The predominance of evidence gathered together in the section, Understanding, indicates that the term understanding itself consists primarily in the processing of the host of sensations taken in voluntarily or involuntarily every moment by each animal, and next the winnowing, abstraction, organization and categorization of significant portions extracted from them in support of the planning, execution and control of action, with the aim of enhancing the well being of the animal. That this process is employed by a wide range of animals, and begins for humans even before language is developed implies that understanding itself is not primarily associated with words or language. What then is the role of language? First, the term language itself ought to be more tightly defined.
Language is one form of communication among many. Communication is performed by animals through: displays of aggression, of desire, the marking of territory, vocally or olfactorily, through writhings and callings, through sounds, whistlings, chirpings, clickings, rattlings and growling. Communication among animals occurs at nearly every level of the upper animate spectrum: the woods and forests and jungles, and even urban areas, are silent only to the unaware.
Semantically, language in its natural form—if the term is defined by its synonyms—is commonly restricted to humans, and certainly it is so in its textual form, as shown in the diagram here. One can only wonder at the omission in this diagram of signing, a not uncommon form of language used by humans for eons, and an expressive one at that.
Yet in the broader sense, language can be seen simply as one form of communication, one used predominantly, if not exclusively, by humans. In a general sense communication may occur among people or other animals, in any of several combinations, but the term language is ordinarily semantically restricted to communications among people using abstract symbols: lingual, signed, written, or pictorial. And, as significantly, using some form of syntax or grammar which facilitates a very large set of semantic expression using relatively few symbols by asserting commonly understood combinatorial rules.
Most often we think of language as one-to-one communication. But the one-to-many form is common as well: in the form of a speech, signaling, a radio or television broadcast, written language in it’s several forms, and through other means as well. It might be supposed that many-to-many communication can take place, as during an boisterous conversation with many people speaking at once, but since we are each essentially serial processors in this respect, this cacophony reduces to one-to-one communication as we alter our attention-sharing from one person to another. And now, uniquely, the world embarks on using textual language expressed in a somewhat more orderly, many-to-many form, as on a community web site enabled by the Internet. Rarely, language, or at least human communication, can occur in a many-to-one mode, as in the massed vocalization of pleasure (“here, here”) or shouts of dismay or anger in response to the language or actions of an individual. Nevertheless, language is most importantly a one-to-one endeavor, and ordinarily that will be the sense in which it is discussed here.
To be effective language requires other characteristics beyond simply spoken or written symbols: morphology, attention-sharing, syntax, and grammar in general; all of this in a framework within which one person, the speaker, signer or writer shares in some fashion willing attention with one or more listeners, viewers or readers, all of whom have the intention of sharing the communication, of “tuning-in” so to speak.
Another quality of language is one which might be called mood or tone, urgency or passion: a command, a warning, an order is a different sort of communication than a passive reflection, a question, or a mere studied observation. This quality is more important than at first it might seem: it not only sends a different message to the listener, but it also affects the significance with which the listener receives the message and, concomitantly the retention of that message in memory.
This cover article of the New Scientist magazine, by Christine Kenneally, examines in some detail the language capabilities of sub-human animals. While she feels that these animals have surprising and underrated language capabilities, and of cognition in general, in an ironic way the article, by reflecting on these animals rather surprising capabilities, seems only to support the notion that nevertheless human language capability far exceeds that of the other animals. Nevertheless it provides a boundary, a margin, with which to distinguish human capabilities from those of the other animals, and for that it is valuable. Other than if and
Although understanding is a phenomenon we share with many animals, and though many animals communicate in some fashion, language itself, in its fullness, is an exclusively human development. Here we show the diagram Understanding with a new element added. This element which we call here a Lexicon is sitting symbolically atop the memory network data element of the Understanding diagram. This lexical element, a rather small part of the whole of understanding, an evolutionary afterthought, so to speak, should be thought of as a largely human outgrowth of the general Memory Network, that memory which, to some extent, nearly all animals have in some degree.
The Lexicon and the Memory Network are shown here as contiguous. The implication is that there is a very close relationship between the two and, further, this configuration admits of our ignorance as to precisely how they are related, though there are some clues.
