#4 – How Language is Acquired and Used

This is the fourth article where I explain my thesis work, Thomistic Linguistics, in more chewable pieces. In my last article, #3 – Language as Man’s Passions, I argued that words, as we know them, are phantasms that exist within the human brain but rely on passiones animae, immaterial forms, to actually exist as knowledge.

This finally gives us the flexibility to talk about how language is implemented and even acquired. Usage is easiest to lay out, first. Just as a real world object (that changes) is reliant on forms to provide its own consistency and direct future changes to itself, words are also reliant on forms. Without these forms, these passiones animae, words are just a bunch of meaningless sounds.

As each word is received into the human brain either through the eyes as written language or through the ears as spoken language, the human brain holds on to that sensory phantasm. Just as that content of our sight is restructured in our brain, so the input we have received from others is restructured in our brain. Assuming these words are not new, the active intellect shapes itself to the passio animae that it associates with the word. The passio animae derives its shape from the passive intellect and what it previously understood is on display in the active intellect. Should any new information be presented in the sensory experience that adds knowledge or divides knowledge, then the passio animae is further composed or divided, as Aquinas says. Either more virtual forms are added to the passio animae or the set of virtual forms found within the passio animae are divided and separated. Otherwise there is no alteration to them and the active intellect moves on to the next word.

If one remembers the example from the previous article about the oak tree, where a man sees an oak tree and abstracts an intelligible species that resembles the form of the oak tree, then one will also note that the phantasm of a word acts as a middle point between the passio animae and the real form in question. There are these three main components, then.

  1. The real form that exists in the world that the human is attempting to perceive or relay communication about
  2. The word around that form (an orthographic or phonological phantasm as compared to a visual phantasm in the oak example)
  3. The passio animaewhich while itself is a form, is only a copied form.

The shaping of the active intellect into the various passiones animae that come rapid-fire through the human experience (language is a very quick process, mind you) is momentary and passing. Do we really only process reality one word at a time?

The short answer is no. A word equals a passio animae but a passio animae does not equal a word. As for a single concept many virtual forms work together to compose a single, unified, intelligible species that the active intellect receives for comprehension, so many collaborative passiones animae work together to form a larger, more unified concept. This is the nature of a sentence, for example.

So that’s how we use language – as a concert of passiones animae to communicate knowledge, and specifically as phantasms that act as substitutes for other kinds of phantasms (like images). Because of the substitute nature of language, the encoding, it functions differently than other phantasms, almost like a shortcut to passiones animae (not that other phantasms aren’t active or present, they just aren’t necessary).

So how would someone learn language? Is it different between your first and your second language? No!

I’ll discuss in my next article some of the relevance of how this notion affects modern fields of study, but first let me articulate how language acquisition works in light of the human form. Babies don’t already have words when they are born. They don’t have very much function at all, to be specific. But they do have the basic components for whatever they need in life (typically). When it comes to language they have:

1.) Neurons connected to sensory organs

2.) Clustered neurons in the brain as a sensory center

3.) Rational intellects.

As babies grow and develop their sensory organs, the intellect shapes it up along the way. They perceive what is good about the world or what is good for them and they move towards those good things, discover that they have the will power to move towards those things, figure out how to direct their material body to accomplish these tasks, etc. They learn. When it comes to language, they first have to pair knowledge about the real world, for which they can form passiones animae without the use of words, with new phantasms, normally words that they are supplied with by their parents or caretakers.

As the babies grow into children and into adults their intellect, the amassing of many many passiones animae occurs. Alongside the growth of the intellect in general, words become attached to the passiones animae and they can use the words to communicate them. Further they can even use words and their passiones animae to puzzle about new passiones animae that are not abstracted from experience but from within their own intellects.

“I know what a red ball is, and I know what a green pyramid is…what if there was a red pyramid?”

My firm understanding of language acquisition here is that the method of acquisition of a language does not ever change. Obstacles may impede it at certain areas of life (not necessarily biological), but its method is consistent. New words and a new system of grammar are usually built up around pre-existing passiones animae or, it may be so, that new passiones animae are formed around new words, composed or divided from other passiones animae that are known. The connections between phantasms and passiones animae are not brought about in a day, though, and neither were they brought about in a day for young children. It takes 5 years for children to cement a decent library of word phantasms (and grammar, but more on that in the future, I promise) in connection to all their proper passiones animae. These children don’t already have a language in their brains and they are desperate for a solid method of communicating with others around them. There is no reasonable expectation that the acquisition of a foreign language after childhood should not take at least 5 years, if not longer, since there are many more life obstacles impeding that progress. Children, generally, are not obstructed in their first 5 years the way a high schooler or college student is.

This is the fourth premise for my thesis:

Mankind’s active intellect is always shaping itself to some passio animae for knowledge’s sake. In order to use language, word phantasms map themselves to a passio animae, and when we communicate we are communicating these passiones animae in order to communicate larger ideas. Acquiring a language is not just a discussion about learning the phantasms, but syncing their connection to passiones animaesomething children struggle with less than older humans because they generally don’t have many logistical obstructions to prevent them.

Next time: 

What is the conclusion to draw from all of these premises? Why is this a relevant matter for today’s world?

#5 – What Relevance this Thesis Has

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