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1 Concepts, percepts, feelings and actions

1 Concepts, percepts, feelings and actions

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Network structure




Figure 3.1 The Necker cube (A) with its two interpretations (B, C)

This is what you use in order to recognize a cat, and is derived (like all the other

cat properties) from your experience of individual cats.

However, it’s much more abstract than a photograph. For one thing, it’s

selected for typicality to the exclusion of exceptional cats such as those with

three legs, and chooses a typical viewpoint such as the view from in front or one

side, rather than from the rear or from underneath. (You may of course have a

number of alternative images of a cat showing different poses€– standing, sitting,

lying, sleeping and so on.) Moreover, your percept of a cat is interpreted in terms

of what you know about cats, so ambiguities are removed.

This process of ambiguity removal is easy to demonstrate with one of the

favourite pictures in any psychology textbook, the Necker cube, named after a

Swiss scientist who produced the first example in 1832. (Wikipedia:€ ‘Necker

cube’.) This is a very simple geometrical structure shown as A in Figure 3.1,

which shows how your mind imposes an interpretation on the information fed to

it by your eyes.

Look at A, and try to see it merely as a collection of lines. Most people can’t

do this because their minds immediately interpret the lines as the edges of a cube.

The point is that there are two distinct ways to interpret the lines, either as a topdown view of a cube (B) or as a bottom-up view (C). What you can’t do (unless

you’re very unusual) is to see it in both views at the same time; if so, you probably find that the view ‘flips’ every few seconds. This is because you create a percept of a three-dimensional cube out of the pattern of lines in A, and your percept

must be either B or C, and cannot be both B and C or something in between.

Coming back to cats, the point of the Necker cube is that your mental image

of a cat must be a percept:€a tidied-up interpretation of a typical cat in a typical

pose viewed from a typical angle. This is already half-way from a photograph to

a concept, but a concept it is not.

A percept is mono-modal and analog, like an analog photograph or audio

recording which reproduces just one modality (vision, hearing or whatever); but

a concept is multi-modal and digital. Your concept ‘cat’ brings together properties from different modalities€– a typical cat appearance, a typical purring sound

and miaowing sound, a typical cat smell, the typical feel of a cat’s fur€– and these

properties are ‘digital’ in the sense that each property is inheritable as a separate

element. Moreover, concepts are organized in taxonomies, but there’s nothing

like this for percepts.



an i n t r o d u c t io n t o wo r d g r a mm ar

In short, a concept may have percepts among its properties, but concepts and

percepts are fundamentally different kinds of objects in our minds. Percepts

are important in language because they probably hold our memories for speech

sounds, but they’re distinct from the concepts that represent words and so on.


Emotions╇ nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

Another kind of property involves EMOTIONS. (Wikipedia:

‘Emotion’.) For example, seeing a kitten probably triggers a very different emotion in you from what you feel if you see a large spider; and the total range

of emotions includes liking, hatred, fear, disgust, anxiety, envy, hope, joy and


Emotions are very different from concepts because they’re global states affecting the entire mind. Although you can think of a kitten chasing a spider (at least

two concepts entertained at the same time), it’s very hard to keep two emotions

separate if you feel them at the same time. Another difference is that emotions

drive us to action€– in evolutionary terms, they probably evolved to push us to

‘fight or flight’€– whereas concepts are simply classifications of experience. We

all know an emotion when we feel it, but most of us find them very hard to analyse, so I shan’t try.

All that matters for present purposes is that some concepts are associated with

emotions. Emotions generally struggle for recognition in linguistic theory, but

they are actually rather important, not only because we use language to express

them (think of the emotions expressed, in different ways, by hooray!, snug, terrorist and What on Earth happened?) but also because our feelings about other

people influence the way we talk to them and whether we copy them in our own

speech (Hudson 2007c:€246–8).


Motor skills╇ nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

Alongside percepts and emotions there’s a third kind of mental object

that functions as a property of concepts without itself being a concept. This is what

psychologists call ‘motor programs’ or MOTOR SKILLS. (Wikipedia:€‘Motor

skill’.) For some people, one of the properties of ‘cat’ may be the motor skill of

stroking (what you typically do to a cat); and if you can ride a bicycle, then ‘riding’ is linked to whatever motor skills are involved in riding€– sitting, balancing,

pushing pedals and so on.

