When reading some Steven Pinker a couple of years back I wondered whether language could be better understood via sound, sentence, and vision rather than by words and rules as Pinker suggests (see his Words and Rules). Rules seem to be elements of narration we use or rather abuse to divine a neat model of causality. However there seems to be very little in biology that’s rather rule-like. Biology is inherently anti-functional, at least in the strict mathematical sense of the word function. Cells and subcellular systems can and do appear to regularly do different things given the same input. And that’s assuming we can even truly tightly control an input to a biological system in any meaningful (re: in vivo) way. Weak and strong AI proponents would have us think that neurons are analogues for computer circuits, but the complexity of neural matter is hardly reducible to such a model without sacrificing crucial information.

Rules just don’t seem inherent to language. Words, however, do seem on some level fundamental to language. From a textual perspective certainly. We can see evidence for this in many ways; in my experience the evidence is in building representations of document collections for various text mining experiments. But from an oral perspective, are words fundamental?

Spoken language seems far more continuous that written language not only from a processing standpoint but also from a sensory point of view. Spoken language is experienced and performed in a rather continuous way; words are deduced in learning language, but it remains to be shown whether words are in and of themselves mere narrative convenience for explaining how we understand language rather than language itself. these sounds continue rather fluidly within sentences. The auditory experience of language is that the most coarse break, the most distinct break, is the break between sentences. But spoken language is not just continuous in the way it is serially composed and experienced in an auditory fashion. It is also continuous in that it speads across the sensory spectrum, from sound to vision. Inflection and gesture are essential to processing meaning, and such experience and interpretation is so incredibly integrated and automatic it operates as intuition does.

While the fundamental descriptive unit of language seems to be the word, with the description generating itself through the appearances of language acquisition, the fundamental unit of language seems to be the sequence of sounds, the sentence. The word “book” or for that matter the sound of the word has some basic meaning but no real rich semantics. What book? What’s it doing? Where is it? What’s in it? How thick is it? Do you even mean a thing with pages? Frankly we have no idea what questions even make sense to ask in the first place. The word and the sound alike seem devoid of context, seem completely empty of a single thought. But once we launch into a sentence, the book comes to life, to at least a bare minimum of utility, representation with correspondence to some reality. It seems the sentence is the first level at which language has information.

But it seems that the sentence, the meaning-melody of distinct thought, is composed more essentially with some visual representational content, something rudimentary that is pre-experiential (children blind from birth seem to have no profound barriers to becoming healthy and fully literate adult language users). There seems to be something visual that is degenerative in nature involved in language. Not generative. It seems that language comprehension is based on breaking down the continuous auditory signal into something very roughly visual and then the utterance becomes informative.

My take on such a process is really not so unusual but rather fundamental to one of the most important linguistic discoveries of the modern era. Wernicke believed that the input to both language comprehension and language production systems was the “auditory word image.”

So here’s what I’m thinking. Language’s syntax is not fundamentally linguistic per se nor compositional but rather sensory (audio-visual) and decompositional. So I wonder, is there some sort of syntax for vision, some decompositional apparatus? Or are we just getting back into rule-sets?

I think we can understand something fundamental in this syntax between the sensory and the linguistic. Linguistic decompositon, which is really either auditory or visual decompositon, becomes visual composition in understanding. Likewise, the visual must be decomposed before it can be composed into a sentence.

In other words, if we knew rules for visual decompositon we could automatically compose descriptions of scenes. Likewise we should be able to compose images from decomposition of linguistic signals.

And how do we do that without rules or functions?