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Communication Disorders Therapy (CDT) in Intensely Special Education

Note Well

This training is not critical of any CDS program or CDT practitioner. It does address some challenges associated with contemporary CDS graduate programs, as well as conventional SLP experience, specifically in regards to experience with intensely special education.

Such a disclaimer is prudent given the distinct history of personal escalation in such fields as linguistics (e.g., the linguistics wars) and special education (e.g., facilitated communication, vaccine hesitancy, presumption of competence, and so on).

In this training, any perception of offense is most likely due to a misunderstanding, and I am well open to clarifying passages that present too high a risk of such misinterpretation. Should you happen to read anything that triggers emotional escalation, contact information is given above.


University coursework and subsequent professional development focus heavily on conventional communication disorders. This makes some sense, as most school SLPs will be designing therapy for the likes of articulation, (specific) language impairment, fluency, social pragmatics, and so on.

But when it comes to intensely special education, particularly as associated with low-incidence disabilities, there is much more to communication, language, and their associated disorders than can reasonably be addressed solely by master’s coursework in CDS (or in any other field), or by an SLP’s experience in any typical P-21 education setting. This means that there is much more to learn (and unlearn) before it is possible to design contemporary therapy for a student whose cognitive, physical, and sensory abilities are moderately-to-profoundly different from those of a student who (for example) faces familiar articulatory challenges without those concomitant disabilities.

This tutorial, then, represents continuing professional education and exposure, including a scaffolded display of constructs that can help you to design informed therapy for low-incidence venues.

As an SLP, you already have access to several cognitive constructs that hold you in good stead; for example, you started at the surface with such content knowledge as the names of various body parts, then deepened your understanding by studying and observing how and why those parts are supposed to interact as systems. With increasing real-world experience, you constructed cognitive models allowing you to perform a bedside examination without having to literally dissect your client. You are now well able to imagine functioning systems for the likes of articulation (and phonological processes), phonation, respiration, and feeding/swallowing. This higher level of mastery (i.e., constructs) is an emergent property of your (subjective) experience of the (objective) reality in which we all live.

In contrast, very few people (SLPs or otherwise) are exposed to the full range of knowledge (surface and deep) necessary to emerge into cognitive constructs that interweave sensory processing, communication, language, and their associated disorders (including theories of mind and reality, and so on). That rarity only increases when therapy must take concomitant low-incidence disabilities into account, or an appeal to assistive technology (AT). An SLP’s training, both during and after grad school, is a process of peeling back layers of myth in these areas to expose increasingly functional models of reality.

For example, for the vast majority of people in the world, it is harmless to believe that your lungs work like a pair of bellows; in contrast, SLPs must be trained to design therapy according to a more realistic and functional model of respiration. Grad school for CDS does a good job in that arena, and few SLPs are left believing that bellows represent an accurate model of the lungs.

Similarly, and for an equally vast majority of people, it is harmless to believe popular myths about language function. Even for those few people who do study linguistics, it doesn’t really matter if their exposure is more “formalist” than “functionalist”; that is to say, it doesn’t matter if formalism treats meaning as if it were irrelevant to analyzing structure, because formalism is not concerned with the function of communication. It doesn’t matter if formalism adjusts real-world data to conform to a particular theory, because evidence-based practice is not an applicable standard for those academic pursuits. It doesn’t matter when a formalist model relies on a theoretical component such as “deep structure,” because that process is not intended to portray a psychologically real part of language use. To be clear: all of these formalist principles are harmless as long as linguists and other interested theorists are only engaging with one another, and are not designing therapy that would put someone’s well-being at risk.

In distinct contrast, then, it matters a great deal when SLPs are taught about language in that same sandbox, as part of their grad program. Once again, SLPs must base their designs on a more realistic and functional language model, because their therapy is supposed to affect a client’s health. This tutorial exists, then, because grad school for CDS does not teach that necessary functional model, so most SLPs are left harboring formalist notions regarding language and its associated cognition. And while it might be harmless to write software that generates a defined set of “well formed” sentences, it is harmful to design therapy with the expectation that a client will run such a program in their head.

Just a one example (among many), I came across a CDS master’s project in which an elementary school student was expected to demonstrate increasing awareness of “wh- traces.” This is very disturbing because formalist theories are not intended to model human communication in the first place, much less real-world language performance, and clients should not be used to debug formalist software (in essence). The client should not be punished due to their inability to memorize a formalist model.

Crucially, this assessment is not a matter of finding fault. For all of their expertise, instructors who hold advanced degrees in CDS do not tend to have pursued graduate studies in such fields as linguistics and cognitive science. Even had they done so, that linguistics education would still tend to be formalist in nature. (There will of course be exceptions to this trend, but such versed individuals are not members of our focal audience here.) Designers of a CDS graduate program, therefore, will not tend to be informed evaluators of the linguistics education available in their university. CDS programs, then, end up relying on formalist approaches that were never intended to account for communication, dysfunction, or therapy, much less their interaction. Too many SLPs are left wrestling with the misimpression that a formalist model represents actual cognition, which it does not do, as that was never its purpose.

Therefore, we will present a functionalist contrast here, as a natural component of our discussion of intensely special education. It is not that functionalism is better than formalism, but rather that it serves a different purpose, one which is better suited to the development of CDT. This tutorial will not, however, go so far back as to provide proof (or specific explanation) for the following functionalist assertions:

  1. mechanism can tolerate mentalism (i.e., neurochemistry need not suffer a case of the vapours when we talk about “meaning”);
  2. competence can appreciate performance (i.e., when the data runs counter to one’s predictions, one should reconcile the theory, and not question the validity of the data);
  3. cognition and scientific disciplines can both thrive when distributed in a balanced fashion (e.g., Dcog and Transdisciplinarity); and
  4. primitive behavior is shared behavior, both among species and among forms of communication.

Much of the original work forming the basis of this tutorial was completed in fewer than ten years after these four windows finally came to open simultaneously around the early 1980s (Harris, The Linguistics Wars; Harris, pc), which was thoroughly refined during a couple of decades’ worth of application in natural language processing and CDT by Mansfield and associated colleagues.

If you would prefer not to take the validity of those four fundamental statements for granted, then we suggest starting with Beyond Nature-Nurture (Tomasello; 2005).

Or maybe just relax with a good search engine coupled with a crowdsourced encyclopedia, and have at it with mild abandon.

Order of Events

First, we will introduce you to semeiognomy (pr. Seh-my-AH-nuh-me) as a study of communication (in specific) in terms of symbol systems and cognition (Gk. semeio- + -gnomy). We will start with semeiognomy basics, specifically the structure and function of the symbols (i.e., the form-meaning packages) that communication participants transductively exchange.

Where semeiognomy examines communication as a systematic symbolic process, cognitive linguistics analyzes language as one type of that communication. We will characterize language from two perspectives derived from cognitive linguistics foundations (which have analogs elsewhere), the first of which is that of an isolated individual reacting to its environment, and the second of which is that of a group of individuals interacting with one another in a shared environment which changes over time. That first set of stages brings us from generation to communication, and the second moves us on from communication and into language.

Once having explained why we provide intensely special students with experiential and productive access to a rich variety of forms, we can meaningfully describe how we go about doing that, as we address sensory lifestyles, sensitivity, and desensitization.

The primary goal of this tutorial is to improve your understanding of that specific topic, and if you stop right there you will already be much better prepared to provide informed service in intensely special education.

For those of you who remain interested beyond that point, we can recommend materials on cognitive grammar, as that approach (and related areas such as mental spaces) comes closest to plausibly reflecting the models that people use when communicating.

This water's deep, and we want to get to the bottom, so let’s dive in from the top of the cliff.

Semeiogonomy Basics

This discussion of basic semeiognomic principles supports the importance of a person’s exposure to a variety of sensory experiences in their development of communication and language. As those are both symbolic systems, we will begin by refining your existing definition of the term “symbol,” and establish additional vocabulary that will facilitate the subsequent discussions.

The most fundamental ideas in this section are not those of the primary author (see Sources, especially Langacker); although Mansfield (1997) is the source for research on prominence and direct iconic proportion, and in later work the clarifying use of “ymage,” and the term “semeiognomy” itself (because there was not an existing label that adequately identified this field).

Form: a Word Shape

The term form refers to the physical properties of any thing, such as:

  • Sensation (shape, color, sound, taste, texture, temperature…);
  • Position (location, orientation, sequence, motion…);
  • Complexity (componentiality, resolution…);
  • Intensity (how loud, how hard, how bright…); and
  • so on.

We will go into further detail about the “so on” in the section that describes sensation. While we will provide that link here, we suggest that you wait to go over that material in its turn.

Concept: a Thought-Feeling

People use the term concept informally to refer to internal states like thoughts and feelings, and in casual conversation it means something similar to notion or idea. Anything that you might potentially be able to think and/or feel is a concept, such as: ‘pleasure’, ‘bees’, and ‘laughing’. The dynamic process of actually thinking and feeling is conceptualization. This is another spectrum: from relatively static concepts that are more like “things,” to comparatively dynamic conceptualizations that are more “processual.” Everything along that continuum (i.e., from concepts to conceptualizations) is referred to with the term conception.

In this section, we are only talking about conceptions, which are internal, and not about any forms (whether signed, spoken, orthographic, or otherwise) that get associated with those conceptual contents. Those forms are all external. You are a container, and we are currently addressing your contents. (We will talk later about any internal language, or similar, that you might experience as you are thinking.)

Conceptions are not like compact dictionary listings, but rather are encyclopedic in nature; that is to say, they are inclusive of everything that you might think or feel about a topic. This vastness would make them pragmatically useless for communication if they always had to be approached in their entirety as overwhelming entities; however, hope is not lost, because various kinds of internal organization and focus come to the rescue.

