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This lesson discusses the discipline of cognitive linguistics and how it has become one of the primary fields within linguistics and psychology. During the discussion, the term is defined and how cognitive linguistics has been used is also discussed.

The Science of Meaning

Linguistics (the study of how words are formed and how meaning is expressed through language) is a science that has changed greatly over the past several decades.

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Why the change? Prior to the groundbreaking work done by Noam Chomsky in the late 1950s and prominent linguists in the 1970s, it was a widely held belief that language was not innate but behavioral.Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, and B. F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, were among a large number of psychologists who studied how language began in humans. They had found no reason to believe that language could be explained by evolutionary theories. They reasoned that higher level language abilities in humans were so distinct that there could be no explanation other than learning.

The problem was that they did not have enough information on how the brain works.Thus, when Chomsky made a strong argument in a paper refuting this belief, he started a cognitive linguistic revolution (cognitive linguistics is the study of how the brain and brain structures influence language). The paper explained that the human brain was exclusively able, among other members of the animal kingdom, to use syntax, meaning to form words into sentences. He was able to show that it could not be just a function of learning after the child was born, but there had to be an inborn ability to extract meaning from words.

Since then, scientists in the field of cognitive linguistics have been trying to explain how humans are able to communicate at a higher level than animals.

How People Use Language

It is true that humans and animals share some language characteristics. Animals are able to create different guttural sounds (barks, grunts, quacks, tweets, and others) that convey different meanings to other animals of the same species.

The many different types of birds all have different calls depending on what they want to convey. Humans and animals share this characteristic.But an animal’s ability to convey meaning, something called phonetics (how the brain processes different sounds), is limited. The human brain is able to group different sounds into individual words with different meanings and then group these words into sentences that deliver a thought. For the receiver of the sounds, semantics is how people are able to extract meaning from this structured grouping of words.

How Cognitive Linguistics Explains Syntax

The argument between the different linguists was how people were able to use syntax. The behaviorists believe that nothing about syntax or semantics was innate; it is all learned behavior. Cognitive linguists believe that the ability humans have to use a universal grammar was formed through evolution.

This universal grammar is the theoretical construct that humans do not have to learn grammar; it is an innate quality.Early humans were only able to communicate on a very rudimentary level, just like animals. Grunts or body language are simple and only able to express broad meaning. However, as the human brain developed, structures were formed (some believe for purposes completely different than they are used now), and people gained the ability to tap into a universal grammar and expand their ability to express thought.

So, cognitive linguists believe that the unique language abilities humans possess are due to the way the human brain has evolved over time. The ability to extract meaning from a complex construction of simple sounds is innate and not learned.

Lesson Summary

Cognitive linguistics is the science studying how the brain is able to process language. Some psychologists believed that the ability to structure sentences (syntax) and understand the meaning of those sentences (semantics) was a learned behavior.

However, Noam Chomsky wrote a paper refuting the idea, claiming that grammar (what he called universal grammar) is innate or genetically determined which is commonly marked as the beginning of cognitive linguistics as a field of study.

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