Miller 1991 Scientific American Library

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Miller GA (1991) The science of words. Scientific American Library New York:276 pp.


Miller GA (1991) Scientific American Library

Abstract: Words are the building blocks of language and the foundation of human culture. The ability to use words distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other animals. Indeed, nothing else is so uniquely human about human beings. The scientific study of words, so important to our knowledge of the human mind, has gained momentum in recent decades, and George A. Miller has been central to that growth as one of the founders of cognitive science. In his book he brings to bear not only his expertise but also his graceful style and humor, offering us a lucid synthesis of what linguistic science has discovered about words - and about the power they hold over the minds.

Miller focuses our attention on the three-sided character of words: Each is the synthesis of an utterance, a concept, and a syntactic role. These three facets - articularion (or, analogously, orthography), meaning, and usage - are often studied separately. Miller's elegant account highlights all three, together with the theoretical and technological bases for their investigation - from the decipherment of the ancient syllabary known as Linear B to the earlies word association tests; from Noam Chomsky's generative grammar to the use of positron emission tomography (PET) scans to discover lexical processes in the brain.

Bioblast editor: Gnaiger E

Selected quotes

  • Every professional group develops its own technical jargon for talking about matters of critical concern. .. People who know a word can share that idea with other members of their group, and a shared vocabulary is part of the glue that holds people together and allows them to create a shared culture.
  • On the one hand, words are simply physical things or events - noises, gestures, marks; on the other hand, they express meanings. To know a word is to know (at least) two different kinds of things: First, it is to be able to produce and recognized phyisical tokens representing the word; second, it is to understand the meanings that those tokens can be used to communicate. The basic structure of lexical knowledge, therefore, is a mapping between two sets: the set of word forms and the set of word meanings.
  • Definitions always leak at the margins, where experts delight in posing counterexamples for their peers to ponder. Fortunately, the typical cases are clear enough that a little fuzziness around the edges does not interfere with the larger picture.
  • The simplest notion of a lexicon holds that it is a collection of words, with associated information about each word. As more and more information is added about each word, the lexicon rapidly becomes a major repository of knowledge. Some of that knowledge is phonetic, some syntactic, some semantic.
  • The academic name for the study of meaning is semantics.
  • What is a definition? Definitions play an important role in any theory of meaning, but a definition is not a meaning; meanings are concepts in the minds of people, whereas definitions are written by lexicographers. .. a lexicographic definition must be a verbal description, given in terms of semantic relations. ... definitions can play an important role even when they are not adequate for teaching new meanings. Definitions can help someone learn a new term for a familiar concept, or refine a concept they already have, or discover a relation between concepts.
  • A theory of lexical knowledge can be constructive, or it can be merely differential. In a constructive theory, the theoretical representation contains (or should contain) sufficient information to support an accurate construction of the concept. In a differential theory, on the other hand, meanings can be represented by any symbols that enable a theorist to distinguish among them - in principle, numbers could serve, for example. The requirements of a differential theory are much more easily satisfied.
  • (The curly brackets, { and }, will be used to surround sets of synonyms that serve to identify lexicalized concepts.)
  • Of course, dictionaries are sometimes used by learners who have not already mastered the concept in question, but who hopw to construct it from information in the definition.
  • .. precision may require terminology more difficult to understand than the word being defined. .. The most familiar words are also the most polysemous, and words with multiple meanings always run the risk of misinterpretation. .. remember the little girl who looked up erode, found a definition that looked familiar - to eat our, eat away - and wrote "Our family erodes a lot."
  • A lexicographer tries, not always successfully, to steer a course between incomprehension and miscomprehension. .. writing definitions is a difficult and little-appreciated art.