Unlike the communicative systems of other species, human language allows us to transmit an essentially unlimited set of meanings to other people. Spoken language is an evolved skill and is acquired at an early age by all normally developing humans. Written language is a human invention that must be intentionally learned. The unique expressive power of language derives from the human ability to combine smaller units of language into larger ones, at multiple levels. Sounds can be combined to form words, morphemes can be combined to form complex words and words can be combined to form phrases, clauses and sentences. These combinations are governed by complex grammatical rules. Language production and comprehension are ‘real‐time’ processes that rely on specific cognitive abilities and neural circuitry. Information about the neurobiology of language comes from studying the consequences of brain lesions and from electrophysiological and brain imaging studies of healthy individuals.

Key Concepts

  • Human language is an evolved system for transmitting an enormous array of specific meanings.
  • The lexicon is a store of symbols for concepts, and syntax is a body of rules for combining them.
  • The speech planning process is revealed by a careful study of speech errors.
  • Our ability to perceive distinctive speech sounds depends on categorical perception.
  • We compute separate representations of sentence meaning and grammatical form.
  • The brain region most closely linked to language is the cortex surrounding the sylvian fissure in the left hemisphere.
  • Specific language disorders can occur with restricted damage to particular brain structures or regions.

Keywords: phonemes; morphemes; syntax; speech planning; brain lesions; categorical perception; magnetic resonance imaging; event‐related potentials; perisylvian cortex; aphasia; anomia

Figure 1. Lateral view of the perisylvian language zone in the left hemisphere.
Figure 2. Transverse section of the brain showing Broca's and Wernicke's areas. Approximate level of slice is indicated in Figure .


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Osterhout, Lee(Jun 2015) Language. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000151.pub2]