Theory of Language
Contributors:  William E. Doane: Programming
Slavko Milekic: Author
Steven E. Weisler: Author



The ability to learn a natural language distinguishes humans from other animals, and is normally engaged during the first decade of life during the critical period for language acquisition. The linguistic system that develops pervades everyday life, providing for an infinite linguistic capacity and for the essential creativity of language. The use of language is sensitive to a variety of social and contextual variables and can be analyzed at many different levels of description.

Linguists and other cognitive scientists are centrally interested in understanding the relationship between language and thought. Do we think in language? Is thought simply nonvocal language, or is the linguistic system (partly) distinct from more general thought processes? Suppose we present you with a subtraction problem like

1724 - 982 = ?

and a sentence like

Please, don't understand this sentence!

Although you can avoid computing the difference for the subtraction problem, you cannot stop yourself from interpreting the sentence. Sentence interpretation and mathematical calculation are different with respect to their automaticity. This suggests that different cognitive systems are involved in each of these tasks (see Fodor 1983, Garfield 1987).

But before we can address these rather subtle questions in much detail, we must clarify what we mean by thought, and about the aspects of language we are concerned with. The latter, especially, is a central goal of the study of linguistics.




This module was supported by National Science Foundation Grant #0127561.