overview - (goes beyond class discussion on some topics; see ch.3 notes, too, 2/13/11)

What role does language play in our lives?  I'm sure we can agree it is fundamental to much of what we do --some say it's what made us "human."

Investigation of language functions is important on its own terms; in addition it is impossible to make progress on the topic of language evolution without a clear sense --however speculative--on the adaptive aspect of human language  Darwin, for example, suggested the following:

"As the voice was used more and more, the vocal organs would have been strengthened and perfected through the principle of the inherited effects of use...but the relation between the continued use of language and development of the brain, has no doubt been far more important....we may confidently believe that the continued use and advancement of this power would have reacted on the mind itself, by enabling it and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought." (Origins, 1871)

 Many of these important matters border on the language fringes of other  psychological "areas"--cognition, development, neuropsychology, social psychology, and therapy.  Outside of psychology -- topics in philosophy, literary criticism, for example -- utilize theoretical conceptions of language for better or worse in their daily operation.

This brief discussion is not meant to be thorough or definitive--only suggestive in offering a broader perspective on the uses of human language.  Some of the topics will be taken up later; others will remain as exercises to the reader! 

        functions of language--a three-part perspective

For mnemonic purposes, I like to consider how language functions from three perspectives: the solitary individual, the interpersonal or small group situation, and lastly, from the perspective of a society.

While there is considerable overlap and some arbitrary categorization, it is important to get away from the idea that human language is just communication.  It is also useful to consider the limits of human language; keep in mind for example that many highly social species other than humans--bees, birds, and other primates for example--do NOT have human language yet function effectively with a variety of calls, songs, noises and gestures far less sophisticated than human language. Even some fish hum for mates! (See notes on animal communication and primate communication.)

1.   the individual's point of veiw

1.1.  thought and language


Perhaps the traditional view is that human reasoning is carried out independently of language in a "language of thought."  Leibniz, Descartes in the early 17th century are well known for their ideas on this topic.

Leibniz, for example, suggested that the apparently infinite number of ideas we have derives from some combinations of a relatively small set of semantic primitives--an "alphabet of human thoughts....by whose combinations all our other ideas are formed."

Descartes showed no sympathy for the idea that reasoning was related to the language one spoke: "For who doubts whether a Frenchman and a German are able to arrive at identical conclusions about the same thing though they conceive entirely different words?" (See Limber, 1977 for reference).

Recently Jerry Fodor has continued this tradition, in part in reaction to extremes of relativistic thinking that developed during the 17th and 18th century as new languages--whose speakers  had quite different cultures and beliefs-- were discovered by the Europeans. 


While some earlier philosophers like Hobbes and especially John Locke, allowed that the presence of a "name" might somehow facilitate thinking or organize thoughts, it remained until Europeans had extensive contact with non-European cultures to develop the idea that language might play a considerable role in thought processes.

By the end of the eighteenth century, writers such as Haman, Herder, and others, notably, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), had developed quite a different conception of the role and origins of human language.  Common themes included:

1. the idea that human language originated before human intellect, thereby diminishing the traditional idea that language was derivative  from or reflective of reason. (This is a good point as many believe language began as a social process, see Dunbar (2002).

2. the idea that language itself was a medium of thought and was in a reciprocal relationship with thought rather than merely the means of expressing those thoughts as Descartes suggests above.

3. the idea that different languages may differently shape the thoughts of their speakers.  As Humboldt put it "thinking is not merely dependent on language in general, but up to a certain degree, on each specific language. [1] "

This last idea, of course, is familiar today as "linguistic relativity" or the "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis and is variously embedded in the work of such diverse writers as Lev Vygotsky and Thomas Kuhn.

Whorf's popular ideas-example

"Just as it is possible to have any number of geometries other than Euclidian which give an equally perfect account of space configurations, so it is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all equally valid, that do not contain our familiar contrasts of time and space....the Hopi language contains no reference to 'time', either explicit or implicit..."(Whorf.1950/1956, p.57-58)"  We know now Hopi’s can refer to time with a precision suitable for their culture.

contemporary psychology

Behaviorists "Thinking is subvocal speech"

Cartesians including Piaget and maybe Fodor--"language reflects thought"

Piaget on formal operations

Vygotsky, Luria, Sokolov  (the Russians)

inner speech (see Kucsaj & Bean, 1982 and Waters & TInsley, (same volume) or Julian Jaynes on consciousness

language and socialization

specific topics

introspection and consciousness

(Freud, H.A. Simon, Nisbett, Julian Jaynes -- see my paper on Jaynes' ideas)

knowledge by description vs by "acquaintance" (false memory, Simcock & Hayne (2002))


Lagoda professor's  "knowledge machine"  (Swift, 1710)

"I swallowed my lips while eating breakfast." syntax enables forced conception of improbable events otherwise unthought by listeners?

