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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Comments

Neil Cohn

I will confess that I have not yet read the article in reference, but I push a related issue... why should we assume that grammatical categories (nouns, verbs, etc) refer to semantic/spatial functions at all?

Semantically, nouns can be almost anything — objects (ball), events (concert), places (home), substances (sugar), etc. Verbs have huge semantic flexibility as well.

Given the arguments from people arguing over both semantics and syntax, might it make sense that they are both right by splitting this domains into two parallel interfacing structures?

Evolutionarily, this buys you a whole lot, because then you can push the developmental trajectory quite a ways with conceptual structure alone, holding out on syntax for as long as possible given its very specific and constrained function.
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BLOGGER: The commenter asks an important question: <>

Traditionally language has been divided into three components: phonology, semantics, and syntax. The meaning of meaning has always been a bit mysterious, but whatever meaning is, semantics was assumed to cover it. However, over the past 50 years Chomsky and followers have made a concerted effort to bring as much of meaning as possible under the syntax component. The result is that in natural languages the semantics/syntax boundary often seems a bit blurry. Meaning can emerge from either side.

On this blog, I've been trying to find a sharper line. I am persuaded that the semantic side of speech pilots attention. That's old news for regular readers. Newer is my growing suspicion that syntax can be sharply defined by saying it organizes the relationship between where our attention goes. I suspect that once the story is clearly told the distinction between semantics and syntax will again be clear even though "meaning" spans the two components.

watercat

In visual languages the syntax IS perceptual. In your leopard example, one would make the word for leopard and for ape at two different points in space, probably by using both the right and left hands for figure and ground respectively. The verb moves the leopard sign, toward the ape sign or away from it. Should the leopard be in a tree, its sign would start out higher than the apes, with the movement down and then horizontal, tracing the path taken by the actual leopard.

The verb root is the path movement, its beginning and end points incorporated nouns for subject and object, and relationships amongst them map iconicly into the spatial grammar.

These semantically transparent 3D grammars are evident in early gesture even before it is possible to analyze them in syntactic terms. They only become abstract and obscure when it is necessary to translate them into linear acoustic symbols.

watercat

In visual languages the syntax IS perceptual. In your leopard example, one would make the word for leopard and for ape at two different points in space, probably by using both the right and left hands for figure and ground respectively. The verb moves the leopard sign, toward the ape sign or away from it. Should the leopard be in a tree, its sign would start out higher than the apes, with the movement down and then horizontal, tracing the path taken by the actual leopard.

The verb root is the path movement, its beginning and end points incorporated nouns for subject and object, and relationships amongst them map iconicly into the spatial grammar.

These semantically transparent 3D grammars are evident in early gesture even before it is possible to analyze them in syntactic terms. They only become abstract and obscure when it is necessary to translate them into linear acoustic symbols.

watercat

Sorry about the double post. Don't know how that happened; my brain doesn't handle space very well. or delete, or shift, or enter.....

JanetK

I have a few observations:
(1) I wish I could find where I got this from, but it is forever lost in the past. Aphasias were described as falling into two groups: utterances were grammatical but the words were inappropriate, meaningless or random; or, the utterances were non-grammatical while the words were appropriate but did not include those with a grammatical function. Communication was impossible with the grammatical but non-semantic type but was possible (although difficult) with the semantic but non-grammatical type. This has made me think that words are at the core of language rather than syntax (although both are needed for easy communication). Maybe some of your readers have a more accurate picture of this than me and can enlighten us.
(2) I think that our communication is heavily metaphoric. Our culture and personal experience gives us a huge set of ‘idea maps’. Rather than pointing to physical objects in our shared immediate environment, we can ‘point’ to aspects of our shared metaphoric ‘idea maps’. We can have joint attention on internal perceptions. If someone refers to the postal system, I bring to my mind’s eye my map of the notion of a postal system. They can use words to point to ‘parcels’, ‘addresses’, ‘routes’, ‘sorting’ etc. The metaphoric ‘idea maps’ can be traced back to elementary perception and motor functions such as the train of noticing something – wanting it – reaching for it – obtaining it. We would be born with a few (or a few dozen) of these elementary ‘idea maps’ and would spend the rest of our lives creating more and more specialized copies (for example: simple movement, then a journey, then delivery of letters, then retrieving data from a computer memory – each a metaphor based on the previous ‘idea map’). Our words have the function of ‘pointing’ to elements in these ‘idea maps’ and that is also what their meaning is based on. Syntax would make the process easier, faster and less error prone by making more clear the relationship between the elements in the ‘idea map’. But syntax cannot call up an ‘idea map’ in another person’s mind or identify elements in that ‘idea maps’. Words do the pointing and therefore it is the words that have the meaning.
(3) It seems we have no choice about how we basically perceive the world. It is three dimensional (whether it really is or not). It has an up and down, towards and away, left and right that are all based on our bodies. It has discrete objects (whether reality is discrete or not). It has light and dark, colour and movement. It remains stationary and we move through it (whether movement is relative or not). Several of our original ‘idea maps’ must be just this inborn model used to perceive of the world. It would then be no wonder that a large number of spatial metaphors would be deeply embedded in our language. But I cannot see them as being the only basic ones. Ones based on intention would be just a basic.

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