Let us call this primitive general Memory Network, the portion on the bottom, “deep memory” and see the lexicon itself as an especially human extension of that memory that contains words and their relationships. We will call it the "word memory". It seems reasonable to think that the words we use every day, our lexicon, are in some fashion, which remains unclear, intimately connected with our original or “deep” memory:
If we hear someone speak of a person we know well, we can, in our deep memory, imagine her face, and with further introspection we can see more: the way she acts, whether she is pleasant or rude, perhaps an incident that happened with her, possibly a perfume she regularly uses, and numerous other characteristics of the subject, and this recall is very quick, almost no effort at all. We do not think of her in terms of words to ourselves. But to write of her, or to speak of her to a third party, we will use her name or her nickname. It could be said that this name in the lexicon is, in some fashion unknown, a pointer to the set of qualities we have associated with her in our deep memory, and by this naming of her we activate in the listener or in the reader an equivalent pointer to his own set of deep memories concerning her.
Since this seems the essence of the relationship between understanding and language it seems worth expanding somewhat on this concept. Consider the diagram here. The communicator on the left constructs meaningful phrases from his lexicon that represent as best he can is deep memory recollections and then he communicates them to the listener on the right who, comprehending these phrases using his lexicon, then “understands” in some sense what is meant using the words as pointers to his deep memory.
Each person’s lexicon is tightly bound with his own deep memory consisting of the set of sensations, scenes and plans associated with the phrases and, importantly, within the context of the subject being discussed, and this context need not be explicitly textual or lingual, it may reflect only the current situation between them, one that is implicitly understood.
It might be supposed that this sort of communication would trigger identical sets of deep memory relationships between the two people, but this is not so. Thus we frequently have “miscommunication”. And the reason for this is that each person is an individual and their myriad deep memories and the associations among them are formed in different manners, in different contexts, and perhaps with different goals and plans in mind and, one is tempted to add, brain chemistry as a factor. It is probably fair to say that all communication involves some factor of miscommunication; it is a question of degree. Though this “miscommunication” between people is usually nothing more than a reflection of differences within their deep memory and in the association of their deep memories with their respective lexicons. Miscommunication can sometimes be purposeful, that is to say, as we all know, a communication may be biased or glossed to suit the genuine goals of the communicator rather than those of the listener.
Curiously, we occasionally have problems in the opposite direction; we may “know” something in our deep memory and have difficulty searching for the right word to describe it in our own lexicon. For example, if we try to remember someone’s name, someone we know only casually, or someone we have merely heard of, or read about, we may, interestingly, remember all sorts of things about this person in our deep memory yet fail to locate his name in our word memory or lexicon. We may “know” that his name begins with an R, Robert perhaps, or Reggie, or Ronald. We may even close our eyes while attempting to recall the specific name to which we’ve already associated numerous properties in our deep memory, shielding our thoughts from current distractions while running through all the associations that we have about the subject as we try to find a pointer in our deep memory to the correct name in our lexicon. This name, should we find it, will, for another, the interlocutor, characterize for her all the qualities of the subject that she has in her deep memory. Yet, for ourselves, irrespective of others, we have no specific need for this name since we already inherently know all of the properties of the subject in our deep memory appropriate for the context in which we find ourselves, perhaps not all the properties of the subject—we are not encyclopedias after all—but all the qualities that we have accumulated and retained as significant.
It is only when we are attempting to share our thoughts with another that we need such linguistic artifacts as words, and we need them because we wish to trigger in the other a similar set of recollections to those that we have in our own deep memory:
Do you remember the canoe trip we took down the Fox river?
The interlocutor may have similar but very different deep memories of that trip. For the speaker’s deep memories may be highly negative concerning the trip, while his companion may have enjoyed it immensely. The point is that the words themselves, the phrases, do not always translate into the same fundamental memories for the pair of speakers or writers. As we listen more read we filter the information proffered with our knowledge of the speaker, his level of knowledge, his proclivities, his biases and so forth. And in so doing we may alter or enhance to some degree our deep memory concerning the subject. A very complex business, this that we attempt.
So we have now added to our conceptual model this relatively crisp Lexicon that caps that great tangled knot of our deep memories, proposing, in effect, that this lexicon is an element that we can deal with separately. We certainly don’t know that this is the case. It is humbling to realize how little is actually known about memory, either our memory of words or of our deep memories: whether they are stored separately or stored together; how they relate to each other; and whether they are localized or generalized throughout the different regions of the brain. Nevertheless, it is a convenient abstraction because, since we have no idea whatsoever as to how to handle or model deep memory itself, we do know something about how words are formed and how they are related to each other, and it seems reasonable to suppose that the words themselves and their relationships are organized somehow in a network fashion. So we naturally wish to conceptually pull these two elements, those that we have termed word memory and deep memory, apart, so that we can deal with them, while nevertheless acknowledging that in each of us they are in fact profoundly intertwined.