"the canary ate the cat." (compare kids, aphasics, and apes without syntax as in Language video.)

writing (the essay)

logic and mathematics (where does infinity come from?)

the "phonological loop" and working memory (WM).

along with autocoding of sensory/perceptual/cognitive processes into language, WM may serve to manipulate these language based representations?

Limitations on language as mode of thinking and reasoning

other modes of thinking

imagery (motor, visual)

Galton on playing pool, Limber on changing 66 Mustang spark plugs.

Kohler's chimps' "insight"

Piaget's TGE stages before "formal operations"

Fodor's "mentalese"

the interference of language

Kristin's concentration game anecdote

Schooler et al "verbal overshadowing" (studies showing giving names with faces, wines, reduces recognition)

labelling effects and "functional fixedness"

interference priming evidenced in Stroop tasks and -olk demo.

introspective limits -beliefs vs causes

inaccessibile functions



Luria's  visual pathway lesion patient

split brain patients rationale for behavior of right hemisiphere (Joe in Alda video)


"telling more than we can know...." Nisbett et al

implicit memory vs recall

1.2.  humor and expression of emotion

1.3.  cursing

The word has become somewhat ambiguous between profanity and really cursing someone.

Can my dog call me a son of a bitch?

"Curses which imply rebellion against Divine Providence, or denial of His goodness or other attributes, such as curses of the weather, the winds, the world, the Christian Faith, are not generally grievous sins, because the full content and implication of such expressions is seldom realized by those who use them. The common imprecations against animate or inanimate objects which cause vexation or pain, those against enterprises which fail of success, so, too, the imprecations that spring from impatience, little outbreaks of anger over petty annoyances, and those spoken lightly, inconsiderately, under sudden impulse or in joke, are, as a rule, only venial sins -- the evil being slight and not seriously desired." Catholic Encyclopedia

1.4.  memory

      "verbal loop hypothesis", STM, verbal encoding even of images, e.g. letters as names, Kristin as a loser.

      remembering phone numbers, all the childhood amnesia research on language as possible factor in ending that amnesia.

IS episodic memory generally based on language? Or is it just the dominant mode of representing self and events involving the self?

1.5.  self-reflection & consciousness

Perhaps one aspect of consciousness resulted from social communication, e.g. asking Alexandra "where are my glasses?" and hearing the answer within my own head as my words primed my thoughts that were automatically encoded into subvocal English and I had the answer! Note this is not the behaviorist idea that thought is "subvocal language" (e.g. J.B. Watson, 1913). Realizing I can hear my own thoughts, I might start talking with myself more often. See my Jaynes paper, Limber (2005). In this way one can imagine a shift from language as interpersonal communication to a functional part of INTRA-personal cognition. 

And of course, even if language is not a cause of consciousness, it enables phenomenological reports about it.

1.6.  self-directive function

(prominent in Russian psychology cf "inner speech" above)

Note that this function and some of those that follow seem particularly important in children.

      e.g. learning shoelace tying; familiar verbal recipes for tying knots

Could this be subverted in hypnosis via a misattribution of the source of commands? See Wegner (2002).

1.7.  one's conscience as voice of authority

      child-rearing and socialization questions, e.g. "authoritative parenting"

1.8.  "spellweaving" effects of poetry, chants, prayers, inspirational oratory and pep-rallies etc.

(e,g, H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau) Recall Adolf Hitler in the Language video. Maybe an early function of human language was a kind of group control? See Dunbar's ideas on language as a kind of mass social grooming!

1.9. doing things with language -- promising, betting, knighting, marrying, magic...cursing. can these human activities be carried out without language?

(these were called "performatives" or "Speech Acts" by J. Austin in his book, How to do things with words.) See below for more.

1.10   Language in clinical therapy

the “talking cure (Coined by the patient Anna O.))”, neurolinguistics, Korzybski and General Semantics (his 1933 book, Science and Sanity is online.)

These and other psychotherapy notions claim language is a factor in mental health, either as a treatment or a cause.  (I am not endorsing any of these!)  In everyday life, expressions like “ouch” and hosts of “bad words” serve to express one’s feelings immediately – in addition to any supernatural effects of cursing.


