Language Sciences as Cognitive Sciences

By Michael Gasser

We can study language as a system independent of the people who use it, or we can study language behavior, focusing on use. It cannot be enough to study language as a system in its own right (though it might be useful some of the time to do this) or to study product rather than process (though again it may be useful some of the time). Also the border between language and non-language is not necessarily a clear one and not something we should spend much time worrying about. So I will try to look at it both ways, to see how the “system/product” perspective and “behavior/process” perspective both contribute to an understanding of how language works.

I didn’t invent this position of course. A number of other people have defended one or another aspect of it. On the need to consider cognitive processes outside of language in order to understand language, cognitive linguists like Ronald Langacker and George Lakoff have made this case in many of their writings, in which they invoke general psychological notions such as attention, categorization, and memory. On the need to treat language as “process”, a very convincing argument was made in 1983 by the computer scientist Terry Winograd in his important book “Language as a Cognitive Process”(1983).
Language associates meaning and function with form and that understanding how language works requires that we focus on these associations. Linguistic form concerns the way a linguistic expression sounds (for spoken language) or looks (for written or signed language) or how a linguistic expression is produced.

There are two ways of looking at “form”. The usual way within linguistics is to think of form as a “sequence of elements”. For written language this is a natural way to treat form because written sentences are sequences of elements (characters). For spoken or signed language, it is less so. Treating a stretch of spoken or signed language as a sequence of elements means in effect focusing on the written transcription of the language in terms of units of sound or primitive gestures of some sort. This approach tends to play down the role of time, to look at a stretch of language as a static object. An alternative and more radical way of looking at form (at least for spoken or signed language) is to treat a stretch of language as something inherently continuous and dynamic, something that cannot (or should not) be transcribed as a written sequence of elements. I will usually discuss linguistic form in the first way, mostly because this is the way it is usually done and because it seems to simplify the analysis. But I will also insert periodic warnings about the biases that are built into this approach. One particular bias we should be aware of is one based on literacy; that is, as skilled users of alphabets, we may tend to think of spoken and signed language in this way.

I will use meaning to refer to what language is about, the concepts that words and linguistic patterns refer to. By concept I will mean a unit of cognitive experience, a way people have of abstracting over their experiences in the world. For example, in a baby’s experience the same face keeps appearing over it, and the baby abstracts over these different occurrences of face-appearing the concept of daddy. In this book labels for concepts will often appear like this. If the nature of form in the study of language is controversial, the nature of meaning is even more so. Some people deny that there is such a thing as meaning or that talking about meaning is helpful or that there is a consistent way to define “meaning” or “concept” or “about.” I will try to take these positions seriously in this book, but the fact is that I don’t know how to even get started without looking at the pole of language that is opposed to form.

Concepts Without Words

Whatever we mean by concepts, it is clear that not all of them are associated with words. Words are linguistic; concepts need not be. We all have concepts that we have no words or grammatical patterns for. For example, one concept I have is the little depressed region bounded by two vertical ridges that is found between the nose and the middle of the upper lip. I have no idea what to call that place (though I’m pretty sure it has a name in at least some languages); that concept does not represent the meaning of a word for me.

Another point to note here is that meanings do not need to be seen as thing that are “out there” in the world. Since the stand taken is that language is basically a cognitive phenomenon, this would be a strange way to think about meaning. Instead I will be treating meanings as things that are “in here”, cognitive entities realized in our brains, depending on our interpretation of what’s out there and including imagined entities that aren’t “out there” at all (though they are inevitably based on things that are).

I will use function in two senses, first, for the uses that people put language to and second, for the uses that particular words or patterns have within stretches of language. It is the former sense that concerns us here. People use language to refer, to assert, to command, to convince, to get information, to entertain, to deceive, and much more, and these uses of language obviously have something to do with the forms that they choose. For example, if you want somebody to lend you their computer, you don’t say “you will lend me your computer”, you say something like “could I borrow your computer?”.

Many people who study language make a distinction between function in this sense (part of what they call “pragmatics”) and meaning (what they may call “semantics”). I would argue instead that the difference is a matter of degree, but that there’s not much point in worrying about where the line between pragmatics and semantics is.

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