Structures of language

All languages consist of four primary structures: sounds, lexemes, syntax and discourse.


Each language has a limited number of sounds – phonemes – so as to signalize differences of meanings. Each of these phonemes is made up of phones – a set of closely related and phonetically different sounds. The relation of contrast between phonemes makes possible the functionality of language. In any language, the sounds are systematically organized and contrastively related to one another. A phone can be pronounced quite differently in different words and positions. For example, the t in till and still is pronounced differently. Therefore, a phoneme is a bundle of related sounds which contrast with other bundles of sounds. This introduces the formal diversity and functional unity to all phases of language. For example, the same suffix marking pluralization has three different phonetical forms: the voiceless s sound (e.g. oaks), the voiced z sound (e.g. bugs), and the iz sound (e.g. roses), but they all have one single function.

The distinctiveness of a phoneme is up to the features of other related sounds. For example, in the English set sip/sib, bit/bid, luck/lug, what really signals the difference is the reluctive length of the vowel – when before the voiceless consonant p, t, and k, the vowel is pronounced shorter than before the voiced consonant b, d, and g.

The contrasts in distinctive sound of a language are systematic. For example, the stop sounds of English defers in both articulatory position and voicing.

Paralingustic and extralinguist features

Besides the consonants and vowels which make possible the expressions, there are other important accompanying features which may alter the meaning of what’s said. They are called paralinguistic and extralinguistic features.

As for paralinguistic features, the tone of voice – falling or rising intonation – can drastically change the meaning. Also, an exaggerated length of a syllable in a word can increase the implication, e.g. thank you soooo much. In addition, particular type of pronunciation may expose the speaker’s personal information, such as the level of education. When it comes to written texts, the handwriting, accuracy of spelling, pronunciation,etc. can well reveal important information of the writer.

With regard to extralinguistic features, they are also essential to affect the understanding of an utterance. For example, the hand and facial gestures, the eye contact, body stance, etc. can all reveal part of the message. In written communications, the type of paper used, the printing quality, the theme color used, etc. could represent important signs.

Lexemes, Syntax, Discourse 

Lexemes are structured in informal and semantic ways. Take English as an example, the major formal classes of word sinclude nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctionsand exclamatory particles. The major semantic classes are entities, activities,characteristics and relations. The meaning of the words may also be structured into semantic domains. For example, come, go, arrive, depart, enter,exist, fall and rise are a cluster of terms involving movement and consists of contrastivepairs.

The syntactic structure of language are basically syntagmatic (the linear relations of grammatical unit) and paradigmatic (the vertical/substitutional relations of grammatical units).

The discourse also has structures/patterns.This can be felt from the tightly organized lyric poetry to some rambling conversations, perhaps with story as the most readily recognized discourse structure.

Structure elements in dynamic processes

The above mentioned four types of language structures symbolize four different degrees of options to introduce variationson existing language. Each of them has been on a continuous changing process.The sound systems of a language can be changed in very limited ways with quite slow pace. By contrast, the form of words and their meanings change much faster.But changes in syntax seem to be more restricted, while the discourse changes in a greater pace than syntax.

On each stratum of language, there are internal and external relations. For the sound system, the internal relations are primarily ones of the opposition, e.g. the pronunciation from p to b/t. The external relations of sounds are consisted of formal and semantic types. As for external relations, it means the verbal sounds could exert semantic relations through sound symbolism to the real world. For example, the “meaning” of the initial consonant in flip, flutter, fly, flare and flash.

The internal relations of lexemes are formal and semantic as well. The major formal structure included the processes of compounding, e.g. blackbird, affixation, i.e. words with suffixes, prefixes and infixes, systematic alteration, e.g. sing, sang, sung, suppletion, e.g. go/went, be/is/am/are, reduplication and deletion. The external relations of lexemes are about referents in the real or imagined word. The lexemes might be said to represent the entities, activities, characteristics and relations in the practical or imagined world.

The internal relations of syntax are the syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures.

The internal relations of discourse structure consist of scenarios, schemata and frames used in various genres. The external relations are congruent with human experience. The proportion, completeness andunity in a text could coincide with related experiences in other areas such as architecture.

All the phenomena of language can be viewed as processes of formulation and use in which the focus is what happens to the structures. It is better to understand it as dynamic processes of interaction so that the functions of language can be easily pictured.

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