Language and Thinking

Some Topics

Tuning Sounds into Words

Dolphins, whales and humans are among the animals that use sounds to communicate more complicated meanings, using strings of sounds of some duration. The idea of a “word” is based on the recognition of a short burst of sound waves and the association of this sound with a built-in dictionary of standard meanings. The brain lexicon or “dictionary” associates words with memories of experiences. Words gain deeper meaning by repeated association with experiences. Words that derive meaning by association with other words are less meaningful. Dictionaries that relate words to other words reveal little about the experiential meaning of words.

Words often act as signals that activate specific responses. Some words are powerful and elicit strong responses automatically and other words are natural and indifferent.” God” and “Fuck” are strong words. “The, and, is “are neutral words. Rude or obscene words tend to be instant triggers of emotional responses if they are unuttered in the wrong context. The strong emotional response to some words and not others is evidence that some sounds act at receptors for immediate emotional responses. Direct-acting sounds cause responses before they become conscious. These direct-acting sounds have a different brain presentation than words of a more neutral and abstract nature that require more elaborate decoding and do not trigger emotional responses.

Speech has evolved from ancient animal sound communications. Humans speak naturally and spontaneously. Children learn the language spoken around them. Speech is mimetic and is connected to body language and non-speech vocalizations. Arm and hand motions are closely linked to words and can take over communications if you cannot speak. Speech functions are concentrated in the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain with different right and left allocation of function. Speech required at least two brain innovations that increase sound processing ability:

1. A fast and reliable “working memory” that hold word sounds briefly so that the meaning of sentences can be assembled.

2. A larger, long-term storage of word sounds a brain dictionary of sounds that is well integrated with other domains in the brain. A small number of sounds are combined to form a much larger number of words.

The production of words involves specific adaptations of the human vocal tract that compromise other functions such as breathing and swallowing. The trachea is longer and the vocal cords in the larynx obstruct airflow to produce word sounds. The nose and throat act as sound resonating chambers that help to shape word sounds. The tongue and lips form consonants. The brain is adapted to coordinate airflow with all the sound-shaping movements that articulate sounds. Sound shaping movements are coordinated with all other communicative movements of the eyes, face, head, arms and trunk. Speaking is a whole-body, kinetic activity. Concepts flow from whole body kinetic activity in the form of metaphors based on movement in spacetime.

Human auditory perception is adapted to the specific demands of decoding speech sounds into linguistic segments. The temporal lobe receives sounds and tunes into sound features that form phonemes by separating waveforms that carry meaning from a stream of other sounds. In most languages, pitch and volume variations form part of the semantic meaning.

In all languages, pitch and volume variations carry emotional meaning, linked to the semantic content. Binder et al used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that sound identification occurs just in front of the primary auditory cortex and activation of the inferior frontal region was associated with the response to a sound.

A small collection of standard sounds (phonemes) is required to make a language. The sounds are stored in the temporal lobe of the left hemisphere in most right-handed people. You learn words by hearing phoneme combinations as morphemes, and you imitate making the sounds. Words obtain meanings by association with a rich array of different kinds of memories that are linked to sound experiences. Humans acquire the sounds that form the local language as children and then shut down the phoneme library at about age ten. The younger you are, the easier it is to learn one or more languages.

Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection, I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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 The author is Stephen Gislason  and the publisher is Persona Digital Books.