To begin with, conceptions are ultimately grounded in sensorimotor experience, such as the sensory modalities of proprioception, vision, and so on (which will be elaborated in detail later). Each of these modes of experience aligns with a conceptual space; for example, in the space determined by visual experience, some areas will typically be defined by events incolving ‘brightness’ and others by occurrences of ‘color’. There are higher-order, analogous spaces defined by more abstract areas of experience as well (e.g., ‘freedom,’ ‘intuition,’ and so on). Naturally, a person’s encyclopedic knowledge will be affected by their real-world exposure (e.g., whether they can see color, or have experienced freedom).

Conceptions vary in the same ways that forms do, namely in their content, organization, and ties to other concepts. Fit together like multidimensional pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (or an Escher-like mosaic), these concepts define your personal model of objective reality (which we suggest you wait to read about until later in this tutorial). Some complex concepts (e.g., ‘what happens in an intensely special education classroom’) can draw upon many different areas within this model.

One fundamental part of AAC is determining how a given user individually organizes their concepts, because that informs the design of the bridge between (a) that student’s existing patterns and (b) the shared conventions with which their communication partners already tend to be familiar. The differences between the two can be intense enough that the conventional system of nested comm matrix folders can actually be a barrier to learning, and is one primary reason why commercial systems are never truly ready to be used “right out of the box” (despite such advertised claims by the vendors).

Radial categorization is just one of the many ways in which conceptions tend to “self organize.” Imagine a structure whose center is occupied by your generic version of a dog (for example), such as one that has the following features: four legs, protruding snout, smooth coat, social behavior, loves to go bye-bye, snack obsessed, domesticated, and so on. While certain features might not be centrally specified for some people (such as coat color), for others that hub can be very specific indeed (where a person of our acquaintance insists that all dogs’ footpads necessarily taste like salty cornflakes when licked). From this hub, spokes radiate outward towards the periphery, identifying feature variations on this generic prototype, such as: fewer than four legs, extreme size, cartoon existence, particular species, wild, and the like. Such categories are not absolute, because a member is not strictly either in or out; instead, the boundary of the set is fuzzy, where “better” members exist closer to the center, and “worse” members reside closer to the periphery.

In addition, some of those peripheral areas (e.g., the ‘wild dog’ node) are central to their own conceptions (e.g., ‘wolf’), which then have their own peripheral members (e.g., ‘dire wolf’, ‘tame wolf’, and so forth). Similarly, domestic cats are linked to the class of big cats (i.e., the set containing ‘tiger’, ‘lion’, ‘jaguar’, ‘leopard’, and ‘snow leopard’), and someplace in between the big cats and the wolves might be an area categorizing cheetahs (as they are similar to the predatory big cats, but like canines they do not have retractile claws). Note that a person’s categorization does not necessarily match natural categories; for example, although the cheetah is genetically a member of the Puma lineage, and is most closely related to the cougar and jaguarundi, many people still tend to associate cheetahs with the African big cats (based on a concept that goes something like, ‘stuff that is genetically related tends to be geographically co-located’).

Conceptions include in their organization any advanced conceptual relationships (ACRs) that they share, which is one factor that can influence radial categorization. The following table displays some types of ACRs:

Advanced Conceptual Relationships
ACR Type Subtype Concept Relationship Expansion
Genetic twin pump is very much like ticker
synonym pump is like heart
cousin pump is kind of like liver
hint pump is distantly like chest
antonym good is unlike bad
Taxonym hyponym orange is a type of [citrus fruit
hypernym citrus fruit has types orange, lemon…
Meronym part wheel is a part of car
substance banana is a substance of banana split
member child is a member of family
Holonym part car has parts wheel, door…
substance banana split has substances banana, ice cream…
member family has members parent, child…
Entailment equated living implies aging
contained dreaming implies sleeping
backward unlocking implies locking
causation creating implies existing

Note that these relationships describe a structural organization that is like a conceptual lattice or network. The use of word labels in this table is potentially misleading, because these sorts of conceptions occur in animals that do not use signed or spoken language equivalents; for example, many species organize themselves according to social hierarchies without having words for the components. So all we are really discussing right now are conceptions, and not any specific verbal representation. That material will come later.

Focal alignment is another kind of organization. Imagine a Venn diagram representing the exclusive intersection of the following categories (as if colored spotlights were overlapping their ovals on a stage), where set members:

  • can be identified by a speaker/signer as a unique individual relative to the context of the expressive act
  • are in a stative relation with pinkish skin color space
  • can be a replicate mass unit, which implies individuals that can be genericized for replication
  • can be domesticated or wild (and is therefore animate)
  • have a short-ish anatomical tail of tapering shape, which suggests having a body
  • have at least one anatomical eye, which implies having a body
  • can understand human expectations well enough to learn to perform specified tasks at a level worthy of eliciting praise
  • typically ingests an over-sufficiency at a given meal, which implies eating, which implies biological living
  • can be misrepresented as having a value that is too high (therefore it typically has a non-trivial value, but some members do not meet that standard)
  • prefer at least one environment enough that it elicits positive emotions (which implies an ability to feel emotions), and it happens to be excrementally self-enveloping, which implies defecating, which implies biological living
  • can be attributed unspecified but contemptible characteristics
  • cannot fly in objective reality, but could in remote fantasy

Note the involvement of some of types of ACRs. All of these many conceptual areas intersect at certain canonical conceptions of ‘pig’, defining the hub of another radial category (i.e., where a prototypical pig would figuratively be standing on stage in the circle of white spotlight where all of the colored ovals overlapped). Conceptualizers will vary as to which of these features are a matter of reality, or are applicable at all.

Conceptualization can shift the overlap of these component sets, along with the focus that defines their conceptual core (e.g., the emphasis would shift as you thought about a specific pig, then a pig in a movie, then a singing pig, then hot dogs, and so on).

The availability of such a core brings conceptions much closer to being useful for communication. This core can include and bound a subset of conceptual content that could furnish a schematization (the opposite of an elaboration or specification), which is a simplified version of a structure that is (a) intended to retain access to the extraneous details, without (b) getting bogged down in paying all of those details equal amounts of attention.

Therefore, a core is most efficient when it is both:

  1. schematic enough to allow for efficient processing, and
  2. specific enough that we can indicate not only what parts are important, but where they fit into the big picture.

As we proceed, we will talk about communication and language leveraging this kind of existing organization to keep from being swamped by encyclopedic overwhelm.

When it comes to intensely special education, some of our students face multiple challenges with conceptions and their organization. Most people who work in this field understand (in one way or another) that impaired cognition will, just to begin with, impoverish a student’s encyclopedic model of reality. It is less commonly understood that limited sensorimotor experience creates a serious bottlneck in developing conceptions in the first place, and that sensorimotor augmentation and alternatives should be made available to help improve a student’s access to their environment. What is least commonly understood is that our students might not tend to coalesce classes (and crystallize relationships) simply from exposure to multiple instances of a type (i.e., they do not tend to associate and categorize freely), and that has a profound effect on communication.

For example, their experiences with multiple instances of the same type of animal might not categorize into a conception about the class of those animals in general (e.g., that a family pet and a classroom therapy animal are both dogs), or they might fail to distinguish significant subtypes (e.g., a dog showing signs of play versus aggression). Or, just because they have a lot of experience with a particular sink faucet at home, plus a particular sink faucet at school, doesn’t mean that they will know what to do with a sink faucet in a bathroom at the public library. Similarly, they might not deal well with the many varieties of signs for ‘bathroom’ that exist in the community (or with changes to such pictures or captions in their AAC system).

Organized conception, then, has a profound effect on the development of communication, the design of therapy, and the selection of an appropriate AAC system.

Consider that to be a takeaway.

Semantics: a Conception's Evoked Contents

Conceptual structure is a more technical term than “conception,” referring to:

  1. a formal representation of
  2. an electrochemical event that is
  3. processed in a body
  4. as that body thinks and feels.

In other words, this term refers to a real product of an actual process of conceptualization… albeit the various arts, sciences, philosophies, histories, and so on, are still trying to figure out what that product might actually be. In this tutorial, we represent conceptual structures with the familiar orthographic convention of caps in square brackets, as in [example]. If there are no caps, as in [example], then we are referring to a form instead (whether signed, spoken, or otherwise), and not to a conceptual structure. We use small caps instead of all-caps, because we might need to distinguish the likes of [Frank] the person from [frank] the personality trait (or weiner).

When a signer/speaker expresses such a communicative form as [pig], then lookers/listeners who receive that information will be prompted to evoke conceptions related to a pig (such as those listed in the previous section, give and take). They will each engage the individual conceptual structure with which they manage information about a pig (i.e., [pig]); in other words, they will bring that conception to mind to serve a communicative purpose.

There are ways to bring conceptions to mind other than for signed or spoken communication; for example, the physical experience of wind can communicate information that makes you think and feel [wind], even though the wind has no communicative intent.

In these examples, then, while [wind] and [pig] are both conceptual structures, only [pig] is also a semantic structure. Here’s why: unlike [wind], we said explicitly that [pig] had been evoked by a communicative expression (i.e., that it was brought to mind specifically because someone signed or spoke the form ‘[pig]’).

We can represent that pairing of a form with a conceptual structure as [[pig]/[pig]], where that very act of pairing specifically identifies the latter as a semantic structure (i.e., that act of pairing is associated with a communicative purpose). Some conventions prefer to list the semantic structure first in the pair, but we are so used to talking about “form-meaning pairings” (which we will get to in just a bit) that we prefer it this way around.