To rationalize this unnatural surgery we say to ourselves, It is necessary in the same way that to begin seriously to understand the workings of a complex modern airliner, certainly another instance of complex intermingling of function both logically and spatially, it is nevertheless desirable and practical to think separately about the airframe, the engines, the control surfaces, the avionics and, of course, the pilot, even though these logically discreet elements, complex as they may be in their own right, are necessarily highly entangled with each other in order to function properly. So we again say to ourselves that, as crude as this abstraction may be, it is a necessary starting point in the prying apart of the various elements of understanding and language so that the whole may be better understood.
We show here the functional and data elements that constitute understanding and language for each human, seen as clearly as we can delineate them now, together with the previous composite diagram of Understanding shown enclosed at the bottom.
Notice that the new elements are connected to those of Understanding through the data element: Lexicon which, as explained above, consists of a semantic lexicon connected intimately with each person’s deep memory network.
The new process element: 5 Language comprehension, interacts with the element within Understanding labeled: Lexicon, itself contiguous with the data element Deep Memory, each of these two memory elements within the container labeled Understanding.
This language process also interacts with another new data element: Natural syntax patterns which is gradually, and without explicit thought, built up by each of us to assist in the comprehension of sounds, their rhythms, syncopation and emphases, those phonics that help us to “make sense” of the flood of sounds we hear, and of the signs we see. This storage element contains grammatical meta-structures, language patterns that we learn over time, and autonomously as a young child simply by observing patterns of speech and their attendant indicators. The extent to which this syntax element is built into our brains by nature, that is to say, in some sense: “wet-wired”, has been, and remains, speculative.
The comprehension of language is an important stage preliminary to generating language. It is ordinarily at considerably less than one year of age before some language comprehension begins. And, importantly, this process is ordinarily achieved with little—and occasionally no—training other than the observation of objects and other people and their relationships. Though intentional training may speed this process along and may also ultimately enhance it, the extent of this benefit is not known.
In spite of the fact that vocal language generation is not a direct part of this project, in the interest of fullness it is shown here. So note the new process box: 6 Vocal Language generation next. As before, with language comprehension we don’t know just how this is performed so we’ve represented it simply as an abstract process that occurs. For now, we suppose that it draws upon the process box: 5 Language comprehension. There is of course another input, not shown: vocal control, the ability to intentionally control the larynx and the tongue, palate and lips, those delicate and subtle shapers of spoken language.
This functional element as some significance for us in a roundabout way: when a child is about one to two years of age, language generation begins to occur spontaneously, which is to say with little or no formal training. This complex accomplishment is achieved primarily through observation and, as with parrots, the natural inclination of our human tribe toward mimicry. Through mimicry and perhaps instruction, usually in the form of correction, the child develops and utilizes an informal grammar, one that is important to us. It is labeled here as: Natural Syntax Templates. Roughly speaking it consists of manners of speaking and in particular the various formats of the subject-object abstractions, an abstraction of the various manners in which phrases and sentences can legitimately be constructed in English. For youngsters in the company of others, the acquisition of this language-decoding if skill remains largely autonomous.
We now take the leap from listening and speech toward reading comprehension and then toward writing. These are represented by the process boxes: 7 Reading comprehension and 8 Written text generation, each of which ordinarily occurs, though perhaps only crudely, sometime between the ages of three and six.
Note now the element: Formal grammar, and the intermediation of training to facilitate each of these two processes. These elements and the instruction that nearly always goes with them, whether formal or informal, are of course dependent upon culture; just as there are many spoken languages in the world, there are as many, or more, written languages, both phonetic and idiogrammatic.
As with speech, reading and writing are social constructs; both the morphology of words and the syntax through which a relatively few symbols may be elaborated into a nearly infinite array of potentially complex statements depends strongly upon the needs and interests, the geography, the geology, and the climatology within which the culture is embedded, though, of course, many things languages express are identical across all human cultures since we have largely the same basic physiology, and while social interactions may differ somewhat among cultures the confluence among them is nevertheless remarkable.
Having attempted to outline language and its relationship to understanding, and the distinctions between them, we are now better prepared to proceed to an outline of the project itself.