Thoughts on the Structure of Language

In the writings of Gottfried Leibniz can be found many elements relating to the possibility of a universal language. Specifically he was working on a constructed language as a concept which would gradually come to replace that of rationalized Latin as the natural basis for a projected universal language. Leibniz conceived of a ‘characteristica universalis’, an “algebra” capable of expressing all conceptual thought. This kind of algebra would include rules for symbolic manipulation, which he called a calculus ratiocinator.

Universal languages

Between 1646 and 1716 he performed a thorough study of mathematics and gave calculus the notation that we are now familiar with. He developed logic in new directions some of which supplied the roots for present day symbolic logic. His goal was to put reasoning on a firmer basis by reducing much of it to a matter of calculation that anyone could grasp. The characteristics would build an alphabet of human thought.

Mathematics and music though, are not considered, by some, as a full language in the sense that they cannot express any and all thought. They are cited as both requiring linking sentences to explain the context and flow of argument.  This very understanding of what a full language is can be problematic if we examine it as there does not obviously seem to be any singular language that ‘can express any and all thought’.  Equally, there is a logical problem of deferral where I know my experience is limited.

A philosophical discussion about the nature and origins of language can be found as early in the works of Plato. A subject of concern was whether language was man-made a social artifact or supernatural in origin. Aristotle called the basic unit of language gramma; by this he meant both spoken and written language. What involvement has the visual premis got to do with the expression and neural identification of concepts ?

modern pictograms
modern pictograms

In Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan glyphs we can see the natural world depicted in them both iconically and iconographically, yet one needs to be conditioned to the culture to read the Chinese, Egyptian or Mayan languages. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics compared language to a sheet of paper – ‘Thought is one side of the sheet, and sound the reverse side’:

“Just as it is impossible to cut the paper without cutting corresponding shapes on both sides, so it proves to be impossible in the linguistic case, he held to isolate thought from sound, or sound from thought. The two matching configurations are back and front of a single form of experience.

They are not separate things artificially brought together for purposes of linguistic expression.  He held that each language correlates sound and thought in its own unique way…  In this sense, speakers of language A do not inhabit the same mental world as speakers of a different language B, even if they live in the same physical space.” (Page 255, The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics)

Full writing cannot be divorced from speech; words and the scripts that employ words involve both sounds and signs. What has sound to do with the actual process of reading and writing ? Writing and reading are inextricably bound to speech, whether or not we move our lips. It is suggested that Chinese characters do not speak directly to the mind without the intervention of sound although both Chinese and some western scholars vary in this opinion.

A universal language would thus have aim to be independent or encompassing of any of the spoken languages of the world and dependent upon the all the concepts essential for high level philosophical, political and scientific communications. The linguist Noam Chomsky posits that all natural languages share a set of innate universal principles, which are hard wired into our brains at birth. There are software and graphic designers who also share in these philosophies.


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A universal language is then a hypothetical historical or mythical language said to be spoken and understood by all or most of the world’s population; or, in some circles, is said to be understood by all living things, beings, and objects alike. In some conceptions, it may be the primary language of all speakers, or the only existing language; in others, it is a fluent secondary language used for communication between groups speaking different primary languages.

Some mythological or religious traditions state that there was once a single universal language among all people, or shared by humans and supernatural beings, however, this is not supported by historical evidence. The idea of a universal language is at least as old as the Biblical story of Babel.

The biblical story of Babel’s fall states that there was once a time of a universal Adamic language – and then something happened, the confusion of tongues, analogous to the ‘Fall of Man’. The confusion of tongues (confusio linguarum) is the initial fragmentation of human languages as popularly referred to in the Book of Genesis 11:1–9, as a result of the construction of the Tower of Babel.

It is implied in the myth that prior to the event, humanity spoke a single language, either identical to or derived from the “Adamic language” spoken by Adam and Eve in Paradise. In the confusion of tongues, this language was split into seventy or seventy-two dialects, depending on tradition.

universal language

The diversity of human experience is reflected in it’s language.  Cultural artifacts illustrate how different, and unified in our difference we are.  Take for example the collection of books which constitute the various bibles.  There is no single version or interpretation of what has come to be known as the Christian tradition that straddles all the communities which relate to the identity.

The bible is a library of writings which have become entwined with each other from many different cultures across centuries and languages.  As language has evolved, so have the numbers of versions and interpretations.  Where written language was based on consonants with no vowels, there have been introduced the innovations of written vowels that changed the nature of the communication.

