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Suffolk Center for Speech


4 Components of Language

Linguistics is the study of language, its structure, and the rules that govern its structure. Linguists, specialists in linguistics, have traditionally analyzed language in terms of several subfields of study. Speech-language pathologists study these subfields of language and are specially trained to assess and treat language and its subfields. These include morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonology.

Morphology is the study of word structure. It describes how words are formed out of more basic elements of language called morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of a language. Morphemes are considered minimal because if they were subdivided any further, they would become meaningless. Each morpheme is different from the others because each singles a distinct meaning. Morphemes are used to form words. Base, root or free morphemes are word that have meaning, cannot be broken-down into smaller parts, and can have other morphemes added to them. Examples of free morphemes are ocean, establish, book, color, connect, and hinge. These words mean something, can stand by themselves, and cannot be broken down into smaller units. These words can also have other morphemes added to the. Bound or grammatical morphemes, which cannot convey meaning by themselves, must be joined with free morphemes in order to have meaning. In the following examples, the free morphemes are underlined; the bound morphemes are in capital letters: oceanS, establishMENT, bookED, colorFUL, DISconnect. Common bound or grammatical morphemes include the following: -ing (the present progressive), -s (the regular plural; e.g., cats), -s (the possessive inflection; e.g., man’s), and –ed (the regular past tense; e.g., washed). Morphemes are a means of modifying word structures to change meaning. The morphology of a given language describes the rules of such modifications.

Syntax and morphology are concerned with two major categories of language structure. Morphology is the study of word structure syntax is the study of sentence structure. The basic meaning of the word syntax is “to join,” “to put together.” In the study of language, syntax involves the following:

  1. The arrangement of words to form meaningful sentences
  2. The word order and overall structure of a sentence

A collection of rules that specify the ways and order in which words may be combined to form sentences in a particular language. As they mature in syntactic development, children begin to use compound and complex sentences, which can be defined as follows:

  1. Compound sentence: two or more independent clauses joined by a common and a conjunction or by a semicolon. There are no subordinate clauses in a compounded sentence. A clause contains a subject and a predicate. An independent or main clause has a subject and a predicate and can stand alone (e.g., “The policeman held up the sign, and the cars stopped.”)
  2. Complex sentence: contains one independent clause and one or more dependent or subordinate clauses. A dependent or subordinate clause has a subject and predicate but cannot stand alone. (e.g., “I will drive my car to Reno if I have enough gas.”)

Syntax rules differ by language. Speakers of a language do not produce structures with random and meaningless word order. If they do, speech and language therapy may be warranted. For example, an English speaker could say, “He said he was going to come but didn’t.” Due to syntactic rules, a speaker could not say, “He’s going to was said he didn’t but come.” Languages have different syntactic structures. In English, the basic syntactic structure is subject + verb + object. This structure, usually called the “kernel sentence”, can also be called the phrase structure or base structure.

Semantics is the study of meaning in language. The semantic component is the meaning conveyed by words, phrases and sentences. Semantics includes a person’s vocabulary or lexicon. Vocabulary development depends heavily upon environmental exposure, as well as the individual capacity each child brings to the learning situation. Important aspects of vocabulary development include knowledge of the following: antonyms, or opposites, synonyms, multiple meanings of words, humor/riddles, figurative language (including metaphors, idioms, proverbs), deictic words, or words whose referents change depending on who is speaking (e.g., this here, that, come, go).


  1. Semantic categories are used to sort words. Examples of a few of these categories are recurrence, rejection, and causality. A child using recurrence might say, “More milk”.
  2. Word knowledge involves a person’s autobiographical and experiential memory and understanding of particular events. For example, a child might be able to discuss an aquarium because he has been to several and has been exposed to marine life.
  3. Word knowledge is primarily verbal and contains word and symbol definitions. For example, a child might be able to name the planets in the solar system because she has learned them in kindergarten.
  4. Another important semantic aspect of language development is developing the ability to categorize words. For example, children must learn that tiger, cat, dog, pig and horse fall into the category of animals.

Pragmatics is the study of rules that govern the use of language in social situations. In pragmatics, one focuses on use of language in social context. Pragmatics places greater emphasis on functions, or uses of language, than on structure. Functions of language include:

  1. Labeling/naming
  2. Protesting
  3. Commenting
    1. Important functions of utterances include the following:
      1. Providing listeners with adequate information without redundancy
      2. Making a sequence of statements coherent and logical
      3. Taking turns with other speakers
      4. Maintaining a topic
      5. Repairing communication breakdowns

      Language context involves where the utterance takes place, to whom the utterance is directed and what and who are present at the time. Pragmatic skills also involve the appropriate knowledge and use of discourse. Discourse refers to how utterances are related to one another it has to do with the connected flow of language. Discourse can involve a monologue, a dialogue, or even conversational exchange. When people talk to one another they are engaging in discourse. Pragmatic skills are important social skills for social, academic and vocational success.

      References:Roseberry-McKibbin, C., & Hegde, M. (2016). An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology. Austin, TX: Pro-ed.


      Gabrielle Cormace MS CF SLP

      HELLO in eight different languages

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