What is the relationship between language and the mind? If we look at syntax, for example, language would be a single statement with requirements of word order and grammatical agreement which would determine the unity of sentences from the standpoint of meaning. Is it this simple?
Or is language just the definite notion that everything can and should be expressed?
Everything can be connected with language. Words have meanings whether spoken or read; they constitute a group of two parts: one physical, the other mental. In grammar school, and hopefully beyond, we were taught a series of “grammar rules” in order to communicate with language either in writing or speaking. Technical grammar is typically learned by rote through handbooks. Quel dommage. These rules became part of our lexicon in which millions of words and meanings have been added over our lifetime. This is the physical. Understanding language as a result of the principal operations of thought—this is the mental. The study of how language is absorbed mentally has been carried far. Yet, the study of how one processes language, as of Valéry’s writing (1964), leaves much to be desired.
Paul Valéry looks at this idea of language in his brief review of M. Michel Bréal’s La Sémantique (1964). Valéry claims that the great French Linguist Bréal is one of the great masters of everything that is known and everything that has ever been done in the field of linguistics and has restored language to the one place where it belongs”(241). The highest of praise!
Valéry applauds Bréal’s process of understanding language. Bréal does “everything he can to understand himself—in speaking, he speaks first to himself! He will dispose of rules and elements in his speech that are alien to him as these are the very laws of comprehension” (250). Know your audience! As we listen to words that are being spoken to us, we are constantly discerning their development. Every person uses different definitions of the same word—from their own personal context, or lexicon, as I mentioned before. One’s language is their own as they are compelled to understand themselves first.
Now in reading, we must consider the text. What first meets the eye is the typographical aspect and the general meaning of the sentences. Each word that is read, according to Bréal, “seems to dispatch itself from form, to regain its freedom, to open up, to become in itself a gateway to the whole mind”(255). We must consider all we know about history, linguistics, and the etymology of these words. Even if our knowledge is not very sure, it will fulfill the function of real knowledge.
Of course, our brain takes care of these things for us, without much work on our part, n’est-ce pas? The written word is processed through our eyes, the lexical route. Speech is processed through the phonological route. The grammatical store in our brain specifies the meaning of words we hear and read but here is the craveat—we must have heard or read these words before in order to store them in our lexicon. If not, we must infer meaning from context clues. A standard English dictionary has about 100,000 entries and the average English speaker has a vocabulary of about 40,000 words. Where are all of these words? How is that the proper nouns are always missing from mine?
How does one process language? Language should include the balance of the obsessive concern of verbal disciplines, grammar, dialect, poetics, with words, single lines, and short passages. It should be spoken, heard, read, and written.
Paul Valéry. Aesthetics. New York: Pantheon Books. 1964