quite different ideas evoked by the following expressions, which might be used by different speakers to refer to the same individual:

(3) a. the eminent actor
b. the dashing lady’s man

While the example in (3a) focuses on the profession of the individual and the individual’s relative standing in that profession, the example in (3b) focuses on aspects of their appearance, personality, behaviour and the company the individual keeps. Moreover, although both these sentences relate to a male actor, the person’s gender cannot be inferred from the sentence in (3a) – in today’s parlance, the designation actor can refer to either a male or female – it can be so inferred from the second sentence due to normative patterns of linguistic behaviour and social stereotypes. We typically use the expression dashing to describe the physical attributes and personality of men, rather than women, while lady’s man can only refer to a man.

Language also plays a role in how we affect other people in the world, and how we make others feel by our choice of words. In short, language can provide information about affect (emotional response):

(4) a. Shut up!
b. I’m terribly sorry to interrupt you, but . . .

These examples also illustrate the way in which we present our public selves through language. The language we choose to use conveys information about our attitudes concerning others, ourselves and the situations in which we find ourselves.

Language can also be used to create scenes or frames of experience, indexing and even constructing a particular context. Language use can invoke frames that summon rich knowledge structures, which call up and fill in background knowledge:

(5) a. How do you do?
b. Once upon a time . . .

The example in (5a) creates a greeting frame, signalling an acknowledgement of another person and a recognition that this is the first time they have met. It also signals a degree of formality, which expressions like hey, what’s up? or hi would not. Analogously, the utterance in (5b) signals the beginning of a fairytale. Just by hearing or reading the expression in (5b) an entire frame is invoked, which guides how we respond to what follows, what our expectations are and so forth.

In short, we’ve seen that not only does language encode particular meanings, but also by virtue of these meanings and the forms employed to symbolise these meanings which constitute part of shared knowledge in a particular speech community, language can serve an interactive function. And in so doing, it both facilitates and enriches communication in a number of ways.


Adapted from Chapter 1 of:
Evans, Vyvyan (2019). Cognitive Linguistics: A Complete Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press