1.2 Mental Grammar

Linguistics is part of the broad field of cognitive science, which studies the human mind. Linguistics focus specifically on the mental grammar: the system that all speakers of a language have in their minds, which allows them to understand each other. The mental grammar of every language includes phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

Check Yourself

1. Newspaper headlines occasionally have unexpectedly funny interpretations.  One example is: Two cars were reported stolen by the police yesterday. Which part of your mental grammar leads to the possibility that the police could have done the stealing or the reporting in this headline?

  • Phonetics.
  • Phonology.
  • Morphology.
  • Syntax.
  • Semantics.

2. Newfoundland English has some characteristic differences to standard Canadian English.  The following sentences are grammatical in Newfoundland English: I eats toast for breakfast every day. You knows the answer to that question. What part of the mental grammar of Newfoundland English is different to Canadian English in these examples?

  • Phonetics.
  • Phonology.
  • Morphology.
  • Syntax.
  • Semantics.

3. When speakers of Hawaiian pronounce the English phrase, “Merry Christmas”, it sounds like: mele kalikimaka. What part of the mental grammar of Hawaiian is responsible for how the English phrase gets pronounced?

  • Phonetics.
  • Phonology.
  • Morphology.
  • Syntax.
  • Semantics.

Video Script

We know now that Linguistics is the scientific study of human language.  It’s also important to know that linguistics is one member of the broad field that is known as cognitive science.

The cognitive sciences are interested in what goes in the mind.  And in linguistics, we’re specifically interested in how our language knowledge is represented and organized in the human mind.

Think about this:  you and I both speak English. I’m speaking English right here on this video and you’re listening and understanding me. Right now I’ve got some idea in my mind that I want to express. I’m squeezing the air out of my lungs; I’m vibrating my vocal folds, and I’m manipulating parts of my mouth to produce sounds. Those sounds are captured by a microphone and now they’re playing on your computer. In response to the sound coming from your computer speaker or your headphones, your eardrums are vibrating and sending signals to your brain, with the result that the idea in your mind is something similar to the idea that was in my head when I made this video.

There must be something that your mind and my mind have in common to allow that to happen: some shared system that allows us to understand each other’s ideas when we speak.  In linguistics, we call that system the  mental grammar and our primary goal is to find out what that shared system is like.

All speakers of all languages have a mental grammar:  the shared system that lets speakers of a language understand each other.  In Essentials of Linguistics we devote most of our attention to the mental grammar of English, but we’ll also use our scientific tools and techniques to examine some parts of the grammars of other languages.

We’ll start by looking at sound systems: how speakers make particular sounds and how listeners hear these sounds.  If you’ve ever tried to learn a second language you know that the sounds in the second language are not always the same as in your first language.  Linguists call the study of speech sounds phonetics.

Then we’ll look at how the mental grammar of each language organizes sounds in the mind; this is called phonology.

We will examine the strategies that languages use to form meaningful words; this is called morphology.

Then we take a close look at the different ways that languages combine words to form phrases and sentences.  The term for that is syntax.

We also look at how the meanings of words and sentences are organized in the mind, which linguists call semantics.

These five things are the core pieces of the mental grammar of any language:  they’re the things all speakers know about a language. All languages have phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics in their grammars.

These five areas are also the core subfields of theoretical linguistics.  Just as there are other kinds of language knowledge we have, there are other branches of the field of linguistics, and we’ll take a peek at some of those other branches along the way.

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