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Language and Mind

After having examined the complexities of spoken and written language, a fundamental question may come to mind:

"How may this complex structure develop in a child's mind?"

Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and later Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) subscribed to the theory of tabula rasa, i.e.:

"...the human intellect at birth resembles a blank slate, a pure potentiality that is actualized through education and that knowledge is attained through "...empirical familiarity with objects in this world from which one abstracts universal concepts," knowledge which develops through a "...syllogistic method of reasoning; observations lead to propositional statements, which when compounded lead to further abstract concepts."

Noam Chomski argues that the principles underlying the structure of language are biologically pre-determined in the human mind, and hence genetically transmitted. However, while this may explain an innate predisposition to syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence), it does not explain a person's acquisition of his/her lexycon (the body of words used in speech/writing, the personal vocabulary).

The tabula rasa theory proposes a model that could be represented as at right.

Concept/Object 1
Word 1

However, this model does not fully account for the experiences of a multi-lingual person (a polyglot), who has more than one alternative to pick from. The language context is probably the first spontaneous choice, as well as his/her mother language.

Concept/Object 1
Language 1Language 2Language 3
Word 1Word 2Word 3

But other factors are probably also involved, to wit the neural pathways that link words to concepts/objects, which are established by frequency of use, mode of aquisition, etc. Consider the following collection of words, dealing with the direction of movement of a vessel and crew roles onboard:

ProdiereBowman Equipier

Since I obtained my sailing license attending an Italian course, but also had 5 years of sailing lessons and practice while holidaying at the Club Méditerranée where most instructors spoke French, and read fiction about sailing ships in English, it is something of a toss which word will first come to my mind, when speaking/writing about helm orders .

Indirect proof of the existence of neural pathways is their possible absence - in my case for the English nautical terms on sail rigging from the above-mentioned source: I know perfectly well what they mean and could even sketch in a diagram their positions onboard, but have to look them up in a dictionary - such as the one I prepared in another page - to obtain their equivalents in my own mother tongue: their Object-to-Word pathway is inexistent in my mind!


Another factor that may influence the choice of one word among the alternatives available in different known languages is its semantic field, i.e. the overall area of conceptual meaning it covers - linguists are well aware of the difference between:

  • Denotation: literal meaning
  • Connotation: associated meaning(s)

For instance, the English word "anchor" denotates a specific nautical implement, but also conveys ideas of stability, firmness, support, lack of motion, etc. - therefore its semantic field is rather wide.

A word may have such heavy connotations in another language/culture that it should be used with great care, as aptly evidenced in the book "The Use and Misuse of Language" by S.I. Hayakawa who cites the case where the use of a certain, 'neutral' English word like "popular" in translation/interpreting at the United Nations Assembly caused a rumpus of indignated reactions from the Soviet delegation, for whom it has strong political/social connotations.

Words with 'contiguous' connotations may equally cause undesired/unexpected reactions when inadvertently used :

← ← ← Increasing intensity
Decreasing intensity → → →

Furthermore, a concept I intend to express may not be satisfactorily covered in my mother language, but much better in another language - which fact, by the way, is well known to experienced translators and has them suffering severe pains . A case in point is the English word "pattern", which has no satisfactory equivalent in Italian:

Pattern Schema

The terms offered by Italian-English dictionaries cover only parts of its full meaning.

In conclusion, the concept of tabula rasa may be a good starting point, but it requires significant extensions.


The ability to speak correctly more languages than one's own mother languages arises probably from a particular forma mentis (type of mind) similarly to what makes easier to master mathematics, drawing, etc.

I suspect that such abilities are probably of genetic origin, in my own case having had:

  • A grandfather who could speak 3 languages (Italian, German, French)
  • A grandmother who could speak 3 languages (Russian, French, Italian)
  • A father who could speak 3 languages (Italian, French, Spanish)
  • A mother who could speak 2 languages (Italian, French)
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