Emergent language: Words as sounds, references, and concepts

Words are integral to language, and language is integral to the human experience. Words help us to think and communicate about information more effectively than we could without them. Yet we don’t often stop and consider the nature of words themselves or how it is that they can provide such amazing utility.

An individual’s initial acquisition of language involves processing words in increasingly complex ways. A word is, first and foremost, a sensory experience. Like many of the things to which they refer, words exist in the physical world. Whether as sounds, images, or movements, they are manifested in a way that can be perceived via the senses. At this level, words are distinct units of sensory information.

We perceive patterns in the physical world and internalize these as relational networks among various units of sensory information. As we are exposed to language, we develop a dedicated network of relationships among words. Over time, a word that is consistently paired with another unit of sensory information becomes more and more closely associated with that unit or object. Eventually, the word and the unit are so closely associated that there is a cognitive “mistake” by which the two become interchangeably integrated. We see an apple and subconsciously imagine the word “apple”, or we hear the word “apple” and subconsciously imagine an apple. At this level, words become references for other units of sensory information.

As we integrate more pairs of words and units of sensory information, we also integrate the networks of relationships among both. Words start to take on the associations of their referents and vice versa, and we start to differentiate among words for things, actions, and the qualities of things and actions. At the same time, we begin to learn words that are not integrated with their own specific units of sensory information. With these words, meaning must be generatively abstracted from networks of indirect relationships and dynamic, context-sensitive, sensory information. At this level, a word is simultaneously a representation of its referent (what the word signifies), its own functionality (how it operates and its relationships with other words), and the functionality of its referent (how it operates and its relationships to other referents).

We usually think about words and language at this third level, ignoring the other two levels from which the last emerges. But when we take these other levels into account, we have a better sense of the degrees and depths to which our sensory experiences inform language and, subsequently, our interpretations of conceptual information.