How Do Humans Talk? The System & Mechanics of Speech

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

How do humans talk? What’s the infinite combinatorial system? What body parts do we use when we speak?

In The Language Instinct, experimental psychologist Steven Pinker explains the basics of human language. He discusses the ingenious infinite combinatorial system as well as the physical mechanics of speaking.

Keep reading to learn how humans talk.

The Infinite Combinatorial System

How do humans talk? To understand that, Pinker writes that we must start by understanding the underappreciated design element of the infinite combinatorial system in human language. It’s the characteristic that lets us transform a finite number of sounds into infinite sentences based on a set of grammar rules called syntax. The infinite combinatorial system is ingenious because it enables endless creative expressions based on a relatively small set of basic units.

The elements of this system include phonemes, morphemes, words, and phrases—all of which are universal in human languages. Phonemes are the smallest unit of speech. They’re the individual sounds in a language that create differences in meaning.

Pinker explains that we combine phonemes into morphemes, which are the smallest meaningful language units—for example, root words. Then, we can combine words into phrases, and phrases into highly complex sentences. To tie words and phrases together logically, languages use syntax. Syntax includes the structural rules of language, which determine things like the order of the subject, verb, and object in a sentence.

The Physical Mechanics of Language

How do humans talk? Pinker writes that, for humans to actually speak, six different body parts have to physically coordinate: the larynx, soft palate, tongue body, tongue tip, tongue root, and lips. Each phoneme represents a specific configuration of these body parts. For example, to make the “ch” sound in “church” you have to press the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and force air through the gap between your tongue and palate.

(Shortform note: Although Pinker identifies only these specific body parts, there are even more body parts that enable different sounds in speech: the alveolar ridge (the bony ridge that holds the teeth sockets), hard palate, jaw, vocal cords, and nasal cavity. Collectively, these are called the articulatory system. To systematically represent the vast number of sounds that humans use in languages, linguists created the International Phonetic Alphabet. One interactive guide organizes all of these sounds based on how they’re voiced.)

Adding to this complexity, we often drop phonemes and blend them together for convenience when we speak—a process called coarticulation. For example, when Americans say the word “empty,” they often drop the “p” sound to more quickly transition from the “m” to the “t” phoneme. There’s also no distinct gap between each word when we speak. So, as someone interprets speech, their brain is constantly parsing the audio input, separating it into discrete words, and processing the meaning of words based on memory and context.

(Shortform note: In addition to subtly blending phonemes within individual words, people tend to simplify languages by blending different words together. If people can clearly communicate an idea in a faster way, the shortcut quickly becomes part of normal usage. One example of this in English is the common shortening of “going to” into “gonna.” In a more long-term transformation of words, the Latin term “mea domina” (meaning “mistress”) became “madame” in French and then “ma’am” in English, and it’s sometimes even shortened to “m” in the expression “yes’m.”)

How Do Humans Talk? The System & Mechanics of Speech

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Language Instinct summary:

  • How language is an innate ability—not an element of culture
  • A look at unique qualities of human language
  • How slang enhances a language, rather than diminishing it

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.