The Cognitive Complexity of Language

At Victoria Station, on a visit to London, you walk up to a (human) agent of the London Tourist Board and ask the question "Can you tell me how to get to the gallery in the square containing the monument?" to which the assistant replies "Travelling by Underground, take the Victoria Line to Green Park then change and take the Jubilee Line to Charing Cross". This apparently simple exchange involves a great deal of sophisticated cognitive processing, as we shall show in the pages that follow.

For example, the question, taken literally, appears to need a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer, in much the same way as do questions like "Can you speak Gujarati?" or "Can you touch your toes?" The assistant nevertheless recognises this as an indirect request for information and responds accordingly; to have just replied "Yes" would have been uncooperative. Consider also that your question has not specified which gallery, square, and monument you want to visit. But you have used the definite article 'the' in referring to each, so the assistant takes this to mean that you have a particular gallery, square and monument in mind, even if you are unable to name them. The assistant draws on her knowledge of London to identify them, and to work out the best route. In fact, she has drawn on even more sophisticated knowledge than this in order to answer you, since the form of your question was ambiguous. In terms of its structure alone the question does not allow the hearer to decide whether the monument is in the gallery or in the square; that is, whether the question is more like sentence A below or sentence B:

"Can you tell me how to get to ...

  1. ...the gallery in the [square containing the monument]?"
    ...the corkscrew in the [drawer containing the cutlery]?"
  2. ...the [gallery in the square] containing the monument?"
    ...the [compound in the zoo] containing the wildebeest?"

The assistant must have sophisticated knowledge about sentence structure in English, since the fact that there are alternative interpretations is not formally signalled in the sentence itself. She must also know something about plausible states of affairs -- in this case that monuments are more likely to be found in squares than in galleries -- in order to determine which of the alternative interpretations is the correct one. Finally, your question has made no mention of means of transport, nor that you would prefer to know the most direct route. But the assistant knows about the best way to travel across London, and understands the phrase 'get to' as implicitly asking for the most direct journey. She therefore suggests you take the Underground, and details the shortest way (out of probably thousands of ways) to get there.

Perhaps this example has helped you to appreciate that the ability to use language is one of the most important cognitive skills that we, as human beings, have. It is so complex and important that the philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) considered it to be the primary faculty that distinguishes human beings from the lower animals. More interesting for our purposes is Descartes' further claim that language distinguishes humans from machines.

Part of the "remarkable fact" of human language that Descartes highlighted in his writings is that, unlike the fixed patterns of bird calls and bee dance, or the pure mimicry of parrots, language is infinitely productive: human beings are, in principle, able to produce and understand an infinite number of novel sentences, the only limitations in practice being that speakers and hearers eventually get physically tired and ultimately die. But those limitations have nothing to do with the facts of language. Another part of the miracle is that, again unlike parrots, we can use language to convey meanings and thoughts to others, to get at the content behind the purely physical signals of sound waves or marks on paper. Finally, humans do not merely form meaningful sentences, but can give, as Descartes puts it, an "appropriately meaningful answer to what is said"; that is, they can use language in ways appropriate to the context. Linguists usually talk about these three facets of language under the headings syntax, semantics, and pragmatics respectively. We shall examine each of these areas later on in this tutorial.

Task. Look again at our informal comments on the types of knowledge that the Tourist Board assistant would have had to draw on to understand the question given at the beginning of this chapter. Try to make a first guess at which comments pertain to the syntax of the utterance, which to the semantics, and which to pragmatics. Revise your answers as necessary as we work through the chapter.