Language and Communication

By George A. Miller | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
RULES FOR USING SYMBOLS

Our problem may be stated as follows:--

Given some statement in a language of which we know the grammar and the syntax, but not the vocabulary, what are the possible meanings of such a statement, and what are the meanings of the unknown words that would make it true?

The reason that this question is important is that it represents, much more nearly than might be supposed, the state of our knowledge of nature.

-- BERTRAND RUSSELL

In order to understand a language, we must know its grammar as well as its vocabulary. It often happens in English that a string of words can make a sentence that is true when the words are in one order but false in another order. A simple example is ' Brutus killed Caesar.' The same words in the opposite order, ' Caesar killed Brutus,' say something quite different. A reader who knows all about killing and knows who Brutus and Caesar were still does not know the meaning of ' Brutus killed Caesar.' In order to know who did the killing and who got killed, he must know something about the order of words in English. He must know the rules of the language.

The rules that govern the use of symbols in a language have important effects upon the statistical properties of the language. In order to understand these effects, we must first extend our ideas about the amount of information. So far we have talked about the amount of information as the logarithm of the number of alternative symbols, and we have made the implicit assumption that all the alternatives were equally likely to occur. Chapter 4 shows quite clearly that the alternative symbols of English are certainly not all equally likely. When we extend our definition of the amount of information to fit these new facts, we discover that English uses far more symbols per message than would be necessary if all symbols could he used equally often. This fact leads us to say that English is highly redundant. The amount of redundancy in any language depends upon the rules for using its symbols. Some rules increase redundancy, some rules decrease it. The notion of redundancy and the ways it is kept under control by the rules of the language are the subject of the present chapter.


INFORMATION, NOISE, REDUNDANCY

Information is something we need when we face a choice. What specific information we need depends upon the situation, but whatever its source or

-100-

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Language and Communication
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Preface to Revised Edition vi
  • Preface vi
  • Contents ix
  • Foreword to the Teacher xi
  • Chapter 1 - By Way of Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Phonetic Approach 10
  • Selected References 46
  • Chapter 3 - The Perception of Speech 47
  • Selected References 79
  • Chapter 4- The Statistical Approach 80
  • Selected References 99
  • Chapter 5 - Rules for Using Symbols 100
  • Selected References 118
  • Chapter 6 - Individual Differences 119
  • Selected References 139
  • Chapter 7 - The Verbal Behavior of Children 140
  • Selected References 158
  • Chapter 8 - The Role of Learning 159
  • Selected References 173
  • Chapter 9 - Verbal Habits 174
  • Selected References 198
  • Chapter 10 - Some Effects of Verbal Habits 199
  • Selected References 222
  • Chapter 11 - Words, Sets, and Thoughts 223
  • Selected References 248
  • Chapter 12 - The Social Approach 275
  • Bibliography 276
  • Index 287
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