Human Language & Communication: Words, Meaning, and Misunderstandings

Photo by Ben White |

Language provides the cognitive scaffolding upon which lexical thought and speech are constructed. Thought and speech, in turn, facilitate complex intrapersonal and interpersonal communication, respectively. Given the importance of language to human cognition and social function, it may not surprise the reader to learn that the average native English speaker knows a staggering 40,000 words by the time they reach adulthood!1 In light of the immensity of our personal lexicons, we may be forgiven for taking language for granted. However, we at Neuraptitude wish to give language its just desserts in our upcoming series we are calling: “Human Language & Communication.”

By A.F. Bradley | Public Domain

“Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often”—Mark Twain2

In the years between the 18th century Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus3 first classified humans as members of the genus Homo and the species sapiens—Latin for, “wise man”—anthropologists have tacked on an additional subspecies sapiens classifier to distinguish anatomically modern humans from the now extinct Homo sapiens idaltu.4 Thus, modern humans are known by the somewhat ostentatious trinomial name Homo sapiens sapiens—or, “wise, wise man.”5 And yet, as Mark Twain rather humorously pointed out, the typical modern human is not known for the kind of economy of words one might expect from a doubly wise man.

It must be acknowledged that, in moderation, language is one of the most potent tools available to the human organism. Many scientists believe that the “great leap forward” some 40,000 years ago that saw ancestral humans suddenly (evolutionarily speaking) develop elaborate symbolic creations in the form of cave paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and tools was largely catalyzed by the advent of more linguistically modern language.6–8 Incidentally, dogs may have been domesticated around this same time as well.9 So it appears that two of man’s best friends—words and dogs—may have arrived on the scene at around the same time some forty millennia ago.

At its most fundamental, language is a tool for organizing and communicating thought to oneself or to another person(s).6 Language facilitates the interpersonal communication of unobservable, privately held, abstract ideas, concepts, and feelings by packaging interpretable information into verbal utterances and non-verbal cues, contexts, and shared psychological understanding.6,10,11 That is an undeniable mouthful—pun intended—and we will spend the remainder of the article expanding on this.

Verbal utterances (a term from the primary literature that we will use to refer to spoken language) contain multiple levels of information. Semantic information is stored within the literal meaning of words.10 Syntactic information is communicated through the grammatical structure and the rules that organize a given statement.10 And pragmatic information is contained within the current and historical behavior, psychology, and current environmental context of the speaker-listener dyad.10 At its most fundamental, language is comprised of a phonological system of speech sounds that form words;11 for the purposes of our discussion today we will not study this level of granularity.

Photo by Nicolas Barbier Garreau |

To help clarify semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic levels of linguistic information let’s study an example from the New Zealand linguist Robyn Carston’s article entitled, “Linguistic Meaning, Communicated Meaning and Cognitive Pragmatics,” published in the journal Mind & Language.12 Imagine that it is breakfast time and that your roommate is searching through the fridge. Reflexively, you guide your roommate by saying, “On the top shelf,” and with this snippet of information he is able to locate the sought after jelly on the top shelf of the fridge.12 Syntactically, the grammatical structure of this proposition communicates that a relationship exists between an unnamed, implied subject and a location. Semantically, the proposition informs the listener that the implied subject is on (as opposed to under) the top (as opposed to the bottom or middle) shelf. However, the bulk of the information communicated in this proposition is implied, and thus, pragmatic in nature.

Using your understanding of your roommate’s current and historical behavior, psychology, and the environmental context—it’s breakfast time and he is in the kitchen, rummaging around in the fridge—you are able to make an educated guess as to what it is that your roommate is searching for. You then use your intuitive knowledge of human psychology to reason that if you imply the unspoken subject, “jelly,” in the proposition, “On the top shelf,” then your roommate will understand what you mean. It is important to note that this process typically takes place at a subconscious level.

Another way to think about the levels of lexical information contained within a verbal utterance is to distinguish between manifest and latent levels of meaning. Manifest meaning is encoded in the explicit, obvious, or literal meaning of the words we use.13,14 Latent meaning is inferred from the historical, behavioral, and contextual clues that surround the utterance.13,14 Syntactic and semantic information generally encodes manifest meaning while pragmatic information clarifies latent meaning. Please note that our use of the concepts of manifest and latent meaning may differ from that of other writers; we have adapted these concepts from the primary literature for the purposes of today’s discussion and ask for the reader’s forgiveness if any theoretical discrepancies cause confusion.

