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1 Concepts, percepts, feelings and actions
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 posesÂ€– 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:Â€ ‘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:Â€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 modalitiesÂ€– a typical cat appearance, a typical purring sound
and miaowing sound, a typical cat smell, the typical feel of a cat’s furÂ€– 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.
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 actionÂ€– in evolutionary terms, they probably evolved to push us to
‘fight or flight’Â€– 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:Â€246–8).
Motor skillsâ•‡ 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:Â€‘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 ridingÂ€– 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:Â€‘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.
Figure 3.2 A concept such as ‘cat’ may be linked to percepts, emotions and
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
perceptsÂ€– abstract and idealized summaries of many occasions when
we saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt the thing concerned;
emotionsÂ€– bodily states which lead to action;
motor skillsÂ€ – 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.
Advanced:Â€Part II, Chapter 6.9:Â€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 propertiesâ•‡ 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:Â€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 propertiesâ•‡ 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:Â€‘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
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 valuesâ•‡ 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