Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics
The study of language is often divided into semantics, syntactics and
pragmatics. Similar divisions appear in computer science where the
construction and application of computer programs are investigated. The
distinction between syntax (sentence form) and semantics (word and sentence
meaning) is fundamental to the study of language. Syntax is the collection of
rules that govern how words are assembled into meaningful sentences. While these
are useful distinctions in the study of language, language use in the real world
is fluid and always changing.
Semantics as a study considers the meaning of words themselves and the
meaning of word phrases. Young children point with a pudgy index finger and say
the name their pointer indicates. Pointing and naming remains an endearing
characteristic for the rest of a human life. Naming proceeds from the
description of the immediate and concrete objects to making abstract statements
about events. Tourists in a foreign country revert to the two-year-old
strategy of pointing, naming, and using pantomime to replace the verbs and
sentence structures they do not know. The meaning of sentences requires
understanding both the meaning of individual words and the syntactic context in
which the words are embedded. Words can denote a literal or core meaning and
connote a halo of associative meanings.
Pragmatics is the study of how language is used and how the different
uses of language determine semantics and syntax. Much of this book is
about language pragmatics, about how humans use language to achieve their goals.
You can begin by stating that language is a form of communication. Humans live
and work in groups that require sound communications, sharing information,
broadcasting warnings, forming and maintaining relationships. Sounds and
gestures are the key ingredients of communication systems. In a following
chapter Patterns of Language Use, I examine language pragmatics under several
headings such as stories, gossip, myths, polite talk, humor, literature and
Syntax A reasonable understanding of the evolution of language is that
syntax developed slowly from minimally-syntactical utterances. Syntax links
names and actions as a simulation of the order of events in the real world.
Syntax is the basis of verbal reasoning. Syntax has developed differently in
different languages. Increasing complexity of sentences accommodates an
increasing need for more detailed communications. Syntax provides selective
advantage to humans who faced variable and complex demands and who made more
flexible and complex statements to each other to cope with survival challenges.
Syntax is the form of language that admits any content. The content may be
literal or factual. The content may be an invention, a fictional story that
gains credibility by being inserted into proper syntax. Humans are confused or
alarmed by improper syntax, but will often accept fabricated contents with
little resistance or with demonstrable appreciation. You could argue that there
are two main uses of language: one is to inform; the other is to deceive.
Written language is associated with more standardization of grammar.
The written version of English and many European languages have complex grammars
that are difficult to learn. The spoken versions of these languages tend to be
simpler and are easier to learn. Conversations in any language use looser syntax
than properly written texts.
While grammar is a remarkable achievement, sentences simulate real events
with inevitable errors, inventions and distortions. A deep investigation of
language reveals a remarkable human ability to represent what is going on
attached to a remarkable ability to misrepresent what is going on out there.
Language permits the invention of virtual realties that humans “believe” more
than they perceive the world as it is. The reasoning built into grammar is not
analogous to how things actually work so that grammatically correct statements
routinely misrepresent what is going on out there even when the intention is to
just report the facts.
The brain activity associated with syntax and semantics occurs in
distinct areas of the brain that are interconnected. The underlying strategy
seems to be based on grouping objects and actions into categories with rules
that form the syntax or grammar of the language. The human brain stores nouns
and verbs separately and has surprising habits of separating words and
syntactical rules in sub-compartments. You get something of this effect with
computer programs that store data and program segments in scattered blocks of
memory and then keep a map of where all the pieces are. In addition to a map or
as part of the map, the brain seems to evolve a series of controllers that
remember strategies for putting all these pieces together. Different languages
can co-exist in one brain and speakers with different linguistic styles can
co-exist in one brain. A single language, the one that is used most often, will
dominate however, and secondary languages will borrow from or compete with the
primary language for representation.
Smyly suggested that there are two aspects to processing a sentence: meaning
and structure – or, more technically, semantics and syntax. These properties are
processed separately, in different areas of the brain. "The cat chased the mouse
and the mouse chased the cat" are two sentences with exactly the same words, but
in a different order. Meaning is not attached to individual words but involves
their context and order. Mirella Dapretto and Susan Bookheimer used
brain scans to find visualize what areas of the brain were active with different
sentence decoding tasks such as listening to pairs of sentences and deciding
whether or not they had the same meaning. Some of the test sentences differed in
syntax – for example, "The policeman arrested the thief" and "The thief was
arrested by the policeman" – while others had the same structure but different
words. In the latter set of examples, the words could either be synonyms of each
other, in which case the overall meanings of the sentences were the same, or
not. For example, "The car is in the garage" and "The automobile is in the
garage" mean the same thing, "The bike is in the garage" does not. They used
functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures increases in blood flow,
to look at which areas of the brain were active during each of the two tasks.
They found that meaning processing occurred in the left inferior frontal gyrus.
Syntax processing occurred in 'Broca's area' usually associated with producing