2.  the perspective of dyads and small groups

2.1.  communication

2.1.1.  intentional meaning

2.1.2.  sentence types of messages  declarative  interrogative  imperative  questions

2.1.3.  unintentional meaning "given off" by speaker

2.3.1.     accent & dialect

2.3.2.     sex. age, mood , emotion, and attitude

2.1.4.  flexibility vs conventionality  the projective or creative aspect of linguistic expression

It is an interesting question as to the extent language is open or creative and how it can be extended into new meanings by syntactic, lexical, and metaphorical means.  Clearly there must be some constraints on rapid change; otherwise the communication potential is lost.  Nevertheless, human languages surely are not static or "closed" like animal systems. We can create new meanings in several ways-- create new words (lexicalization); metaphor (extend in often vague ways existing meanings) and of course creating new phrases, sentences, paragraphs etc from existing morphemes.

drawbacks to flexibility

The referential flexibility and related ambiguity of human language has its costs in potential miscommunication.  That is one reason we pay lawyers so much--to insure that all parties to contracts have the same ideas in mind about the sentences in the contracts. (See Solan, 1993)

Human language has been artificially stereotyped in law and in certain "high level" computer programming languages.  It is also a potential disaster in military operations and air traffic control.  Cushing (1994) documents how misunderstandings are a common cause of air mishaps including the 1977 Tenerife disaster in which 583 people died when the controller assumed "we are now at takeoff" to mean "we are waiting to takeoff" when the pilot was reporting his taking off.

2.2.  speech acts

2.2.1.  (See Miller (1990) on J. L. Austin)

Austin (1962) points out that grammarians and philosophers tend to treat sentences as descriptions or vehicles for questioning etc. according to the type of grammatical structure (above.)  But in examples like "I name this ship Queen Elizabeth" or " I bet you five pounds" ..it seems clear that to utter the sentences (in the "appropriate" circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it; it is to do it. (p.6)......What are we to call an utterance or sentence of theis type?  I propose to call it a performative sentence or performative utterance."

 Can apes promise or bet?

2.2.2 examples       "promising"       various rituals and ceremonies       prayers, magic       "swearing in" "dubbing" etc

2.3  small talk” – informal language (also known as “phatic language”)  we all engage in to regulate small social groups.  Actual exchange of information takes a secondary role.  For example, asking someone “how are you?” is often not intended to elicit a health report.  Instead it may suggest friendship, fill a stressful silent gap in conversation, and serve a group bonding function.  Discussion of topics like weather and sports may also serve these roles.


3. from the perspective of society

3.1.   (note the close connection here with  the issues under "thought" above.  How much of these is due to language per se?  (What is "per se" anyway?))

3.1.     storytelling and narratives

All human cultures have stories – probably because all humans tell them.  This might be a primary function of what Gazzaniga calls the 'interpreter' function of the left hemispshere. Recall discussions of childhood amnesia and episodic memory and their relation to narrative and language.

3.1.1.  oral traditions Roots, Lore & Language of Children  Opie and Opie (1959)

3.1.2.  myth - (e.g. Mokan tsunami video)

3.1.3.  religion

3.1.4.  science

3.2.  defining reference social groups

3.3.1.  dialects in humans and birds

3.3.2.  the linguistic "atlas" and isoglosses

3.3.  literacy and its effects on society and mind

3.3.1. general effects of literacy (McCluhan)

See notes on Gutenberg Galaxy (19xx) Can being literate really modifiy the way the mind works?

3.3.2 language, education, & science

"Language Law Threatens French Science" heads a report in Science (v.264), 5/13/94.  French scientists were reacting to proposals in the French Parliament to require publically funded research results to be published in French journals.  This was an amendment to a more general bill to stop the spread of non-French language--particularly English--within France.  Scientists were disturbed by this for good reason --"it would be a catastrophe" because most scientists would no longer read the work of the French scientists.  For example,  Luc Montagnier, discoverer of the AIDS virus at the Pasteur Institute, says that nearly 80% of the research from its largest public research agency is published in English.  "If we want our work to be known, we have to publish in English."

language and textbooks

Thus we see that English, due to political and historical factors, has become irreversibly and increasingly dominant--if only because of publishing costs and its widespread currency as a second language.  It would be impractical to publish basic science and mathematical texts in even hundreds of indigenous languages

language and electronic communication

The growth of computers and the internet will only increase the role of ESL--even the keyboards are working against the indigenous languages.

4.    References  (in progress)

Kaczaj, S. A., & Bean, A. (1982). The development of noncommunicative speech systems. In S. A. Kaczaj II (Ed.), Language Development:  Language, Thought, and Culture (pp. 279-300). Hillsdale, NJ: L. E. Erlbaum Associates.

Limber, J. (1977). Language in child and chimp? American Psychologist, 32, 280-295 (Reprinted in Sebeok, T.  & Sebeok, J. (Eds.) (1980).  Speaking of Apes (pp.197-218).  New York: Plenum Press.).

Limber, J. (2005), Language and consciousness- Jaynes' Preposterous Idea reconsidered

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

Opie, I., & Opie, P. (1959). The lore and language of schoolchildren. (1973 paperback ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] My knowledge of the work of Humboldt comes through Brinton (1885) and , most importantly, Brown (1967).  The "certain degree" qualification here reflects Humboldt's belief that there were also important universals of language.  It is important to note that the consequences of "linguistic relativity" diminish as languages are more similar-either due to similar environmental or historical forces or due to biological "language universals."