A semantic structure, then, is the conceptual pole of a symbolic link (e.g., [pig]), where the other pole is defined by a form that is a signed or spoken phonological structure (e.g., [pig]). Note that the phonological structure is internally complex (whether signed or spoken), having been composed from a set of phonological units. Terms such as ‘chereme’ and ‘cherology’ are no longer used to segregate signed from spoken forms.

Only those conceptual structures that are evoked by communicative forms are processed specifically as semantic structures; therefore, semantic analysis is a subset of conceptual analysis (i.e., semantics necessarily addresses the effect of the phonological pole on the conceptual pole, in a context of communication).

When some properties of a form are associated with information for communication (i.e., essentially the process of semiosis), then that linked form-information structure is at least a sign, and perhaps also a symbol. (We will explain the difference later.) While we will often refer to signed and spoken forms, we will not tend to include orthographic forms because writing is a permanent (i.e., not transient), complementary representation (or form-to-form encoding) of a signed or spoken language… albeit we sit ready to eradicate this distinction should a natural language emerge whose primary modality were orthographic.

(And don’t even get us off on the topic of specific spelling impairments, or we will link you to a very thorough and sleep-inducing research paper on the topic.)

In a process that is similar to repeatedly pouring water down a hillside, cognitive entities (including motor and other routine structures) become more firmly familiar with use. This fundamental cognitive function is known as automatization. At the “individual” end of a continuum (i.e., when an individual person does this), the process is called entrenchment, and at the “community” end it is referred to as conventionality (i.e., when a group of communication partners all get used to the same pattern). Such automatic units are referred to as relatively fixed (i.e., they do not tend to vary), and they are more easily accessed with increasing degrees of automaticity (i.e., you learn to do things without having to put so much thought and other effort into them… but if your mind wanders, then you can end up driving to the wrong place, saying the wrong name, writing the wrong year on a check, and so on). An expression such as, “Turn left right here” is so common that it can be accessed with trivial need for an active process of composition. Such a phrase is likely to be evoked as a conventionalized unit (i.e., without having to be created out of its parts). And while novel expressions are likely to require more cogntive effort than fixed ones, they not only tend to be composed of fixed units, but can both conventionalize rapidly (e.g., “Just do it”), and fall out of favor with equal velocity (e.g., “Reach out and touch someone”).

Foundation: A Diagrammatic Semantic Structure

Because conceptions are encyclopedic in nature (i.e., inclusive of everything that you might think or feel about a topic), a semantic structure is likewise encyclopedic in its underlying complexity (because part of it is a conceptual structure). To be useful for communication, then, we need to use the semantic structure’s associated form to leverage and refine the internal organization that exists in the conception; that is to say, our choice of form conveniently narrows things down for our partners.

At a schematic extreme (i.e., where a form narrows down a conception most simply), we might reasonably suppose that:

  1. the form of a hawk’s shadow would
  2. quickly and efficiently focus a ground squirrel’s attention down to
  3. a very narrow band of hawk-shadow related concepts (i.e., all and only [threat]) within
  4. the larger set of everything else that the ground squirrel might “understand” about the likes of:
    • shadows (e.g., [some move]),
    • hawk-shadows (e.g., [does move]),
    • goose-shadows (e.g., [safe] or [nil]),
    • moonshadows (e.g., [nil]), and
    • other shadow-related stuff.

This is a survival efficiency; that is to say, there is an excellent reason that the conventional model of acute stress response (or hyperarousal) is not defined as:

  1. fight or
  2. flight or
  3. fancy (i.e., some short ‘f’-word-or-other that means “exhaustive, distracting, time-consuming contemplation”).

A component like [threat] is such a key [hawk-shadow] attribute that it is designated some sort of chronic prominence in the broader conceptual structure for a hawk’s typical prey; in fact, this priming function is wetware in some cases, as in the hawk/goose effect. What we’re saying is that there would be no squirrels left if they didn’t have an effective (likely hard-wired) means of associating a hawk shadow with a threat, without the distraction of encyclopedic conceptual processing.

In the case of semiosis in specific, one such efficiency exists as follows: our conceptions are organized by our experience of attention as we interact with our reality. (We will define “reality” in due time.) This salience (or likelihood of automatized attentional focus) organizes our semantic structures, which reduces the effort with which they are retrieved; therefore, the more often that we need to access a conception, the greater the likelihood that it will be organized according to the prominent reason that it is so much in demand. In the case of a complex concept such as [cat], the typical sound made by a prototypical domestic cat will have greater conceptual prominence (and be a more easily accessible component) than the fact that their collarbones are vestigial.

When a prominent feature is used more frequently for a conception’s retrieval, the probability is greater that the associated semantic structure will be a conventionalized unit (in any given language); that is to say, [[meow]/[cat sound]] is retrieved automatically, whereas it usually takes most communicators at least some amount of effort to compose the semantic structure [[turkey-leg position]/[turkey-leg position]] if they have need to refer to the pose adopted by a cat while it is licking its butt clean. The main point here is that the structure of a conception is defined in part by the relative salience of its subcomponents. A subsidiary point is that the phonological pole lets a communication partner know which part of that structure you want them to access, which we will get to in more detail shortly.

Many of these useful types of salience imbalance exist, including all of the ACRs (see the table above); for example, when hierarchic categorization is important, the basic level member will tend to be the most readily available for access (e.g., [lime] will be more prominent than either [citrus fruit] or [Key lime]). In fact, when this skill is not reliable, it is identified as a sign of dysfunction; that is to say, when asked for a list of animals, a person does not tend to say, “duck, cow, triceratops, felines, butterflies, lesser bird of paradise, and cat.” This is a hallmark, however, of Williams syndrome, and conventional categorization is often still in development for students in our Life Skills classrooms. You can understand how a lack of access to typical ACRs (and the like) would impact communication.

Similarly, in a conception that includes some sort of figure/ground structure, the figure will be the most easily accessible part; for example, in [run], the running trajector tends to be more prominent than the landmark surface on which the activity occurs, where that assymetry is even more evident in the likes of [runner] and [running]. But again, the most important part of this notion is that you can focus attention on parts of a more internally complex conception.

Crucially, there is a sense in which multiple semantic structures can sometimes be understood to share a schematic conceptual structure as a foundation (or base); in other words, in a stage play, a set is made up of a collection of items in common, and a spotlight can be cast on different subsets of those items to emphasize shifts in the focus of attention. When the spotlight or other emphasizer is turned off, then the entire structure remains generic or schematic; in contrast, assigning a specific phonological pole (i.e., choosing a specific spoken or signed phrase) emphasizes the attention on a subset of components in that foundation. That base then becomes more specific or elaborate. Before providing an illustrative example, we are going to motivate the introduction of diagrammatic representation.

When it comes to the representation of such structures, writing is a convenience (as in our use of [pig]); however, the restricted dimensionality and modality of such written words limits their usefulness, particularly when we want our portrayal of such structures to reflect some worthwhile degree of cognitive plausibility (i.e., what might really be going on inside of you). We gain a valuable amount of freedom, then, by introducing diagrammatic representation instead, where cognition is not strictly constrained by linearity, sequence, and specific word-ness. With appropriate guidelines, diagramming also naturally helps to ensure that our analyses do not miss out on important details that are not apparent with the orthographic versions. Diagrams, then, are a powerful heuristic that balances functional flexibility and formalist rigor.

Conceptual and semantic structures, then, are not only voluminous, but internally complex and organized as well, which can be much easier to depict in a diagram than in a spelled-out word. Diagrams also provide a reminder that we are not pursuing a formalist program here (i.e., a grammar of logical primitives), but rather a functionalist one. Again, just to remain clear: despite our use of diagrams, cognitive processing is not specifically visual in nature.

And now for the promised illustrative example.

Suppose that we have two phonological forms, namely: [head over shoulders] and [shoulders under head]. The conceptual structures that they would share in common would be the following set: [head], [shoulders], and [vertical relation]. To the degree that these are automatic, familiar, or “fixed” components, we enclose them in square brackets (as opposed to rounded parentheses, which would indicate greater novelty). To diagram their shared conceptual foundation (based on those three components), we might do well with a schematized representation of the two “things” in their default orientation, with none of those three being identified with relative prominence yet:

A vertically-oriented oval represents a head. Shoulders are depicted as a horizontal rectangle with an open bottom and rounded corners. The oval is above the rectangle. They are connected by a line that represents the fact that their relationship with one another is part of the structure.
Foundation: [head] + [vertical relation] + [shoulders]

The full conceptual structure is vastly more complex, but a schematic foundation depicts the relevant amount of detail necessary to conveying the potential relationships between the salient components. This diagram does not yet represent either of the semantic structures that shares this base, as nothing in it has been profiled for specific communicative attention.

Once again, to the degree that this represents a familiar, fixed composition, we bound it in a square frame (as opposed to a rounded rectangle to indicate a more novel structure).

A foundation is intended to represent the result of some sort of actual electrochemical event that takes place when activating a conceptual structure. Although diagrams like these are visual in nature (because they are presented for reading), there are other ways to conceptualize than pictorially, and people vary in their balance of modes. Some rely more heavily on audition-grounded structures (such as music… which some people also visualize, tactualize, and similar), some people process propositionally, and so on. Still others think rather purely in language.