The structure of the written language gave different affordances, and where once lineages of oral tradition were the vehicle for passing understandings on to others, many varied versions sprung up on papyrus and papers.  To use an example to relate these variations, a written word in an ancient language could mean many different things which were to be interpreted by introducing vowels when spoken; in modern English we can relate to this by understanding that context and intention lend definition and meaning to the words in situ.

In the Book of Genesis 10:5 we find a quotation “Of these were the isles of the nations divided in their lands, every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations”.  The scholar will ask which version of the book ?  Who wrote it and who has translated it from which language/s ?  The more I venture towards trying to establish a fact the more I understand it is of my creation – a fiction.

Many mythical facts have been pursued over time, like the singular origins of language.  Understanding how I socially construct meaning is one of the things which I take away from this journey which is a study of language.

This kind of quest for a universal language, universal understanding and rules which underlie all of what we encounter has been a powerful driver to people over the millennia.  It seems, though, in this mythical quest for universals, people have continually met with more and more exceptions to rules which they create.  This kind of quest might not be a bad thing though as it has also had the effect of driving people to discover more cultures and encounter new ways of seeing and thinking.

My fascination with language originates with the idiosyncratic nature of the so-called ‘English’ language. This hotch-potch bag crucible is actually woven together of many different elements from many varied cultures and the languages which hail from them.  Coming from a dyslexic point of view the structure of language has always been intriguing.  I have noticed the trends and fads of a moveable feast which have moved around me.

I have noticed the way that language structures the thoughts people have and how language is used to represent the thinking which people have developed – two distinct things.

Samuel Johnson wrote in the preface to his dictionary “Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things they denote”.  The way that thought is structured, and the thoughts which people have are endless in their variety; moving and changing with times and fashions, social position and opportunity.

Language helps to construct our thoughts in many ways.  The words we use and in which order give different affordances to realisation and understanding.  We find this matter discussed in the area of science.  If we can give no definition to a word then it is problematic in terms of how useful it is.  A road is ten ‘trinkles’ long only becomes meaningful when we articulate that one ‘trinkle’ is 326 centimeters. The question ‘can you think of a word which has no meaning ?’ promotes an inquiry into the nature of language…

Psycholinguistics is an interesting area of study if we are to think about how we are structuring our language, or how language is structured. It examines the cognitive processes involved in generating a grammatical and meaningful sentence out of vocabulary and grammatical structures, as well as the processes of understanding language.


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I first became interested in the area of psycholinguistics whilst reading Kate Fillion’s book ‘Lip service’.  In it she examines the gendered inferences which are structured into the language of our cultural grand narratives.  She writes in the introduction:

“Women love, men lust. Women are nurturing, men are aggressive.  Women care most about relationships, but men care most about looking out for number one.  These old stereotypes are continually repackaged, recycled, and reinforced in bestsellers, box office hits, and everyday conversation.  Most of us are so accustomed to thinking of men and women as psychological opposites that we don’t even notice that our actual experiences contradict our beliefs.”

Lip Service Kate Fillion

The inequities of our society are found ingrained in the language we use, hidden in silences and assumptions; inferences which are carried into our doing because they are found in the structure of our language. The gender inequalities which we find in the UK 2017 can be surfaced when we examine how things are being expressed.  The tacit (implied without being stated) dictates of our society can be found obviated in sexual politics where ‘women are meant to be like X, and men are meant to be like Y’. Fillion deconstructs this (page 229):

“Women are, however, capable of all the forms of physical and sexual aggression that we have come to think of as uniquely male, and we can no more blame men for women’s violence than we can blame women for men’s.  This is not to suggest that women are equally violent – they are not – or that male violence is not a pressing public issue.  It most certainly is.  But the capacity for aggression is not instrinsically male, and the widely held assumption that men are by nature aggressive while women are by nature passive and nurturing is simply not borne out by the facts”.

Moving from the more overt and testing applications of this idea to more subtle ones in our every day experience, it seems plain on examination of history and historic sources, literature and published sciences, that women have been written out of much of the production of culture.  In my everyday encounters with day to day language, structured into the spoken word – as well as the written – it is obvious that prestige jobs have become associated with the masculine tense.

The doctors, judges, lawyers, politicians, engineers and so on become expressed casually as he’s and him’s.  The gender inequalities which are found structurally through out our society is reflected in the structure of the language which surrounds us.  This shapes the ways we conceive of people and the values we attach to what we encounter.  Gender is but one example of how psycholinguistic analyses can reveal the inferences and information which is conveyed through the structure of the language we are using and exposed to.


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by Alex Dunedin