Chapter 2 — What Are Words?
At two and a half years old, my youngest daughter was excited for Halloween. Like many girls her age, she loved Disney princesses. Also like many children her age, she had difficulty pronouncing r.
A few weeks before Halloween my wife caught this on video.
“Addison,” she asked, “who are you going to be for Halloween?”
“Ay-yo,” Addison replied.
“No, Ay–yol,” she insisted.
“No,” she sighed, then cleared her throat. “Ay— —yo.”
“No, Ay-yo,” she said, now frustrated.
What is uniquely human about language—how does Addison’s Elmer Fudd like rhotacism illustrate what it is?
Humans seem to have a rather unique ability to understand and generate language. However, the fundamentals of human language are puzzles that Life solved millions of years before humans ever said their first word. Have you ever asked yourself why animals can also learn to understand our words?
The ability to understand speech, and even music, is not uniquely human. The ear of any animal—and the neural-network it connects to—is able to capture patterns of low energy disturbances in a fluid and recognize the signature created by meaningful events. In his book Harnessed, Mark Changizi makes a compelling argument that “the appearance of [human] instincts for language and music is an illusion.” He lays out the evidence that human created speech and music have harnessed the ancient biology of the ear, and “sound like [timeless] nature.”
This should seem obvious. Our family dog Mocha can understand meaningful words. The ability to articulate the word Ariel correctly, or at all, is not required to recognize the unique sound of it. Mocha can recognize words even when she is not able to recreate the sounds herself. Humans, and our pets, can assign meaning to words so readily because words sound like meaningful events in nature. Sounding like nature makes it easy for our ancient ears to capture and recognize the signature of words—to really hear them. You may think that most dogs have only learned to recognize the sounds of Sit, Stay, Shake (if that); but according to Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in canine intelligence, the average dog can understand about 165 words. With training a border collie named Chaser displayed knowledge of 1,022 words. I am certain that is a record that can be broken.
What is uniquely human is our vocal tract agility. We are able to create a large range of tones and manipulate the sound with the dexterous articulation of our tongue, cheeks, and lips. With the help of our palate, teeth, and our oral and nasal cavities we are able to mimic a nearly endless range hits, slides, and rings—the building blocks of all event sounds in nature. The human voice is able to mimic the slap and rumble of thunder, the snap of a twig, the chatters of pebbles sliding off a boulder, even the roar of an engine. Dogs may understand our words, but we can speak them.
The ability to use language socially—to hear, understand, recreate event sounds, and to be understood—has allowed us to communicate symbolically, and to develop complex language. As a practiced architect of sentence building, you see words as discrete building blocks. What you might not realize is that this discretization is more illusory than real. We speak mostly in phrases. We hear mostly phrases. Inotherwords, your concept of words as discrete buildingblocks is informed largely by your ability to readandwrite. In written text, words are intentionally manipulated as discrete units. That raises the question, when are children conscious enough of their use of discrete words to assign their identity to specific written word forms?
Our family dog Mocha may understand “Go inside” as a phrase, but it’s a leap to assume she fully understands the grammar and the vocabulary—
Go. Go where? In or out? In side or out side? As social users of language, children are free to experiment and to experience being understood. This mutual understanding drives their language development to mastering increasingly complex grammar and increasingly large vocabularies. But does this mean they have mastered the abstract concept of where one word stops and an other word begins?
Nouns and verbs—perhaps even many adjectives, adverbs, and some propositions—can be communicated between humans fairly easily without a shared language. These are content words. But function words—especially determiners, classifiers, and particles—are so abstract that most language users, especially children, only use them correctly out of procedural habit, not out of any logical understanding or direct grammar instruction. Yet these function words make up over 40% of all the words of our communications.
The most common of these function words top the Dolch and Fry sight word lists. From my own analysis of the most popular children’s books, the six function words the, and, to, of, in, and that alone account for 15% of the text. While we may deliberately select which nouns and verbs to use when forming a sentence, these function words are placed into our spoken sentences with a high degree of automaticity—subconsciously. Children have rarely, if ever, used these words in isolation—or even thought of them as isolated words.
Because of this automaticity, when children attempt to follow the text of a given narration it can be confusing. Even with a conceptual understanding that a space represents the border between words, does progression from one word to the next happen rhythmically with each syllable? Or with each content word? Somewhere inbetween? Furthermore, connecting function words to some sort of meaning in the brain is more difficult. It is easier for a child to learn to recognize the written form of her own name than it is to learn the written form of the function word all of us use at least once every few minutes—the.
Have you ever tried to describe what a word is? Think about how you would describe it to a child. How would you would you even start to define what a word is to a aborigine who has no written language and with whom you share no common spoken language? Grass would be easy enough. The sun and moon? Sure. But word?
The great news is you don’t need to describe what a word is to your child! There are a great many things you don’t need to explain. You just need to be aware that others may see the world very differently than you do, and may be totally perplexed by seemingly simple attempts at teaching abstract concepts …