Meaning: the Construal of a Conception

Now here is the important part: the same foundation can be used to depict different meanings; for example, the following diagrams represent the semantic structures evoked by two similar phrases, respectively “head over shoulders” and “shoulders under head” (where we will treat the latter as somewhat less familiar by using rounded delimiters):

Venn diagram of the intersection between peole’s experience of reality.
Meaning is Construal of Content

We are looking at two different semantic structures:

  • [[head over shoulders]/[head vertical-relation shoulders]]
  • ((shoulders under head)/[head vertical-relation shoulders])

These semantic structures have identical conceptual content components (i.e.: [head]; [shoulders]; and [vertical relation]), but the contents differ in how they are construed (i.e., a profiled or emphasized ‘head’ versus profiled ‘shoulders’). Meaning, therefore, is not content, but rather the conceptualized construal of content (as indicated in the diagram by the selected profile).

Please allow us the luxury of the repetition of that assertion for emphasis, as pared down to its most important core: meaning is the construal of content. This idea is not that of the primary author of this tutorial; it is Langacker’s (and his credited predecessors).

Ymage: a Construed Conception Shape

Such a diagram is intended to represent a cognitive image, or more simply just an ymage, spelled with a ‘y’ to avoid narrow associations with visual imagery while preserving the sensorimotor anchoring of the experience. Every ymage has a schematic foundation, and an ymage is completed when that base diagram is assigned a profile (as above), where that emphasis is evoked by the linked phonological form. Thus completed, it represents the meaning (i.e., the construed conceptual content) of its associated phrase. A communicative expression, then, evokes profiled conceptual content as part of a semantic structure; that is to say, a phrase makes a person think and feel something. That imposes a construal.

Here is the takeaway: a phrase makes a person think/feel something in a particular way.

Symbol: a Form-Ymage Pairing

Ymages depict meaning (i.e., construed content).

A communicative symbol is (a type of sign that is) a form-ymage pairing, such as:

  • a stop sign (a red octagon paired with [stop]);
  • the written English word ‘stop’ (a sequence of characters paired with [stop]);
  • the written Japanese word ‘止’ (a sequence of strokes paired with [stop]);
  • the spoken English word ‘stop’ (a sequence of sounds paired with [stop]);
  • the signed English word ‘stop’ (a sequence of hand shapes paired with [stop]);

and so on.

Note that in each case, the core meaning remains the same (i.e., the construed content in [stop]) even when the form changes. The ymage representing this imperative is also the same in each case:

This is a diagram of the conception ‘stop’. The remainder of this alt text provides details.  The letters L (on the left) and S (on the right) are horizontally aligned, with each depicted in its own small circle. Both of them are enclosed in an oval labeled ‘G’. A double-headed arrow runs from S to L. A solid arrow (with a non-uniform body) runs upward from L’s circle, at a length of three multiples of that circle. The circled L and its arrow are enclosed in a long, narrow rectangular box that overlaps part of the ground oval. A copy of that box and is placed over to the right of the figure (beyond S), but without an arrow, and with L-prime rather than L. A profiled, dotted arrow leads from the left box to the right one. A dotted arrow leads upward from S’s circle to the profiled arrow between the boxes.

This diagram is somewhat simplified because there are ideas that we have not covered yet (such as mental spaces, and the representation of processes over time); however, the notion goes like this:

  • The letters S (for signer/speaker) and L (for listener/looker) are enclosed in an oval labeled ‘G’ for ground (i.e., the communicative act and its components, where those parts of the process are all readily available to its participants for mutual reference).
  • The double-headed arrow represents the imperative force that runs from S to L.
  • L is depicted as engaging in some sort of unspecified process, with a solid arrow (with a non-uniform body), all enclosed in a rectangular box to suggest the bounds of the activity in reality.
  • The ground oval overlaps L in that box, because L is part of both the ground and the objective scene (which is sort of like being in the spotlight on a stage).
  • The copy of that box (with L-prime instead of L) indicates an alternative reality in which L’s original process is missing (because it has stopped in that reality).
  • The profiled, dotted arrow leading to the alternative reality is the focus of attention, namely the stopping of the process in which L is engaged. (There are better ways to represent that change, but this will do for now.)
  • The dotted arrow leading from S to that profiled change indicates what S is ordering L to do.

So the overall meaning of the [stop] imperative is simply that some second-person entity should cease engaging in some unspecified process (that is presumably understood in context). Again, we use square frames because this is a fixed semantic structure.

So it turns out that understanding a seemingly simple conception, such as [stop], is often not so very simple after all. Some of the simplest forms associate with the most complex ymages, and we absolutely rely on mutual efficiencies in our cognition to make communication at all possible. Sufficiently diagram [love] and you win a prize.

In any event, the focus within the semantic pole always gets narrowed down by its evoking expression (i.e., by the linked form). This expectation helps a communication partner to explicitly establish the scope and location of the core and its hub; for example, signing or speaking any of the following forms will emphasize different things that are known about pigs (where we approximated their associated conceptions in an earlier list):

  • “that pig”
  • “pink pig”
  • “herd of pigs”
  • “sounder of wild pigs”
  • “pigtail”
  • “in a pig’s eye”
  • “That’ll do, pig.” (King-Smith, Dick; Miller, George; and Noonan, Chris. 1995. Babe. Universal Pictures.)
  • “pig out”
  • “pig in a poke”
  • “happy as a pig in shit”
  • “you swine”
  • “when pigs fly”

Communication is a symbolic process, then, as studied by semeiognomists. As a subset of communication, language is also a symbolic process, as studied by cognitive linguists.

This seems to be a good place to emphasize the following principle about this pairing of form and ymage:

“There can be no difference anywhere that does not make a difference elsewhere…” — William James, Pragmatism (Lecture II)
“It is a safer working hypothesis that linguistic economy requires all differences in form to be correlated with differences in meaning.” — Dwight Bolinger, Meaning and Form (1974: 218)

Or, put more simply by Bolinger...

“[W]hen we say two things that are different [in form] we mean two different things by them.” (1974: 233)

Because there is no change in form without a change in meaning, there are no perfect synonyms.

And you can understand how the ability to ignore differences in form would support the development of search engines, universal translators, automated essay scorers, readability measures and measurers, and the like.

Iconicity: When Form is Ymage

A symbol is iconic (i.e., more like a straightforward sign) when the qualities of its formal part tell you about its ymage; for example, a powerful font for a word like BANG evokes a meaning of a more powerful sensation, so you are increasing the symbol’s iconicity. The ASL sign for ‘stop’ happens to use a vertical chopping motion of the edge of one hand on the upraised, horizontal palm of the other, which is iconic because of the ‘cutting off’ shape of the motion; however, the street stop sign is not iconic, because there is nothing in the nature of an octagonoid, or in the color red, or in their coincidence, that naturally evokes the notion of ‘stopping’. The street stop sign is not an iconic symbol then, but rather it is an arbitrary one.

When you vary the force used in the expression of a symbol’s form, you vary the power or precision of the meaning that the form evokes; for example: a bigger font indicates a bigger noise; a more frenetic gesture indicates a more energetic meaning; and when a word is pronounced with greater stress or volume, it can indicate a meaning that is more powerful or precise than normal. In the phrase, “That tree? I was expecting a TREE,” the expected TREE is probably bigger, but it might also more precisely approximate the person’s idea of the typical or perfect tree for the occasion. The form and the ymage are thus said to be in direct iconic proportion to one another. Even arbitrary symbols (e.g., the written word “tree”) are subject to this proportion.

Synaesthesia and Ideasthesia

Perhaps you have heard of people (synaesthetes) who live a cross-modal sensory life, smelling colors, feeling sounds, and so on. Those stories are densely simplified depictions of people who experience a broad range of highly complex sensations, but the most basic notion is that a stimulus in a primary sensory modality can be associated with sensations, perceptions, and awareness in a different modality.

Sometimes what is getting crossed are meanings rather than sensations, and the phenomenon is then referred to as ideasthesia. One common form occurs when a person strongly associates a sensory experience, such as a color, with an idea, like a number or letter. Such ideasthetes often have entire consistent symbolic systems of such associations (such as calendars surrounding their body). Most people experience this to some degree in their relatively iconic association of phonemes with ideas (as in the Kiki-Bouba effect), which is one reason that communication was ever able to develop in the first place. This effect is more like ideasthesia, then, when it is less iconic and more arbitrary.

Sometimes these effects are subtle enough, or a person’s life experience has been sheltered or just outright unusual enough, that it can take years for them to learn that others don’t feel and think and believe the way that they do about their respective bodies and worlds. Naturally, the same awareness issue can apply to other types of variation as well, such as color vision deficiency, facial agnosia, lack of relative pitch, and the range of pain thresholds and tolerances experienced by people who live on the likes of the autism, traumatic stress, or psychosis spectrums. Life can feel isolating if you have no conventional, shared words with which to describe your experience to anyone else. But, just to keep things in perspective, that’s not always a bad thing. The ideasthetes of our acquaintance tend to like it that way; it can just take longer to create an effective description.

As one extreme example of that diversity in sharing, we will point out that women and men (to resort to a biological assignment binary that matches particular research) do not tend to perceive temperature the same way. Put simply, women tend to feel cold more easily than men do (or men tend to feel cold less easily than women do). But it is more difficult to feel isolated on either side of such an equation when nearly half of the users of your language have also been working on ways to describe that dichotomy forever.

In contrast, some people live a long lifetime without even realizing.

Grammar: Symbolic Assembly

Before wrapping up this section on semeiognomy, we are going to give you a very simple demonstration of how this approach supports cognitive grammatical construction. Let’s take a straightforward, concrete concept that we have been using in our examples, namely ‘pig’, and see what happens when someone pluralizes it by speaking or signing the word “pigs.”

