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Language is the ability to produce and comprehend both spoken
and written (and in the case of sign language, signed) words. Understanding how language works means reaching across many
branches of psychology—everything from basic neurological functioning to
high-level cognitive processing. Language shapes our social interactions and brings
order to our lives. Complex language is one of the defining factors that makes
us human. Two of the concepts that make language unique are grammar and lexicon.
Because all language obeys a set of combinatory rules, we can
communicate an infinite number of concepts. While every language has a
different set of rules, all languages do obey rules. These rules
are known as grammar. Speakers of a language have internalized the rules and
exceptions for that language’s grammar. There are rules for every level of
language—word formation (for example, native speakers of English have
internalized the general rule that -ed is the ending for past-tense verbs, so
even when they encounter a brand-new verb, they automatically know how to put
it into past tense); phrase formation (for example, knowing that when you use
the verb “buy,” it needs a subject and an object; “She buys” is wrong, but “She
buys a gift” is okay); and sentence formation.
Every language has its rules, which act as a framework for
meaningful communication. But what do people fill that framework up with? The
answer is, of course, words. Every human language has a lexicon—the sum
total of all of the words in that language. By using grammatical rules to combine words into logical sentences, humans
can convey an infinite number of concepts.
Introduction to Linguistics
Language is such a special topic that there is an entire field, linguistics, devoted to its study. Linguistics views language in an objective way, using the scientific method and rigorous research to form theories about how humans acquire, use, and sometimes abuse language. There are a few major branches of linguistics, which it is useful to understand in order to learn about language from a psychological perspective.
Phonetics is the study of individual speech sounds; phonology is the study of phonemes, which are the speech sounds of an individual language. These two
heavily overlapping subfields cover all the sounds that humans can make, as well as which sounds make up different languages. A phonologist could answer the question,
“Why do BAT and TAB have different meanings even though they are made of the
same three sounds, A, B and T?”
Morphology is the study of words and other meaningful units
of language like suffixes and prefixes. A morphologist would be interested in
the relationship between words like “dog" and "dogs” or “walk” and “walking,” and
how people figure out the differences between those words.
Syntax is the study of sentences and phrases, or how people put
words into the right order so that they can communicate meaningfully. All
languages have underlying rules of syntax, which, along with morphological rules,
make up every language’s grammar. An example of syntax coming into play in
language is “Eugene walked the dog” versus “The dog walked Eugene.” The order of
words is not arbitrary—in order for the sentence to convey the intended meaning,
the words must be in a certain order.
Semantics and Pragmatics
Semantics, most generally, is about the meaning of sentences.
Someone who studies semantics is interested in words and what real-world object
or concept those words denote, or point to. Pragmatics is an even broader field that studies how the context of a sentence contributes to meaning—for example,
someone shouting “Fire!” has a very different meaning if they are
in charge of a seven-gun salute than it does if they are sitting in a crowded movie theater.