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

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5 Questions and answers

Question 1

Define each of the following: grammar, phonology, syntax, semantics, noun, verb, subject, object.


Grammar: The set of unconscious rules or principles that the speaker of a human language brings to bear when producing or understanding speech.

Phonology: The part of grammar dealing with permissible combinations of sounds into words.

Syntax: The part of grammar concerned with the rules for legitimately combining words into sentences.

Semantics: The part of grammar dealing with the meanings of words and sentences.

Noun: A class of word that can take the role of the subject of a sentence. A noun usually denotes an object or person, though this is not always the case.

Verb: A class of word that usually requires the presence of at least one noun to form a grammatical sentence. Verbs usually denote actions or processes.

Subject: The primary grammatical role a noun may play in a sentence. The role of the subject may be as the doer or initiator of an action, or bearer of a quality.

Object: Any noun in a sentence other than the subject. It often denotes the target or recipient of an action.

Question 2

For each of the following words, identify the vowels and the consonants which are produced when the word is spoken. Bear in mind that English spelling doesn't bear a close relationship to the way the language is spoken today. The first example is done for you. Note: The precise spelling you use is unimportant for present purposes – just try to spell it like it actually sounds. The point of the question is to identify phonological units. (These will be slightly different depending on which dialect of English you have.)



These answers are for the author's own Southern England dialect of English.


1 This is a sound, very common in English, called schwa, which has no consistent representation in our spelling.

2 This is pronounced as one sound.

3 This is a difficult vowel to capture using the ordinary alphabet, but it is a single sound.

Did you find yourself tempted to put in letters because they are there in the spelling, only to find on careful thought that they are not in the spoken form at all?

Question 3

Use the information you noted down as part of Activity 1 to fill in the following table comparing the vocal communication systems of vervet monkeys with human language, using the options on the right:

Vervet callsHuman language
Number of meaningslarge, small
Generativitypresent, absent
Elements can be combinedyes, no
Meaning depends on contextyes, no
Syntaxpresent, absent
Noun/verb distinctionpresent, absent
Acoustic distinctiveness of different signalsgreat, small


Vervet callsHuman language
Number of meaningssmalllarge
Elements can be combinednoyes
Meaning depends on contextnoyes
Noun/verb distinctionabsentpresent
Acoustic distinctiveness of different signalsgreatsmall

Question 4

Explain in your own terms why each of the following sentences might be difficult for people to process when heard aloud:

  1. The dog it was that the cat chased.

  2. The boy the man the woman knew liked went away.

  3. The horse raced past the barn fell.


  1. The first noun you come to is not actually the subject of the sentence. The subject is the cat, and the object is the dog, but they appear in the opposite order.

  2. This is what is known as a centre-embedded sentence. This means that the ‘went away’ actually binds with ‘the boy’, but there is other material embedded in the middle which makes this difficult to see.

  3. This is what is called a ‘garden-path’ sentence. As you read it, you at first think it means that the horse raced past the barn. It actually can only mean that ‘the horse [which was] raced past the barn fell’ but this only becomes clear when you reach the ‘fell’. This means you have to revise your sketch of what the structure of the sentence is. It is normal to have to read it a few times before seeing that it was not the barn that fell, and the horse did not race, but was raced by someone else.

Question 5

How do hair cells detect sound, and how is this signal converted into neural activity?


Hair cells have tiny hairs (cilia) on them. Vibrations from the air are transmitted into the cochlea, where they cause the hairs to move. Within the cell, movements of the cilia are converted into electrical impulses. Hair cells have synapses with neurons of the auditory nerve, and so their electrical changes become action potentials which are transmitted to the brain.

Question 6

What are the symptoms of fluent aphasia? How do these differ from those of non-fluent aphasia?


In fluent aphasia, the sentences are complete and the grammatical relations are often normal. However, the information content is very low. The words chosen are either generalised or inappropriate in meaning. By contrast, in non-fluent aphasia, the right content words are selected but they are not strung together into full sentences.

Question 7

How do we know that the capacity for language is localised predominantly in the left hemisphere?


There are several lines of evidence:

  1. Brain damage to the left hemisphere causes aphasia more often than does damage to the right hemisphere.

  2. Injection of a rapid-acting anaesthetic into the left carotid artery (which suppresses the left cerebral hemisphere) tends to cause loss of speech, whereas injection into the right carotid does so less often. A similar procedure can be done with electrical stimulation of the cortex.

  3. 'Split-brain’ patients whose corpus callosum has been severed tend to be able to talk about the stimuli on the right side of their visual field or in their right hand. The right side is connected to the left hemisphere of the brain.

  4. Brain imaging techniques such as PET scanning.

Question 8

What are the three stages of sentence processing that have been identified by studies using ERPs? What is the name of the ERP component associated with each stage?


Phonology makes available a basic representation of the sentence.

  1. An initial syntactic analysis assigns a basic structure to the sentence (starting within 200 ms). This stage is called LAN.

  2. The meaning of key words is processed (normally within 400 ms). This stage is known as N400.

  3. Syntax and semantics are integrated (normally within 600 ms). If they do not fit together, the sentence, which is still stored in short-term memory, is re-analysed. This stage is known as P600.