We start with a symbol of a type that tends to be categorized as more grammatical because its typical use is not as independent or “unpredictable by rule” (as it is for other members on the continuum); that is to say, when compared to the frequency and independence of a more lexical item like “pig,” there are very few reasons why someone would say just “z” by itself to refer to plural marking (albeit it does happen):

This is a circle that contains several smaller circles.

This diagram is just specific enough to get across the notion of plurality, and the encompassing circle is profiled with a heavier stroke to represent the focus of attention on the plurality (and not on its component units).

Now let’s add the pig that we intend to pluralize, where this sort of symbol is referred to as “lexical” essentially because it can stand alone (i.e., without any additional grammatical marking):

This is a silhouette of a typical pig with a curly tail, facing left.

The diagram can remain pretty schematic, because we don’t need to emphasize much internal detail when the intent is just to turn unspecified number into plurality. The pig is profiled for attention as a silhouette (instead of appearing as an outline).

Combine these structures as follows: [[[pig]-[z]]/[[pig]-[plural]]]. Then reduce them for convenience:

In short, the two previous diagrams are aligned horizontally at the bottom of the figure, with their combination drawing placed above them. The remainder of this alt text provides a more detailed description. A curved, dotted line indicates a simple correspondence between the pig in its diagram on the left with one of the smaller circles on the right. The plural diagram has its frame bolded. A small arrow runs from the plurality to the pig. Converging lines are drawn from the tops of the two lower boxes to the bottom of the lone upper box. In the upper box, within a profiled circle, each of the smaller plurality circles has become a pig outline.

What you are witnessing is a functionalist, meaning-driven (i.e., “semeiocentric”) grammatical process, where two schematic semantic structures combine to form a more specific expression. Out of convention, the two component structures are aligned at the bottom of the figure. The “plural” part of the diagram (bottom right) is like a function waiting to be activated, where the dotted line indicates a simple correspondence between (a) the pig, and (b) one of the otherwise identical circles out of the replicate mass. We bold the frame of the plural diagram to emphasize the pluralizing function being performed, where the small arrow from the plurality to the pig indicates the direction of that instantiation (i.e., this prototypical pig provides a more specific instance of the replicate mass member type). The converging lines from the lower to upper levels indicate the composition of two diagrams into one. In the composite, the replicate mass members are pig outlines, with a profile on the encompassing circle because all together they represent a plurality of pigs. Throughout, we use square (rather than rounded) framing components because the structures are fairly automatic or fixed (as opposed to novel).

Note that if the intended pig-to-be-pluralized did not work in as generic a fashion as a truly prototypical one, and were only compatible to a lesser degree of precision — such as Babe, who would not usually pluralize — then it would be an extension of the prototype, in which case we would use a dashed-line arrow instead.

The same pattern is followed for other plurals of replicate masses:

This alt text needs work.
This alt text needs work.

This alt text needs work.
This alt text needs work.

So, grammatic structures (as a functional subset of semantic structures) impose specific images on the conceptual content supplied by comparatively lexical structures (likewise), providing a way of phonologically signaling (i.e., symbolizing) the intended meaning, which is a construal of the conceptual content.

This functional approach would handle the use of an alternative phonological pole, such as “pigses,” in a very similar fashion, albeit rounded brackets would be used to represent the relative novelty of the construction: (([pigs]-[əz])/[[pig]-[plural]]), with rounded frames in the diagram. This might occur if a speaker were to treat “pigs” as singular, and then apply a conventional pluralizing pattern to the composition (similar to “adzes” and “hoses”). This sort of improvisation happens quite a bit among users, and it all drives various types of diachronic language change, such as “peas” coming to be treated as a plural when it was originally singular.

From the perspective of developing therapy, this functionalist approach helps us to understand what is going on with a user’s language (and possibly their cognition); in contrast, a formalist approach would classify “pigses” and other sorts of novel utterances (i.e., a matter of performance or “doing”) as irrelevant to the development of the theory (which is concerned only with competence or “knowing”), so it would all be ignored as bad data (even when a client is regularly following that pattern). Again, we are not arguing that a functionalist paradigm is better than a formalist one in an absolute sense, but rather that an understanding of formalism alone is insufficient for informed therapy design.

Summary of Terms

The information presented in this section builds up to the following hierarchy of assertions:

  • Forms are word shapes.
    • Forms have structure (i.e., spoken and signed shapes).
  • Conceptions (i.e., concepts and conceptualizations) are thoughts and feelings.
    • Conceptions have structured contents (i.e., conceptual structures).
  • Semantic structures are those concepts that are evoked by communicative forms (i.e., phrases make you conceive of things).
    • Semantics is, therefore, a subset of conceptual analysis.
  • A cognitive image (i.e., ymage) foundation is a schematic conceptual structure shared in common by a set of semantic structures.
  • Meaning resides in the construal of a conception’s contents.
  • Ymages are foundations profiled to represent meaning (i.e., meaning is ymagistic).
    • Iconicity is the amount that a form is like its associated ymage.
  • Symbols are (relatively arbitrary) pairings of forms and ymages.
  • Communication is a semiotic process (which in humans is often but not always symbolic, i.e., relatively arbitrary in form).
  • Language is a (mostly) symbolic subset of communication.
    • Communicative (and linguistic) expressions impose a specific construal on the contents that they evoke (i.e., spoken and signed phrases make you conceive of things in a particular way).

This, then, is the difference between communication and language. It is not too horribly wrong to say that languages have grammars (i.e., rule systems… sort of) and that their form-ymage pairings are almost entirely arbitrary; that is to say, there is no iconically-motivated reason that [stop] should be associated with the particular letters or sounds for the written/spoken English word “stop,” except perhaps that it can be produced quickly with a sense of finality; that said, some languages use much longer forms for [stop], even when it is an exclamation of warning. (We leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out whether languages universally employ means to shorten utterances in the context of expressing urgency.)

In addition, while communication is grounded biologically, cognitively, socioculturally, and so on, language also tends to define the area that includes social interaction.

Finally, language typically enjoys meta-language, which is the use of language to affect language (and the communication domain that surrounds it). Unlike language, communication systems typically cannot use existing gestures to establish new ones that the group will share; for example, while wolves communicate with tail postures, they cannot use those existing gestures to define a new one. To the degree that a communication system breaks through this barrier, it becomes more like a language.

Human languages, whether signed or spoken, share very few universals. They all represent nouns (i.e., things) and verbs (i.e., processes as temporal relations). They all broadly categorize their forms along a continuum of paradigmatic contrastive power (i.e., ‘consonants’ vs ‘vowels’, and ‘inherent’ vs ‘prosodic’ feature branches). They all have pronouns with at least three persons and two numbers. They all have terms for the following concepts: [body] (with an extremely rare variation that means something more along the lines of [body-as-person]), [head], [eyes], [nose], [mouth], and [arms].

We have also contended the existence of very few fundamental cognitive functions: attention (focus), association, categorization, schematization, and automatization (as entrenchment for an individual, and conventionality for a community). Conceptualization emerges from these.

Now that you have these basics in place, we can usefully discuss communication and language as (primarily) symbolic processes in which participants engage.

Generation to Communication

Now that we have thoroughly discussed the nature of the symbolic packages that are exchanged during communication, we need to talk more about the actual process of that transfer. It seems best to work our way forward from an initial set of primitives (both synchronic and diachronic).


We are going to start with one potential participant that we will identify as a generator:

The diagrams in this tutorial rely on simple geometric shapes to stand in for such entities as a brain inside of a cognizer’s body (i.e., a circle inside of a rounded rectangle). In the case of this specific diagram, a rounded rectangle (without a circle inside) represents an entity that has an inside, an outside, and a boundary between the two. A generator is then defined as an entity (this rectangle) that emanates both a signal and some noise into its environment. A pale solid arrow denotes the conveyance of that information from somewhere inside of the Generator to its boundary with the world outside. A dark solid arrow (aiming away from the edge of the rectangle) is the signal path of that information beyond the boundary interface, and a dotted version of that external arrow is the portion that is noise. The difference between signal and noise is described in more detail in the primary text. The rectangle is bolded to represent a profile of attention on the generator itself.

Imagine an entity (the rounded rectangle profiled with a bold border) that is emanating some sort of information (So) across a range of directions into its environment. Broadly stated, that emanation could be light, sound, heat, touch pressure, and so on, or their combinations.

A signal is any part of an emanation that:

  1. incorporates some type of orderly distinction in its form (such as a pattern of intensity, duration, and so on)
  2. where that distinction represents further information about some entity or other (i.e., a meaning).

In contrast, noise (the dotted arrow) is anything that obscures that signal’s distinction between form and meaning. That balance is their signal-to-noise ratio, and any part of that noise that conveys its own meaning is known as crosstalk.

As discussed above in the section on iconicity, a signal is iconic when the distinction in its form is concretely associated with a meaning; that is to say, a signal would be more iconic if its sheer amplitude represented increased size, or if faintness of the signal represented a similar weakness. Towards the other end of that spectrum, a signal is more symbolic when that relationship between form and meaning is abstract; for example, let’s consider words that mean [loud explosive noise]. The spoken word “discharge” is not as iconic as the word “pop,” where the latter has an explosive release of /p/ into the open vowel /a/). And the word “POP” is even more iconic (written or spoken, with signed equivalence) than “pop” is when it represents a particularly loud explosive noise.

At this point, we are already letting examples seep in that are specifically linguistic in nature (rather than just communicative), because their clear illustrative value outweighs the need to keep this discussion on a more general footing about broadly environmental events. As we progress, we will talk more about the specific involvement of brains in this process of form-meaning association; that is to say, while some types of signals are identified with intentional communication (as in sign or speech), others are not (as in cell signaling, or plants communicating through volatile organic compounds… probably). Yet others occupy some sort of middle ground (as in ant versus human pheromones). This aspect of the discussion, though, can safely be deferred until later in the tutorial.

