Two Keys to Understanding Language

Whenever attempting to learn or study a language, being able to recognize and internalize the structure is key to understanding and forming sentences.

Two concepts contribute on a great scale to that understanding: linear order and hierarchical structure.

Without these two notions, the structure of language, or, in this case, the English language, would be incredibly difficult to discern or pick apart.

By parsing sentences using the idea of linear order and hierarchical structure and being able to properly identify the sentence constituents and heads and attributes of phrases, it is much easier to dissect and digest the complicated subject of grammar.

Words can be presented in any order. But if someone wants to communicate effectively with a native speaker of a language, the words must be arranged in a particular sequence in the language if it is to convey meaning to those speakers (Karman, Introduction). This is the concept of linear order.

If a grouping of words were presented in the following order, “plate mom Rich’s asked him his clean to,” they make no sense to an English speaker. But if they are presented in a proper linear order, “Rich’s mom asked him to clean his plate,” there is now a clear and discernable message. This is part of the structure of English. Words must be presented in a certain order if anyone is to understand. The order of the various sentence constituents determines how we understand the words.

A constituent is a word or group of words that fill a “slot” or form a unit in a sentence (Morenberg, 34). All of the constituents depend on and work with one another to form a meaning.

For instance, in the sentence “The ship left the naval base,” “the” is a definite article and a determiner. That is a constituent of the sentence. When combined with ship, a noun and a constituent, they form the subject noun phrase and, thusly, another sentence constituent. The way we understand the meaning all of the constituents form is by studying the language’s hierarchical structure.

Hierarchical structure “defines the basic structural principle of clauses and phrases,” (Morenberg, 31). It’s a pattern in which various sentence structures or constituents contain smaller ones.

Using the example sentence, “The ship left the naval base,” we see how both the determiner and noun in the subject come together to form the subject noun phrase, which, when combined with the predicate verb phrase, helps form the whole sentence.

Picture hierarchical structure as an upside down tree. All of the various branches, constituents, come back to the trunk to form the sentence. The hierarchical structure helps give meaning to the parts of the sentence and tells us how each word is acting in the sentence.

For instance, “naval” is a noun but in the sentence its acting as an adjective; its describing the base. The hierarchical structure helps determine how naval acts in the sentence when paired with the noun, “base,” and the determiner, “the,” to form a predicate noun phrase. Change one thing and the whole meaning changes. “The ship left the naval base,” means something very different than “The ship left the naval.” All of these various concepts come together to structure English.

Within phrases, there are smaller components that, when explained, also help give meaning to the sentence. All phrases contain a head and attributes. A head is vital to the phrase. It gives the phrase its name, in the sense that the constituent structure is always named for the head. In example, the head of the noun phrase is a noun and the head of a verb phrase is a verb (Morenberg, 35).

Therefore, using “The ship left the naval base,” again, the noun phrase “the naval base” is named for the noun, “base.” Attributes are the other words the surround or “cluster around” the heads of phrases (Morenberg, 35). The words “the” and “naval” cluster around “base” to help form the noun phrase. Heads and attributes are both vital to being able to identify and understand different constituents in hierarchical structure analysis.

All of these components, from linear order to attributes, contribute to a speaker, listener or writer’s understanding of the structure of the English language. Every piece is a part of a bigger piece. All of the pieces work together to form a structure. It is by studying the relationship of all the pieces that helps people understand the structure of language.

Works Cited

Karman, Barb. “Introduction to Fundamental Grammar.” Lecture. Fundamental English Grammar. Kent State University. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

Morenberg, Max. Doing Grammar. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

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