Psycholinguistics and Language

Although I am not a psycholinguist I thought I would introduce basic principles of language.

There are four main components of language: phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics.

  1. Phonology is the sounds of language.
  2. Semantics is the meaning of language.
  3. Syntax is the structure of language.
  4. Pragmatics is the use of language.

1. Phonology: language is made up of phonemes and morphemes. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language (e.g., in English /p/ is a phoneme) and morphemes are the smallest units of meaninful sounds. Morphemes may be smaller than words (e.g., -ing) or may even be words (e.g., call); the word calling is thus composed of two morphemes.

2. Semantics refers to the meanings of words. In general, semantics helps us understand the difference between hymn and him. In psychology, semantics can be important as a way for understanding people’s language functioning. A person with Alzheimer’s Disease may have difficulty coming up with words that start with a particular letter (G, for example) but would do relatively better on a task where they need to name tools. Tools or animals or sports can all be considered semantic categories and are relatively structured in our memories. People who have better memories tend to have better memory strategies than people with poorer memories have. These strategies often include semantic categorization, where things that need to be remembered are grouped into categories.Woman Talking on Cell Phone

3. Syntax is the structure of language – the grammar. In English adjectives are typically placed before the objects (nouns) they are modifying – the red ball; in Spanish the adjectives go after the modified nouns – la bola roja. Syntax can have a significant impact on the meanings of sentences: “The boy hit the ball” versus “The ball hit the boy.” Both sentences have identical phonemes, morphemes, and semantics but differ in overall meaning as a result of different syntax.

4. Pragmatics refers to the use or application of language. It is typically viewed as a social aspect of language. Pragmatics is about applying language so that others understand what you are trying to convey. For example, someone who is good at pragmatics may be able to say one thing and convey a completely different message, if needed.

Each aspect of language can develop well or poorly in humans. Brain damage or degeneration can also selectively impair one of the aspects of language. For example, a person might have intact semantics, language production (phonemes and morphemes), and syntax but impaired pragmatics (this is referred to as a word salad or Wernicke’s aphasia – where a person strings words together that may even be grammatically correct but aren’t meaningful overall).

Image by wlau1.

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