For our purposes, forms (including those of emanations) have power and precision. Power is the absolute intensity of an individual form at a given point in time, and precision is the relative intensity of one form compared to another from which it is distinct (in space, time, or both). They are both types of prominence.


Now we add a second participant, namely a receiver:

This is similar to the previous diagram, except that the arrows point towards the rectangle, which is the receiver of the information. A receiver is defined as an entity that absorbs both a signal and some noise from its environment.

The profiled entity is absorbing some sort of information (Si) from various directions in its environment. Sometimes that acquisition is just some amount of environmental noise (the dotted arrow), but it can also be a signal that has described a path from a generator (the solid black arrow).

While we are primarily concerned with acquisitions that the receiver is actually processing (the solid grey arrow), the emanation might just be absorbed or reflected without significant consequence (i.e., without any meaningful change or effect). Some physical experiences are not detected by the receiver’s sensory array (whether those signals originate externally or internally).

Generation and Reception

This is what the model looks like when these two components are combined, and the receiver is cast as an entity with a brain:

When it comes to the overall conveyance of information, the process of generation profiles the generator and its emanated information.
When it comes to the overall conveyance of information, the process of reception profiles the receiver and the absorption of the information.

In the first case, generation is profiled, and in the second, we profile reception.

We added the brain because we are working towards a specific model of people communicating with one another, despite the fact that there are less intentional versions of the process that are also called communication (such as a door that communicates into an adjacent room, a metropolis with efficient rail communication, or even the earlier plant example… although we are currently noncommital about ants). Similarly, the diagram locates input higher than output only due to the specist conceit that human receptors tend to be gathered upward in the head, whereas their articulators tend to be lower than that.

When a signal encounters an intermediate entity on the way to a receiver (e.g., light passing through glass on the way to an eye, sound reflecting off of a hard surface on the way to an ear, pressure being felt through clothes, and so on), and there is no change in the distinct part of its form that represents a meaning (e.g., when a reflection remains unadulterated, or a medium is transparent to a signal, and so on), then there is no change in meaning, so we are not going to unnecessarily complicate the diagrams to include such inconsequential events along the signal path. (This tutorial takes no substantive stance on the status of relayed telepathy.)


Imagine, then, an emanator that is banging air molecules together, radiating light wavicles, or otherwise generating output signals (So). Some of that energy traces a signal path intersecting at least one sensor in a receiver’s array:

Building on the previous diagrams, the profile here is on the immediate sensation of the incoming information at the receiver's interface with its environment, which is represented by a small circle interrupting that boundary with a small arrow inside of the receiving half of that circle.

Humans are typically able to absorb many kinds of input, whether conveyed by electomagnetic radiation, volatilized chemical compounds, or mechanical energy travelling through such media as air, water, or the ground. While some of those emanations originate from outside of the receiver’s body, others are internal, and a clear description of communication requires us to sort some of that out. There is no need to memorize the following terms, but the knowledge should (eventually) contribute to the cognitive model that you are constructing.

The special sensory receptors are the organs in the head that detect light (photoreceptors in the eyes), sounds (mechanoreceptors in the ears), and smells and tastes (chemoreceptors in the nose and mouth). These special sensors are exteroceptive, in that they act as environmental interfaces. This cephalization of the special sensors keeps them near the brain, which cuts down on processing time and improves sensory integration.

There are also special sensors whose environmental interface is not as discrete or ”surfacey” as that of the others. Mechanoreceptors in the vestibular system detect changes in the head as it is influenced by gravity, namely in terms of angular and linear acceleration in three spatial dimensions (i.e., rotation and translation in space).

Moving the effective location of your special sensors can equally dislocate a primary chunk of your sense of self, as is leveraged in vitual reality (VR) systems; for example, if you (are a sighted person and you) wear a VR helmet rigged to a remote camera that is viewing your body from the side, then your sense of self relocates with the camera and you will experience a (sometimes quite significant) delay in your identification of yourself as the VR-gear-wearing person whom you are viewing. This can vary by person, depending on their investment in their visual experience of their environment; in other words, some people are more like sighthounds, some are more like scenthounds, and so on.

A distinction tends to be made between these special cephalic organs and the general or somatic sensors whose receptors are distributed elsewhere than your κεφάλι, where that more general set is subdivided as follows:

  • exteroceptive skin sensors to detect pain, pressure, temperature, touch, and tension; and
  • internal organ sensors that are either:
    • proprioceptive receptors in the joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons that detect muscle tension (proprioceptors), so as to sense movement strength and body part position (and balance, when integrated with information from the vestibular system), or
    • visceroreceptive internal organ receptors that detect blood pressure (pressoreceptors), stretching (i.e., stretch receptors in the bladder, lungs, and stomach), and chemical concentrations in the blood and tissues (e.g., chemoreceptors for carbon dioxide, glucose, oxygen, and so on).

Nociceptors (for pain) and thermoceptors are found both in the skin and in some internal organs, and are classified accordingly (as whichever-ceptive of the two choices).

The independent relocation of the somatic sensors (i.e., not dependent on relocating the special sensors) is a contemporary technological grail. If you can figure out how to make it seem like a person’s sense of self is relocating to a remote touch site, the world will (virtually) beat a path to your door.

Interoception is an emergent property that represents a sense of the body’s internal state, accepting input from all of the following systems: cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, nociceptive, respiratory, thermoregulatory, and affective touch. These all contribute to the maintenance of homeostasis and a sense of self. It is not surprising, then, that diversity in such a broad system has been proposed to influence a host of disorders, including PTSD, OCD, ASD, anxiety, panic, eating, and more.

The sensation of an environmental signal is always a local consequence of a remote event, relative to your actual body. You don’t really see lightning or hear thunder “way over there,” but rather on your retina and cochlea, and then in your brain. (This is one reason that VR works so well, namely that you are already geared to interpret local events as if they were remote.) Even with touch, the pressure itself, though immediate to the surface layer of the skin, is minutely remote from the sensors below that surface. So remember this bit:


To sum things up: 1) light and sound are the most common forms for communication signals (with the rest of the forms, such as volatile chemicals, tending to be treated as alternatives or ancillaries), and 2) interoception will be discussed later as an important aspect of meaning.


As sensors acquire a (noisy) signal, they transduce it (electro)mechanically from the energy of origin (i.e., electromagnetic, chemical, and so on) into electrochemical energy that the body can process (So → Si):

This diagram profiles the part of sensation that is transduction, represented as a small arrow inside of the trailing half of the small circle that indicates sensation.

Roughly, then, sensation will be a signal’s detection, including the immediate transduction which aids that reception (i.e., the reaction of rods, cones, cochlear nerves, and so on). While a functional sensory system can filter out some noise, a dysfunctional one can introduce more.

That’s another important bit to remember for our intensely special students.


Perception, it follows, will be any transduction and transmission of the new, local signal beyond the sensory organ; in other words, this process gets the electrochemical signal frrom a sensory organ to the brain, including its reception there as a percept (i.e., the solid grey arrow in the brain):

This diagram profiles perception as a dark solid arrow leading from the receiver's sensory array to its brain.

As with sensation, perception can affect the signal-to-noise ratio.

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the brain’s boundaries (so there is no symbol on the diagram to represent the creation of the percept), but that is beyond the scope of this work, and definitions that precise have no critical bearing here. In short, there is now a brain receiving a palatable form of a (preferably less noisy) signal that was originally generated in the receiver’s environment (So → Si → brain).


What the brain does with these percepts will be a part of cognition:

This diagram profiles cognition as two head-to-tail arrows within the circle that is the cognizer's brain.

To clarify:

  • the actual signal to the brain’s (fuzzy) boundary is assigned to perception (i.e., upper grey arrow),
  • the output beyond the brain is a type of (electrochemical) signal generation (i.e., lower grey arrow), and
  • what happens to percepts within the brain is circumscribed here as cognition (i.e., the dark arrows), some parts of which are more automatized than others.

Cognition is the place where plans are made to associate forms with meanings.

Power, Precision, and Prominence

While that is happening, this is what we want you to know about these specific cognitive functions:

  • The complex set of functions that evaluate a signal’s power (i.e., its absolute intensity) will be treated here as if they were a single entity, which will also be called power; likewise,
  • the set of functions which evaluates a signal’s precision (i.e., relative power) will be treated as a unitary entity also called precision (cf. “comparison”; Langacker, 1977: 100), and
  • at this point, prominence will be the evaluation of a signal’s intensity as high (so we will use salience with a more general meaning).

Power transitively evaluates the absolute intensity of that signal’s generator (i.e., if there is power in the signal, and the signal came from the generator, then the generator had power in it); likewise; those cognitive processes which evaluate the precision between two or more such signals are evaluating the relative power of those signals’ generators (or of one generator at different points in time). In short, a signal’s form reveals information about its generator. Any receiver that is doing a poor job of evaluating a signal’s intensity is likewise poorly evaluating the generator’s properties.

Later on, we will show that this equation holds whether these functions are evaluating:

  • the direct (i.e., proximal) experience of a signal, such as the sensation of the impact when catching a ball; or
  • the indirect (i.e., distal) experience of a signal, such as the sensation associated with only remembering such an impact.

Either way, this amounts to the perception of:

  • the absolute size or strength of an entity (its power), such as a perceived emotion, color, or threat, and
  • the relative proportions of multiple entities (their precision), such as perceptual changes in general, or the relative hugeness or imminence of a threat in specific.