Research in neurology has shown that motor skills are controlled by a welldefined part of the brain called the ‘motor cortex’, with even more precisely

defined areas for particular body-parts (hands, tongue and so on). Interestingly,

brain scans show that simply reading a verb is enough to trigger activity in the

relevant part of the motor cortex; for example, if you read the verb lick, the flow

of blood increases in the bit of your motor cortex that controls your tongue.

(Wikipedia:€‘Motor cortex’.) This provides clear evidence for a link between the

meaning of this verb (the concept ‘lick’) and a motor-skill part of your mind.

Network structure









Figure 3.2 A concept such as ‘cat’ may be linked to percepts, emotions and

motor skills

Motor skills matter in language because both speaking and writing involve a rich

set of motor skills that take years to develop and perfect.

We now have three kinds of mental object that can serve as properties of a


percepts€– abstract and idealized summaries of many occasions when

we saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt the thing concerned;

emotions€– bodily states which lead to action;

motor skills€ – the mental patterns that control specific bodily


These possibilities are summarized in Figure 3.2, where I also provide the

beginnings of an analysis of my concept ‘cat’. Notice that even if you’re not

impressed by my artwork, my little picture is (I hope) recognizable as a cat; if

so, it’s possible that your mental image isn’t much more sophisticated than this.

The words ‘liking’ and ‘stroking’ are just place-holders for a proper analysis of

an emotion and a motor skill.

Some properties, then, can be defined in terms of mental things that are not

themselves concepts. But what about properties such as drinking milk or laying

eggs? Percepts, emotions and motor skills aren’t relevant here; and the same may

well be true of the majority of properties. The next section explains how more

abstract properties can be analysed.

Where next?

Advanced:€Part II, Chapter 6.9:€Levels of analysis


Relational concepts, arguments and values

Let’s assume, therefore, that some properties of some concepts are

not themselves concepts, but are percepts, emotions or motor skills. Where does



an i n t r o d u c t io n t o wo r d g r a mm ar

this leave properties such as ‘drinks milk’ and ‘has fur’ (for cats) or ‘flies’ and

‘has wings’ (for birds)?


Conceptual properties╇ nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

These properties look very different from the examples considered so

far, and not least because ‘drinking’, ‘fur’, ‘flying’ and ‘wings’ are themselves

concepts. We can call them CONCEPTUAL PROPERTIES. Thus if purring is

a property of cats, equally cats are (in some sense) a property of purring:€purring

is the sound made by cats. This rather simple idea leads inevitably to the theory

that conceptual properties are nothing but links to other concepts.

To see how this works, take the ‘bird’ example. In this theory, there are concepts for ‘flying’, ‘feather’, ‘wing’ and so on as well as for ‘bird’, and the properties of ‘bird’ consist of links to these other concepts. In terms of taxonomies,

of course, the other concepts are not at all closely related to ‘bird’ (for example,

‘flying’ is a kind of activity, not a kind of creature) and these links cut right across

the taxonomic hierarchies. But the taxonomic relations still exist and need to be

included in an analysis that tries to understand how the whole system works.


Towards a notation for properties╇ nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

The result is a rather complicated analysis which combines the taxonomic hierarchy with whatever links are needed from concept to concept. This

makes a convenient visual notation even more important. The obvious notation

for links between two concepts is a line between them, but in order to emphasize

the difference between these links and those for the isA relation, Word Grammar

uses curved lines as in Figure 3.3.

What this diagram shows is that ‘bird’ is related in some way to the concepts

‘wing’, ‘feather’ and ‘flying’, and that although bird isA creature, the same is

not true for any of these other concepts. Psychologists call these links ‘associations’ and describe the memory containing them as ‘associative memory’.

(Wikipedia:€‘Semantic memory’.) There’s a great deal of evidence that our minds

do in fact contain these associative links between concepts, and we shall review

some of the evidence in Section 3.5. This idea, then, is well supported so far as

it goes.

The trouble is that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s not enough to say that a bird is

associated with flying, wings and feathers, because the same would be true of a

butterfly riding on a feather or of a severed bird-wing (whose function is flying).

What’s missing is a classification of the associations which would say that the

bird’s association with its wing is different from its association with flying.


Relations, arguments and values╇ nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

We need to replace mere associations with RELATIONS. In this terminology, the bird has a ‘body-part’ relation to its wing, and this relation can be

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