On language

by Neil Rickert

Most of my post related to cognition have been concerned with individual cognition. Language, of course, is very much social, so I have not commented much about it.

There’s in interesting post up at the Electric Agora:

The post is by Mark English, one of the frequent contributors to Electric Agora.

I won’t be saying much about that post, but I do urge you to read it and the comments. I’m using it as an excuse to present some of my own opinions about language.

Syntax and semantics

Noam Chomsky is well known for his ideas about the syntactic structure of natural languages. However, I’m more of a Chomsky skeptic. Chomsky’s work does give very useful insight into formal languages, including computer languages. And it is probably useful in attempts to program computers to deal with natural language. But I do not see it as very useful for understanding human use of language.

My own view is that natural languages are driven by semantics rather than by syntax. I very much doubt that there is a “universal grammar” organ in the brain. I view the brain as a semantic engine, rather than a syntactic engine. And I see our ability to have meaningful relations with the world as arising from biology.


On this view, meaning originates outside of language and has to do with our relations with the world. Once a language is available, we can carve up our meaning into parts which we then attach to various words. So meanings of words is unavoidably related to language, but there can be a broad idea of meaning which does not originate in language.

For example, our meanings for “cat”, “dog”, “tree”, “flower” and many other words reflects our experience with the named entities. On the other hand, I am a mathematician and most of what I know about mathematics came via language. So my meanings for mathematical terms are more constrained by language than are my meanings for words that refer to every day things.


As I see it, syntax arises as ad hoc rules used to reduce ambiguity. As a language community develops, these ad hoc rules eventually become social conventions within that community.

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