Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

From sound to meaning: hearing, speech and language
From sound to meaning: hearing, speech and language

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2 The brain's task: the structure of language

2.1 Preliminaries

To talk about how human language works, we need to establish the meaning of some key terms. The study of language and languages is called linguistics, and linguistics relates closely to biological psychology, as we shall see. Linguists talk about the grammar of a language. By this they don't mean a set of rules about how people should speak. They mean the set of subconscious rules we actually use in formulating phrases and sentences of speech. In this sense, there is no such thing as bad grammar as far as linguistics is concerned. There are just many different languages and dialects whose grammars differ from each other to a greater or lesser extent. When linguists discuss grammars, they consider them to be psychologically real. That is, when they say, for example, that there is a rule for forming the plural in English which is ‘Add an s’, this is actually a hypothesis that somewhere in the brain of English speakers there is a neural network which carries out this procedure. So a grammar is really a set of hypotheses about the brain.

Grammars have several parts. Phonology is the set of rules about how sounds can and cannot be put together in a language. For example, brick is a perfectly good English word, whereas btick is not possible. This is because the rules about which sounds can go together in English do not allow two heavy consonants like b and t to go together at the beginning of a syllable. These phonological rules can differ somewhat from language to language. The word pterodactyl is pronounced as written in Greek, where sequences of consonants are allowed. In English, though, such sequences are not allowed, so when we adopted the Greek word, it was pronounced terodactyl. Sequences that are allowed by the grammar are called grammatical; those that are not allowed are called ungrammatical. The convention in linguistics is to mark ungrammatical sequences with an asterisk, as in *btick.

Morphology is the part of the grammar that deals with the structure of words. Rules like ‘Add s to make the plural’ are morphological rules. Syntax deals with the rules that govern the way individual words are put together into sentences. For example, in English, sentences (2a) and (2b) below are grammatical and (2c) is not, because of the syntactic rules of the language.

  • (2a) The cat sat on the mat.

  • (2b) On the mat sat the cat.

  • (2c) *The cat sat the mat on.

You can often guess the meaning of sentences that violate syntactic rules from the context and the words used, but you have a strong intuition that they are not quite right nonetheless. Semantics is the part of linguistics that deals with meaning. Meaning and grammaticality are two rather separate things. For example, in (3) below, one of the sentences is syntactically fine but meaningless, at least if taken literally, whilst the other is ungrammatical but has a clear meaning.

  • (3a) Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

  • (3b) The man wanted going to the cinema.


In example (3), which sentence is ungrammatical and which is meaningless?


Sentence (3a) is meaningless (how can something be colourless and green? how can an idea sleep, especially in a furious manner?), but nonetheless is put together just like a grammatical English sentence. Sentence (3b) seems to mean something like ‘The man wanted to go to the cinema’ or ‘The man wanted taking to the cinema’, but we know that it is not a good sentence.

Grammatical rules often involve classes of words. The key classes are nouns and verbs. Nouns typically denote objects. Book, chair, man, cloud and water are all nouns. Verbs typically denote actions or processes. Go, come, ask, eat, harass are all verbs. Verbs have a subject, the person or thing doing the action, and they may have an object, the person or thing to which the action is done. A verb with no object is called intransitive. To sleep is an intransitive verb, since you can say I slept but not *I slept the man. To kick is a transitive verb, since you don't just kick in general, you kick someone or something.


Can you think of any exceptions to the generalisation that nouns denote objects and verbs denote actions or processes?


Nouns like arrival, explosion and assault seem to denote actions or processes rather than objects.

Note that nouns such as arrival, explosion and assault are derived from verbs, in this case to arrive, to explode, to assault. They are called verbal nouns. The verb to be doesn't really describe a process; in fact, it doesn't really have any meaning of its own, but instead is used to join words together in a neutral way, as in I am tall.

As well as nouns and verbs there are other, less important categories of words, such as adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.

  • Adjectives modify nouns to give us more information about their properties. Colour words are adjectives, as in ‘the green man’ or ‘the black cat’.

  • Adverbs modify verbs, giving us more information about how the action was done, as in ‘he arrived stealthily’ or ‘she shouted loudly’.

  • Prepositions and conjunctions are the little linking words that connect everything together, like to, with, on, for, under, but, however and and.


For each of the following sentences, identify the nouns and verbs. Say whether the verb is transitive or intransitive, and identify the subject and object.

  • (4a) The man kicked the ball.

  • (4b) The boy sulked.

  • (4c) The dog ran after the cat with the attitude problem.


  • (4a) Man and ball are nouns, kicked is the verb. The verb is transitive. The subject is the man and the object is the ball.

  • (4b) Boy is a noun and the verb is sulked. The verb is intransitive, with the boy as its subject.

  • (4c) Dog, cat and attitude problem are nouns. The verb is ran after, which is transitive. The dog is the subject and the cat with the attitude problem is the object.