Chapter 1: Speaking in Tongues

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the defining characteristics of human language
  • Explore the concept of language families and their typology
  • Describe the research techniques employed by psycholinguists

Language is the most human of all qualities. No human population has been found that doesn’t have language and uses it not just for communication but as an instrument of cultural identity and transmission. Psycholinguistics is a discipline with roots in psychology and linguistics. It combines the theories from both to develop a scientific understanding of language.

Given the centrality of language to human culture, its analysis and investigation goes back thousands of years. The earliest formalization of a language was conducted almost 4000 years ago in Babylonia. As Sumerian was considered a language of prestige, word lists of the language were created to help people learn it as a foreign language. A similar position was help by Sanskrit in India. Around 1200 BCE, the oral transmission of the Vedas became standardized in as people started to notice that the language was changing over time (Staal, 1986). Strict rules were developed to preserve the oral scriptures which have survived to this day. Of the six canonical areas of knowledge considered necessary for the proper study of the Vedas, four dealt with language: śikṣā (phonetics and phonology), chandas (prosody), vyākaraṇa (grammar), and nirukta (etymology). This impetus towards standardization led to Ancient Indians analyzing the language for its properties and linguistics as a science was born. The 6th century BCE grammarian Pāṇini wrote the Aṣṭādhyāyī, a grammatical treatise on Sanskrit. The sounds of Sanskrit were organized into units based on place and manner of articulation (which we will discuss further in Chapter 2). These ideas influenced an interest in what appears to be early psycholinguistics in the form of the Sphoṭa school of linguistics. This school dealt with investigating how linguistic units are organized in the mind and produced as speech (we will visit this issue later in Chapter 9). At the same time, another school of linguistics was emerging in South India on India’s other classical language: Tamil. The Tolkāppiyam was written in the turn of the first millennium by an author known only as Tolkāppiyar (he who wrote the Tolkāppiyam). This adapted the ideas from Sanskrit grammarians to an unrelated language.

At the same time, the Ancient Greeks were engaged in discussion about the origins of language. In Cratylus, Plato presents the idea that the meaning of words emerges from a natural process. His student Aristotle delved further into rhetoric and poetry as well as looking at language in terms of its possibilities for defining logic. The 4th century Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus compiled the Latin grammar Ars Grammatica which dominated linguistic thought in the Middle Ages. Indeed we still use his ideas for studying most European languages.

The Chinese were no less interested in linguistics or Xiaoxue (小學). They divided their attention between three branches of knowledge: exegesis (Xungu, 訓詁), analysis of writing (Wenzi, 文字), and phonology (Yinyun, 音韻). The first glossary of word from the 3rd century BCE was Erya. Confucius was particularly concerned with the relationship between names and reality. In the Analects (12.11,13.3) he considers moral and social collapse as a result of people not acting according their named roles. Similar efforts can be seen in the Middle East with scholars attempting to standardize the description of Classical Arabic in the 8th century. Perhaps the most important injection of life to the field of linguistics was Sir William Jones’ 1786 book The Sanscrit Language [sic]. Jones proposed that Sanskrit and Persian resembled Classcial Greek and Latin starting off the field of comparative linguistics. Analyzing the sound rules that led to the divergence of these languages from a common ancestor has been a vibrant field within linguistics ever since.

Although linguistics has a venerable history across the world, psycholinguistics itself has a relatively recent history. Francis Galton studied word association as early as 1879 and Meringer and Mayer (1895) studied slips of the tongue which Freud (1901/1975) tried to analyse with his theory of psychodynamics.

The modern field of linguistics can be traced to a 1951 conference held at Cornell University, USA. In describing the conference, Osgood and Sebeok’s (1954) were the first to use the word “psycholinguistics.” During this time, the dominant paradigm in psychology was behaviourism. Psychologists following the behaviourist tradition considered observable phenomena such as input (stimuli) and output (response) to be the only things that need be investigated within psychology as a science. How the input was cogitated in the mind was considered too esoteric for scientific analysis because these processes were not measurable. As language was a type of behaviour, its acquisition and use were explained in behaviourist terms such as reinforcement and conditioning as explained in Skinner’s famous book Verbal Behaviour. Chomsky’s (1959) scathing review of Skinner’s book led to a revolution (of the cognitive variety) by discussing how Skinner’s explanations for language acquisition and use fell short of empirical evidence and couldn’t explain natural language. He argued for a new theory call transformation grammar to account for how underlying cognitive structure can account for people’s intuitive grasp of language production and comprehension. The field of psycholinguistics was abloom with the rarified perfume of new ideas attempting to find empirical evidence for this new theory. This exploration continues to this day as we also delve into this field to explore language.


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Psychology of Language Copyright © 2021 by Dinesh Ramoo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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