Photo by Shane Rounce |

Let’s use another example, this one from Sperber and Wilson’s14 seminal work, “Pragmatics, Modularity and Mind-reading,” to better understand manifest and latent meaning. Imagine now that your roommate says, “Someone’s forgotten to take out the trash.”14 The manifest semantic and syntactic messages encoded in the words of this communication indicate that some unnamed or unknown person forgot to take out the trash. But now let’s imagine that the role of trash-remover has been a point of contention between you and your roommate recently. With that additional detail, you can use the pragmatic information contained within your roommate’s behavior, the general context, and your review of historical precedent to infer the latent meaning contained within this seemingly innocuous statement: Your roommate would like you to take out the trash and may be admonishing you for not doing so already.

In this example, the listener need not make too many inferential leaps to formulate a reasonably accurate hypothesis as to the speaker’s state of mind and the likely intended latent message. However, as communications increase in complexity and abstraction, a listener must make ever greater inferential leaps to generate hypotheses about a speaker’s intended latent message. These leaps of inference introduce a “meaning gap”—a gap between a speaker’s intended meaning and a listener’s interpreted meaning.

For example, let’s change a few words in your roommate’s statement and experiment with different levels of pragmatic detail to illustrate how complex communication can become when we add or subtract pragmatic information.

Let’s imagine that your roommate tells you, “I feel like trash.” The syntactic and semantic information contained within this statement indicate that your roommate feels very low (i.e. like trash). However, depending on your level of knowledge about your roommate’s current and historical behavior, psychology, and the context, you may arrive at a variety of disparate interpretations of her intended latent meaning.

Photo by Jane Wulfraat |

For instance, what if your roommate wiped the remains of the last cookie from a particularly delicious batch of chocolate chip cookies from her mouth just prior to making this statement? Furthermore, maybe your roommate’s utterance, “I feel like trash,” is accompanied by a feigned sheepish smile. You might then interpret this communication as humorous or sarcastic given this behavioral and contextual backdrop. Alternatively, if in the context of a recent breakup your roommate walked into the room, plopped down on the couch, and declared, “I feel like trash,” you might instead interpret the communication as a genuine articulation of your roommate’s current psychological feeling state.

Now let’s consider what happens when we remove pragmatic information. Perhaps your roommate only recently moved in and you know very little about his social, emotional, or psychological life. Or maybe your roommate is not very emotionally expressive, and thus, her feeling states are difficult to interpret. More sinisterly, what if your roommate is deliberately misleading you with his communication to gain sympathy or some other advantage? It is easy to conceive of a near-infinite variety of interpretations for a seemingly simple utterance such as, “I feel like trash.”

Thus, as pragmatic information increases in complexity or decreases in quantity, the gap between a speaker’s meaning and a listener’s interpreted meaning can grow to an immense size.

The meaning gap can become truly canyon-like when we start to introduce higher-levels of complexity or abstraction into our communication. For example, let’s imagine that a speaker is trying to describe an interaction she had at work that day to a listener without primary knowledge of the events in question. The speaker must attempt to describe a cast of office actors, each with their own hypothesized psychological motivations, whose behaviors affect the speaker and the other actors in unique and idiosyncratic ways. The number of actors that we must keep track of in our minds as we listen to a story such as this can quickly become dizzying—and yet, we do this every day with apparent ease. Part of this ease is made possible by a brain that evolved over millennia to be especially adept at social cognition, but a significant portion of the seeming ease with which we digest these complex stories is due to a subconscious acceptance of the inevitability of a meaning gap. We are comfortable getting the gist of a story and accept, at some level, that our interpretation of the communicated events is just that—an interpretation.

More often than not our interpretations are sufficient for the level of accuracy required in day to day conversation. However, our interpretations and the meaning gaps that they create can become problematic if we fail to respect the existence of a gap and try to ascribe a level of precision to our interpretations that they don’t deserve. We cannot hope to ever communicate with perfect fidelity, but by bringing awareness to the inadequacies of our interpretations we can maintain an open mind and pursue further clarification.

In our next article, we will explore how the meaning gap affects our everyday communication and try to develop strategies for bridging the gap.


  1. Brysbaert M, Stevens M, Mandera P, Keuleers E. How Many Words Do We Know? Practical Estimates of Vocabulary Size Dependent on Word Definition, the Degree of Language Input and the Participant’s Age. Front Psychol. 2016;7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01116.
  2. Twain M. The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain: A Book of Quotations. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications; 1999.
  3. Wulf A. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession. New York: Vintage Books; 2010.
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  8. Berwick RC, Friederici AD, Chomsky N, Bolhuis JJ. Evolution, brain, and the nature of language. Trends Cogn Sci. 2013;17(2):89-98. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.12.002.
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  11. Simms MD. Language Development and Communication Disorders, Language Development and Communication Disorders. In: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:207-216.e1.!/content/book/3-s2.0-B9781455775668000351?scrollTo=%23hl0000496. Accessed July 25, 2017.
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