In their most primitive aspects, power and precision are essential functions across chordate behavior, whether or not vermiforms (for example) are actually suggested as providing the evolutionary source for these functions in human cognition.

Research suggests that these functions are necessary for semantic processing, which we describe in the section on semeiognomy; in fact, these functions are portrayed as fundamental cognitive abilities evaluating perceptual events in general (Langacker, 1987: 100ff; Bolinger, 1986: ch. 6f; Mansfield, 1997; just to begin with).

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are not different in structure from other neurons, but they act together to provide a special function. These neurons learn to fire when we experience someone or something else doing something. They are found in such brain areas (monkey or human, depending) as those associated with: planning spatial and sensory guidance of movement; control of movement; the main sensory receptive area for touch; sensory integration for spatial sense and navigation; and in humans also the area for triggering “go/no go” tasks, risk assessment, and aversion.

Information from mirror neuron processing contributes to:

  1. a person’s body schema, which is their integrated neural representation of their body;
  2. their peripersonal space map, which is their model of the space around their body that is essentially within their physical grasp; and
  3. their extrapersonal space map, which is their model of reality beyond their physical reach.

Tools can come to be incorporated into body schema and peripersonal space, at which point they are treated as part of one’s body. A typically developing person’s sense of self is strongly associated with their vision, and there are experiments that muck about with vision to disassociate a person’s sense of self from their actual physical location (as described above). There is too much to talk about here, but you can imagine that there are all sorts of sense-of-self variations based on the likes of neglect disorders, amputation, attention disorders, and so on. These representations are normally sensorily integrated, with heavy emphasis on vision and touch, and in cases of impairments, presentation of stimuli in one mode can cause extinction in another (e.g., a strongly unimodal reliance on vision over audition).

Myth: Swiss Cheese Mataphor

Before proceeding, we should touch on a myth related to sensation and perception. When it comes to diversity in cortical sensory processing, there is a common-but-mistaken impression that goes by the name of “the Swiss cheese metaphor.” This description is often used to illustrate such impairments specifically in visual processing, but vision is only one aspect of image formation. The expression is supposed to convey the notion that a person can see and understand some parts of a scene but not others, where those ‘holes’ might move around. It makes it seem like some parts of a person’s eyes work better than others, as if the person might be expected to reliably see and understand things that are always presented in a specific, functional area of their field of vision (which might not exist). Simply put: that’s wrong.

Here’s what you should learn instead:

  • Information comes at us from the environment (including our own bodies) in different ways (i.e., various types of vision, hearing, touch, olfaction, proprioception, and so on).
  • Typically, we filter noise out of those signals.
  • We pull a signal together to make a usefully accurate model of the environment.
  • This system is enormously complex, and a person’s compromised system might fail or succeed in any number of different ways, and it might do so inconsistently.
  • So, unlike Swiss cheese, a person’s challenged cortical subsystems are not going to be composed of discrete, reliably bad/good areas of failure/success.
  • Therefore, when you are trying to get a particular meaning across to someone whose sensory subsystems are not typical, try more than one modality, try multiple times, and don’t expect the same thing to work every time; in other words, you’re not just trying to toss a marble through a stable hole in the Swiss cheese.

Which is our segue to…


Now take a look at all of this from the perspective of a cognizer taking on the role of a generator, where that generator will soon come to be discussed as it represents a speaker or signer (S):

In this diagram, articulation is profiled as a dark solid arrow leading from the brain to a small circle that interrupts the border of the enclosing rounded rectangle.

Having processed the percept into palatable input for the brain, the cognizer then formulates some meaning into motor plans (and other associated signals), and some of those are sent to the body’s articulators. Just planning to move is associated with bodily sensations, and this formulation involves narrowing down a wide range of merely potential plans. (Jerking in association with thinking about moving is a thing. Being a jerk in association with thinking about moving is a different thing.)

The action of articulation in the diagram above begins when the internal electrochemical signal leaves the brain, and continues as it becomes bodily motion, which essentially releases another signal into the outside world (So), ready to be picked up by something else as an input signal (Si).

Properties of intensity, as conceived by the generator, can be encoded iconically into their signals (e.g., a powerful signal might represent the strength of an emotion associated with a particular meaning), which will then affect the intensity of the articulation when rendering that signal. One of the broad differences between general communication and language in specific is that the latter tends to be less concrete/iconic, and more symbolic/arbitrary.

So the articulating individual can vary the amount of power that they put into the generation of their signal, which can then be received as proximal or distal. To quote Grover: “First, this is near. Right here, near. Mhm! [Grover runs from his proximal location to a distal one.] This is FAAAAAR.” (First witnessed by the quoting author as: “Near and far.” Sesame Street, created by Jim Henson, performance by Frank Oz, season 1, episode 57, PBS, as aired in January, 1970. Sponsored by the letters ‘i’, ‘p’, and ‘u’, and the numbers ‘4’ and ‘5’.) Note the iconicity of “FAAAAAR” in the combined capitals, italics, and repeated letters to represent a significantly increased intensity of signal distance.

In the case of proximal reception of a signal, the evaluation is direct; that is to say, if you throw a rock to/at me (where that throw is an example of articulation), then I can directly evaluate its impact as a proximal event simply by waiting to feel it (or without a wait if it catches me off guard). This measure is precise even if I have never had any experience with catching rocks (or being hit by them), because my evaluation is made after the signal’s direct reception, and is based solely upon the energy of the impact (i.e., the articulatory energy put into the signal’s energy) rather than any previous experience of my own. The same goes for any sensory signal.

In comparison, I can indirectly evaluate the strength of that same signal as a distal event by observing its generator (pitcher, speaker, signer, or whatever). Did the gesture appear efficient or wasteful? Did the articulation seem to be energetic? Was the motion terse and concentrated, or sustained and broadcast? How has it felt to me when I have made the same sort of gesture? The accuracy of this indirect measure must rely upon my previous experience (learned or innate) with similar events, where this experience can be as specific as my having thrown a rock to/at another person, or as general as my often having tossed aside inconsequential objects (or even remarks). The mirror neuron system is integrated with this process.

Digging into more deeply buried experience (for use in a distal evaluation) requires greater effort, and there are ways in which language can be spoken or signed with a greater infusion of energy on S’s part that will help the looker or listener (L) to dredge it up. We are working towards demonstrating how that works (among many other things), and this is just a brief mention to note where some of this is heading.

We stated earlier that power and precision evaluate the intensity of a signal’s generator. Whether that evaluation is proximal or distal, a signal’s form still reveals information about its generator.

And even when the signal is evaluated as distal (i.e., “FAAAAAR”), it is still a local perception of a remote event (i.e., we stated earlier that your personal portrayal of the world is no farther away than the boundaries of your sensory array).

Proximal (direct) attributes should be processed more easily than distal ones, because they are not “interpreted,” and require no access to experience for evaluation; however, they should still contribute to experience afterward to facilitate the processing of future instances of the event, which might be received in their turn as distal signals. In that sense, proximal processing is a primitive precursor of distal processing.

The greater the experiential overlap between generator and receiver (i.e., articulator and perceiver), the greater the likelihood that an indirect evaluation will be accurate, and that the intended meaning will be conveyed without the signal having to be directly intense, which is a relatively wasteful encoding; in other words, if I know that you have been struck by a rock before, then I can just make a gesture to elicit the intended feeling in you. All I have to do is articulate a gesture as if I were going to throw a rock (and maybe not all that powerful an actual gesture at that).

And while we have been using concrete examples for their illustrative clarity, you should understand that these sorts of principles apply to processes that are more symbolic as well. While iconic or indexical gestures have been proposed as the earliest communication units forming the foundation of subsequent linguistic evolution (Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox, 1995), a symbolic sentence (such as this one) might have emphasis (like those very italics) on a signed or spoken form, which is intended to represent an intensity of meaning (i.e., power or precision). Note that communication tends to be more proximal, and language more distal.

Which took a dissertation to explain well (Mansfield; 1997), chunks of which are adapted for this tutorial, when not copied wholesale (which, as the copyright holder, the primary author is allowed to do with a light heart).


Having set all of this up, the following represents communication:

This diagram brings together the previous diagrams to build a picture of communication. The path of the information is represented by arrows linked up in a lemniscate that intersects the brains within two participants.

In short:

  • Some participant begins things by taking on the role of generator, drawing in perceptions from the outside and adding them to their current set of conceptions, then evaluating this conceptual set and articulating a gesture that is typically audible and visible (with ancillary components).
  • This expression adds to the environmental input for the next participant, who receives it.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat.

The farther we get through this tutorial, the closer we get to showing how that schematic description manifests in terms of an actual conversation.

In this model, then, a participant might sense something huge or intense in their environment, perceive it, and then articulate a signal in response which is also large or intense (maybe to pass along a warning). The reception of this subsequent signal (by some other participant) forms the overlap which closes the coil (in the above diagram) where it was originally open at transduction.

Of course, the only reason that the diagram uses a coil instead of a plain circular loop is because it casually associates each generator with the configuration of a primate head (as mentioned earlier), so the articulators are below the receivers, and this diagram portrays only two participants (essentially facing each other).

Before proceding, it is important to compare our domain-specific definition of communication with its broader range of conventional meanings (i.e., those that are familiar in the community). In its most schematic sense, communication is the dispersion of contents from one container into at least one other. Those contents cannot be shared without traversing the intervening spacetime between the containers, where:

  • A warm radiator communicates its thermal energy to its environment.
  • An infected arthropod communicates its disease to its victim.
  • A vibrant rainbow communicates its colors to its observers.
  • A laden railway system communicates its load to its next station.
  • A connecting doorway communicates its passers-through to its adjacent rooms.

