Work Package 2
Semantic and conceptual basis of language
Natural language is a fundamental aspect of cognition as it allows us to describe the world we experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, and to handle social communication. The architecture of our language faculty is geared toward these universal cognitive purposes. A critical step for the development of this faculty is the acquisition of a vocabulary with conceptual and semantic word knowledge: ‘meaning’. The linguistic code we acquire during development enables us to store a substantial amount of information in abstract form and constitutes the basis of our world knowledge in semantic memory. Concepts are abstract representations that codify usable knowledge and steer action, both for individual actors and in the patterns of social interaction as studied in other WPs. The acquisition of conceptual knowledge critically depends on the mutual dynamical interactions between language and memory. Language is acquired and extended in the context of pre-existing mnemonic structures already neurally represented. These structures are necessary to build and use semantic content and conceptual knowledge and are laid down during development. At the same time language co-determines the structure of these concepts and shapes their organization in semantic memory. The language system thus builds on existing memory structures that in turn might co-determine the organization of linguistic semantic knowledge.
Two crucial components underlying concept formation, linguistic semantics and semantic memory, are centrally relevant for both linguistic and memory research alike. Previous research mostly focused on a single domain of inquiry with little or no consideration for a multidisciplinary view on conceptual memory. We intend to go beyond this limitation by focusing on the interactions between the linguistic and mnemonic domains with a special emphasis on development. To this end we will consider both the formal aspects of semantics, and the neurobiological and behavioural aspects of language. We will investigate how semantic content and conceptual knowledge are constructed and used in the brain by developing an integrated process model of semantic memory that is connected with both behavioural and neurobiological underpinnings. Drawing on different expertise, we will combine formal computational models with behavioural and neural data, going beyond simple descriptive analyses. We aim to provide mechanistic accounts for three key questions related to conceptual memory: how is conceptual knowledge extracted from our continuous flow of experiences, how is conceptual meaning represented, and how do pre-existing concepts affect formation of new ones and how do newly acquired concepts affect existing ones?
David Neville (RU)