How Language Works
Edition 3.0

Mike Gasser
Indiana University

The book

I started writing this book because I was teaching an introductory linguistics course, and I was dissatisfied with the available textbooks. In particular, I felt that they did not do a good job of showing how the study of language fits into the larger field of cognitive science. Once I got into it, the book turned into more than a textbook on linguistics because it began to veer off into areas of study that usually don't count as linguistics. One way to define linguistics is as the study of language itself, which can be contrasted with language behavior. Language behavior is studied by people in the fields of psycholinguistics, language development, natural language processing, and computational linguistics, and there is often an attempt to keep these fields distinct from linguistics "proper". I believe that it is more productive to see all of these fields as making up "the language sciences" or "language science", and it is really this meta-field that is the topic of this book.

I also think that most introductory textbooks (on all topics, not just linguistics) try to introduce too many concepts and fail to tie them together in terms of a small number of themes. I believe that the way language works makes sense (not all linguists agree), and I've tried to organize the book around this idea. I also believe that a basic understanding of how language works is just as important to a basic education as an understanding of algebra or geography, and I hope that I've made it clear in the book why I believe this.

Finally, I've tried to incorporate several other novel ideas of mine about how best to teach about language: start with simplified, artificial examples; select real examples from a relatively small number of languages (especially those that are somewhat familiar to the author); and be open about the large gaps in our knowledge about language, as well as the excitement that comes with a young field.

This is edition 3.0 of How Language Works. It is quite different from the last edition (2.0). In particular, it includes material on computational approaches to language. Long after coming up with the title, I realized that there were several published books with the same title (and at least one more has appeared since I released this book). So if you refer to this book elsewhere, be sure to make it clear that you are referring to "How Language Works (edition 3.0) by Michael Gasser". The book is freely available to anyone, under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions about the material, please contact me.

The author: Mike Gasser

I am an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, USA. In my research I've worked on various problems related to language. I used to focus on how language is learned by people, specifically how this process relates to the rest of cognition: to memory, to categorization, to attention, and to perception. I built computational models of language learning; that is, I tried to understand how humans learn language by simulating some aspects of the process on a computer. The particular models that I worked with belong to the category known as neural networks because they are based loosely on how the brain works. There is a big debate in linguistics and other areas of cognitive science dealing with language on whether such models are powerful enough to handle all aspects of language, especially grammar, and my research tried show where they were and perhaps were not. Now I'm concerned with how the insights from studying language, especially studying it computationally and studying how people learn it, can guide us in building computational tools that will make it easier for people to find and evaluate information on the Internet. Together with my collaborators, I'm focusing on two kinds of tools. One will use machine translation to help translate documents into and out of languages that are currently under-represented on the Internet. The other will guide people in critical reading of texts on controversial texts by highlighting loaded words that may help to identify the writer's ideological bias. I enjoy studying languages, and I believe that studying a variety of languages has helped me to appreciate what theories of language have to accomplish. The languages I know best are Amharic, German, Spanish, Japanese, and French.

My teaching has been closely tied to my research. I've focused on developing courses that deal with intelligence, especially with the linguistic part of intelligence, and how to simulate it on a computer. One specific interest has been introducing the study of language to undergraduate and graduate students, including those who may not feel any particular attraction to the topic. I enjoy this because it gives me a chance to share the excitement I feel for language and because I think the scientific study of language has important insights to offer everyone.

You can find out more about me, including my life outside of work, on my webpage.




1.1    Organization and conventions in the book
1.2 What we study
1.3 How we study language
1.4 What we don't do: prescribing and evaluating language
1.5 Dialects and languages
1.6 Two themes
1.7 Why study language
1.8 Problems


Word meanings

2.1 Reference and proper nouns
2.2 Categories and common nouns
2.3 Word senses and taxonomies
2.4 Metaphor and metonymy
2.5 Deixis and person
2.6 Lexical differences among languages
2.7 Learning meaning
2.8 Problems


Word forms: units

3.1 Phonemes
3.2 Iconicity
3.3 Vowels
3.4 English consonants
3.5 Consonants in other languages
3.6 Syllables
3.7 Problems


Word forms: processes

4.1 Phonetic contexts
4.2 Assimilation
4.3 Distribution of phones
4.4 Learning phonology
4.5 English accents
4.6 Phonological change
4.7 Phonology in the wild
4.8 Problems


Composition: combining words

5.1 Attributes and attribution
5.2 Modification
5.3 Compositionality and idiomaticity
5.4 Problems



6.1 States and events
6.2 Situation schemas and semantic roles
6.3 Constituency and noun phrases
6.4 Subjects
6.5 Direct objects
6.6 Adjuncts
6.7 Sentence functions
6.8 Problems


Grammatical categories

7.1 Morphemes
7.2 Grammatical categories and NPs
7.3 Grammatical categories and verbs
7.4 Morphophonology
7.5 Linguistic relativity
7.6 Problems



8.1 Derivational morphology
8.2 Foregrounding and backgrounding
8.3 Active and passive voice
8.4 More verb derivation
8.5 Problems


A1 Phonetic symbols
A2 Glossary
A3 Languages cited
A4 References