Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cognitive Aspects of Language – conveyance of meaning

Phonemes and Morphemes
Consider this sentence: “The teacher praised the industrious student.” The sounds that we generate when saying this sentence must convey meaning in a constant manner so that listeners can understand our utterances. When we say the word “praised” the /p/ should not be mistaken for /b/. If /p/ is not properly pronounced the listener may hear: “The professor braised the industrious student.” The meaning of the sentence changes because the meaning of the word “braise” is ‘to cook in liquid’. /P/ and /B/ produce different sounds and different meanings in the above example.
Take another example: “He gave me a bill and asked to pay.” The words bill and pill have different meanings. If I don’t pronounce /b/ properly listener may hear “He gave me a pill and asked to pay.”  The words ‘bill’ and ‘pill’ have different meanings because they differ in their initial letters. There are two sound blocks in “pill”. These are /pi/ and /ill/. In the word “bill” also there are two sound blocks, viz. /bi/ and /ill/. The initial letters in both words are pronounced nearly identically. They differ only in that the vocal cords vibrate for /b/ but not for /p/. This difference, called voicing, is also seen between /s/ and /z/. You can feel the vibration of vocal cords when saying /z/ by placing fingers on the Adam’s apple.
The sound blocks in a word are called phonemes. The phonemes of a language are the building blocks of meaningful units called morphemes. The phonemes /pi/ and /ill/ combine together and form a morpheme /pill/. Like that /bi/ and /ill/ form the morpheme /bill/. In another example the phonemes /ki/ and /ill/ form the morpheme /kill/. In the given examples words themselves are morphemes. In longer words there may more than one morpheme. Prefixes and suffixes such as pre-, -es  and -ed are also morphemes. In the word ‘pills’ there are two morphemes, viz. /pill/ and /s/. The word kill convey the meaning that the action takes place at present. When we add the suffix –ed, which is another morpheme, to the morpheme kill the meaning changes. The word killed tells us that the action took place in the past.
Another way of conveying meaning is observing certain rules of arranging words in a sentence or the grammatical rules. The rules that specify how words and other morphemes are arranged to yield acceptable sentences are called syntax. Consider the following three sentences:
1.      The scientist slept fitfully, dreaming new ideas.
2.      Fitfully the slept new, ideas dreaming scientist.
3.      The new ideas slept fitfully, dreaming a scientist.
The first is a sentence which conveys a meaning and is syntactically correct. The second one cannot be considered as a sentence because it violates syntactic rules. It is jumble of words. All of the elements of meaning are there, but they are without any order. So these words convey no meaning. The third assertion violates no syntactic rules, yet it fails to make any sense. Our mental representation of the noun “ideas” does not allow sleeping in any fashion, let alone to dream about scientist.
Functions of Language
The written or spoken language is embedded in a discourse community. Language is intended for and shaped by those who collectively listen, read, comprehend, interpret, and respond to our uses of language. Consider the following two utterances:
1.      It is hot in this room.
2.      Open the window!
The first sentence informs others about the how one feels about the room temperature. The second one commands someone to let cool air into the room. In a specific setting, the first sentence might be used to achieve the goal of the second in a polite way. Instead of commanding directly, one can achieve the same effect by merely informing someone standing next to window. This is called speech act. There are distinct kinds of speech acts. We command, inform, question, warn, thank, dare, request, and so on. These are the functions of language.
Cooperative Principle
When two people enter into a conversation, they enter into an implicit contractual agreement called cooperative principle. It means that the participants agree implicitly to say things that are appropriate to the conversation and to end the conversation at a mutually agreeable point. One may become aware of this implicit agreement when the participant stops conversation abruptly and uses misleading words. For example consider the following exchange:
Wilfred: Samson is going to New York with a woman.
Susan: Does his wife know about this?
Wilfred: Of course she does. The woman he is going with is his wife.
Here Wilfred misled Susan by failing to provide enough information in this use of the term “a woman.” Susan was forced to infer that the woman in question was someone other than Samson’s wife.

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