What Comes First, the Concept or the Word?

Words stand for concepts. Typically, nouns stand for entities or things; adjectives for attributes or properties; numerals (of course) for numbers (ordinal or cardinal), verbs for motions, actions or states, prepositions for relationships.

Often, a noun also stands for an attribute, but then it is typically formed from an adjective – e.g., “length” from “long”, “breadth” from “broad”, “happiness” from “happy”, etc.

Pronouns are replacement words, replacing either a noun or an adjective. For example, if I say “he”, it stands for the person I am talking about, etc.

Some verbs are auxiliary – like “do” in “do you agree?” or “I do not think so”, or “have” in “what have you done?” or “what has happened?”. In this case, the verb has only a grammatical function.[1]

Adverbs, I would say, stand for modifications, qualifications or specifications – for example, the word “typically” above, which modifies the thoughts I was expressing. Or the difference between “I stand” and “I stand here”, “It happens” and “It happens now”, which specifies the standing and the happening. (There may be some better way to describe adverbs, but this is the best I can think of for the moment.)

And many adverbs are formed from adjectives, like “typically” and “happily”, etc.[2]

Conjunctions are concepts of relationships among thoughts (here, I merely quote Ayn Rand’s definition).

What about interjections, such as “ouch” or “hooray”? What do they stand for? My best guess is that they stand for some kind of evaluation. We say “ouch” to something we don’t like, and “hooray” to something we like quite a lot.

Of course, this was an extremely rudimentary grammar lesson.

In what order does a child form those concepts?

I think it is obvious that concepts of entities (represented by nouns) come first; then probably concepts of attributes (represented by adjectives) and concepts of motions or states (represented by verbs). Certainly, they come before pronouns. A young child beginning to speak does not refer to him- or herself as “I”, it uses its name. “I”, meaning “the person speaking”, and “you”, meaning “the person spoken to” are really a fairly high level of abstraction. Yet, it does not take long for a child to progress from using its name to saying “I”.

Now to the question in the blog post title.

Ayn Rand’s idea (if I have understood it correctly) is that a child perceives two of more concretes (two or more tables, two or more dogs or whatever), notices that they are similar and that they are different from other concretes, and then forms the concept “table, “dog” or whatever. But in order to retain the concept, the child has to choose a word to denote the concept. Thus, the child forms the concept and then, to complete the process, makes up a word for the concept.

But does it make up the word?

Then how come that a child born into an English speaking environment invariably choose the words “table” and “dog” for those concepts, while I, who was born In Sweden, chooses the words “bord” and “hund”, and a French child chooses “chien” for “dog”? (The French word for “table” is the same, although pronounced differently.) A German child says “Hund” for “dog”, and “Tafel” for “table”.

Now, I must have misrepresented Ayn Rand when saying the child “makes up” the words, because it clearly does not. It uses the words already existing in its own language.

But then one may still ask the question whether the concept actually comes before the word or after. Does the child form a concept “table” (for example) and then asks its parents “What is this called?”? Or does it hear the word “table” uttered by some parent or grown-up and then figure out what it stands for?

Well, both those possibilities are possible.

A child learns his first language partly by imitation. But it is not passive imitation. If it were, the child would be a parrot, not a human.

Now I will quote Ayn Rand:

Even though a child does not have to perform the feat of genius performed by some mind or minds in the pre-historical infancy of the human race: the invention of language – every child has to perform independently the feat of grasping the nature of language, the process of symbolizing concepts by means of words.

This is true for both the possibilities mentioned above.

Why do I bother to think about this?

Well, I do not remember the period in my childhood when I learned to speak (I do not think anyone remembers that far back). Thus, I do not remember forming any concepts or choosing words to symbolize them. I did not think I formed any concepts on my own; I thought I was merely taking over (in some second-hand fashion) concepts that had already been formed by others. And I did not think other people are much different from me in this regard. So I drew the conclusion that children do not actually form concepts; they are merely taking over concepts already formed. They do, however, have to grasp those concepts independently. And this grasping of concepts has to be done by the same process as originally forming them.

But I think the Ayn Rand quote above nails the issue.

And somebody must have been the first man (or woman) to form the first concept and give it a name. Somebody must have been the first to put a simple sentence together. Somebody must have been the first to add a subordinate clause to a sentence.

But how this came about, we can only speculate. It is peering into the pre-historical past.

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Another observation is how extremely fast a toddler learns his first language. I have blogged about this too, but in Swedish.


[1]) There are other words that have only a grammatical function. One example is “to” in “to be”, “to talk”, “to run”, etc. It is an “infinitive marker” and only tells that the next word is the infinitive form of the word. I may write about such words later on.

[2]) On adverbs, see also What did Ayn Rand Know about Adverbs?

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