We can experience those communicative activities by directly examining each of those types of contents. This theme becomes substantially more complex when those contents are intangible:

  • A forboding sign contains a warning that it communicates to its observers.
  • A rabid fan contains an enthusiasm that it communicates to its bystanders.
  • An expressive signer/speaker contains a conceptualization that it communicates to its listener/looker.

So our particular definition is compatible with the generic one.

Communication Context

When the generic notion of a “participant” is cast specifically in terms of entities that are taking turns acting as generator and receiver in a communication event, then the diagram represents the context for those participants in that event:

This diagram relies on simple geometric shapes to create an abstract representation of a brain inside of a cognizer’s body. Pale arrows indicate an exchange of information between the brain and the world outside, where that information passes through the body. Bold arrows within the brain stand for cognitive and related activity.
Context (Schematization)

When the role of the generator is cast specifically as a signer/speaker (S) in a language event, and the receiver is likewise identified with a looker/listener (L), then that context becomes known as the ground (as in a type of spatiotemporal reality anchor point):

The communication diagram can be simplified as two head-to-tail arrows tracing a circular path through two brains, wthout the additional details being included.
Ground (Schematization)

We talked about G earlier when we were introducing the use of diagrams. This will all be important when it comes to the discussion of G in regards to setting up a model of reality.

The ground is a critical component in the conventional meanings of words such as: “this,” “you,” “does,” “must,” and “went”; in other words, you should spend some time verifying the reliability of a client’s Theory of Mind (which affects their use of G) before you design therapy that digs into the likes of pronouns and tense/aspect.

Communication from Generation

Written very broadly, then, communication does not exist without some form of participant input and output, and then a participant’s ability to associate those forms with meanings. This tutorial is working you towards an understanding of what “meaning” means in that sense, and where it came from, because points of origin are usually a good place to look when you are trying to understand a disorder.

Cognitive abilities such as power and precision are developed in an environment which presses the specific need to evaluate the intensity of perceptions; in other words, it is helpful to be able to identify entities that are more powerful than you are, because they might pose a threat (or represent a potent survival resource). Similarly, it is helpful to know if they are relatively less powerful, because food (and the like).

To the degree that communication itself becomes vital for a species in that environment, developing the additional ability to communicate or externalize conceptions or perceptions of prominence (as articulation) would present a great advantage over only being able to process incoming perceptions of prominence. A species has a distinct advantage if it is composed of individuals which can not only perceive danger, but can communicate the imminence of that danger to other individuals. Given the iconic nature of these signals, and the universality of the behavior in reaction to these signals (fight/flight), some universality should also be expected across signal systems such as communication and language.

A directly powerful signal should have its origin in an efficient transfer of articulatory energy from the gesture which generated it, because the alternative would be enormously wasteful, namely where the power of the signal only represents a fraction of the articulatory energy (i.e., it would be a lot of energy spent to create a weak articulation). Such a waste is not conducive to the survival of the generator.

Direct power has its advantages in primitive systems of communication, because the message gets across even when the generator and the receiver have little or no experience in common: signals which either overwhelm or saturate a sensory field will be evaluated as iconic and powerful (i.e., prominent). To avoid waste, the transfer of articulatory energy to signal energy has to be essentially equal. Evaluated as a proximal event, the strength of that signal’s form has an equally intense meaning (again iconic), namely that the sensory field is being overwhelmed or saturated.

Shared experience with this primitive equation promotes the development of communication systems which can rely upon the additional evaluation of signals as distal events, systems like language. When it comes to these more sophisticated signal systems, actual signal strength is not necessarily proportional to meaning, but its perceived articulatory effort is.

The value of language-universal gestures, whether visible (stabbing) or audible (explosion sound-effects), is not readily apparent when removed from a primitive environment (because language-users could simply identify a threat in so many words), but it is clearly valuable at a communication-universal level. Bigness and loudness convey threat and authority, and power (often sheer size) is expressed visibly or audibly with such ferocity that even insects employ such pure representations of threat; for example, Ohala (1983: 7) supports the existence a cross-species “frequency code” which equates a generator’s smallness with high pitch, and its largeness or threat with low pitch and loudness. It’s ultimately a simple matter of physics. (Well, unless it turns out someday that it’s not “physics all the way down.”)

Given our personal, continual experience with prominence, it seems unreasonable to suggest otherwise than that it was beneficial to adapt an internal resource, namely the cognitive evaluation (or articulation) of prominence, to serve an external purpose: the communication or physical articulation of prominence; for example, iconic stress eventually gives rise to communicative and linguistic stress.

When we put this all together (along with research into actual communication data), we gain some insight into the emergence of communication from lower-order entities, both in the development of (a) various species, and (b) those species’ individual members (ancestrally, and throughout their lifespan). We can appreciate the connections between:

  • a cobra fanning its hood to appear larger,
  • a silverback wreaking sensational havoc in its environment to establish its power,
  • S using significant emphasis while saying (or signing the equivalent of), “I am the BOSS around here” (perhaps as accompanied by emphatic gestures), and
  • someone who — experiencing a disordered loss for words — “goes absolutely apeshit” to express their authority over a situation.

An understanding of those origins is important because:

  • those two patterns of emergence (i.e., a and b, similar to ontogeny and phylogeny) are reflected in one another (albeit this “recapitulation” is neither as simple nor as strict as Haeckel proposed in his “Biogenetic Law”), and
  • disorders of complex, higher-order, emergent systems (such as communication or language) are typically based in a disturbance of their lower-order components, such as some aspect of sensation, perception, or cognition.

As this tutorial progresses, we will be looking at some examples, such as what happens when a sensory disability is associated with challenges in the creation of form-meaning pairs, and when disorders of language are rooted in disturbances of communication (or its components).

This is of particular importance to intensely special education because the origins of some of the associated disorders run deeeeep. (Note how truly deep that must be, because we used so many letter ‘e’s to spell it.)

Communication into Language

We still need to go into far more detail about language beyond its origins, including discussions of:

  • “objective reality” as shared among its denizens (whether or not they use language),
  • each individual person's subjective model of reality (likewise),
  • areas beyond spatial reality, and
  • more about the nature of form, meaning, and their association.

We are going to bother setting up some terms and a particular model of objective reality because it helps us to explain how and why people create particular types of language signals, which will be important in describing disorders in that conventional system.

Before proceeding, we would just like to quote United Air Lines:

For takeoff your seatbelt must be fastened low and tight across your lap. Insert the metal fitting into the buckle, and pull tight by pulling on the loose strap. To release, lift up on the faceplate of the buckle. It is important that you keep your seatbelt fastened at all times when seated to protect yourself from any unexpected turbulence. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

Okay, we admit it. That last line was Margo Channing.

Subjective Reality

Unlike objective reality, which we can just point to as a source of objects for examples (because it is precisely that: objective), we need to build up a model of subjective reality here so that we can usefully discuss its parts. When we are done describing this model, it will be easier to explain why we tackled the subjective part first.

Ground (G)

We stated earlier that a communication event (and its circumstances) will establish an anchor point or “ground.” Mutual reliance on that ground tends to be such a stable assumption that participants (Ps) will use it readily to make joint references, such as when pointing at something with their finger (relative to their physical location), or identifying something with language. That stable expectation is reflected in P’s cognitve models of that anchor, where we will similarly identify that piece of the model as the ground (G).

Now imagine G as associated with its specific moment in time (t), as opposed to portraying its embedding within the whole expanse of the timeline (which will come later):

The diagram of the ground is a rightward-pointing time arrow, with another line zig-zagging over its center portion to represent a moment of speaking or signing.
Ground (G)

Change takes place during the language event, so it is represented with the jagged line. This models the short set of moments during the articulation of a specific signing or speaking act, and not (for example) an articulation event that has already finished, or that has not yet begun; in other words, G does not represent the conversation.

As a reference point, this model helps S and L to match their selection of such language items as personal pronouns (e.g., ‘us’ versus ‘them’), deictics (e.g., ‘here’ versus ‘there’), articles (e.g., ‘a’ versus ‘the’), quantifiers (e.g., ‘all’ versus ‘none’), tense/aspect and verb/subject agreement (‘goes’ versus ‘are going’), modals (‘might’ versus ‘can’), and so on. You can imagine, then, how a grounding disorder might manifest itself (if P could not self-locate relative to G), or a sharing disorder (where P could not group-locate in G). In grad school, you wouldn't have been taught to approach these issues as grounding disorders; nonetheless, that is what they are. Your therapy should be designed accordingly.

Time (t)

Now let’s extend this diagram to show the moments of G embedded in the timeline, with a perspective cast relative to P being a conceptualizer with a limited lifespan:

The next stage of this diagram extends the timeline, and adds components to either side of the ground as depicted above. From the far left, a bare timeline moves rightward, and then it spawns a thin expanding grey layer to represent the increasing interaction of the participant (which levels off). Then comes the section depicting the ground. Next is a series of short timeline pieces conected with ellipses just to represent time slices. Beyond that to the right, the timeline continues into the future, where the grey layer stops being level, because it gets smaller as the participant approaches death.
Time (t)

We note where P enters the time stream at birth, where the grey area along the timeline is their sense of self, with a ramp up as their participation increases as a thinking and physical being (i.e., as a cognizer and conceptualizer).

For languages that appeal to this sort of model, namely one of a person and their actions embedded in horizontal time (and languages do vary in this regard), this sort of grounding influences the selection of such items as tense/aspect. (Every natural language displays some sort of temporal grounding effect… that the authors know of.) Stated in a very broad fashion, Ps with this sort of language will treat any event prior to G as the past, anything during G as the present, and anything beyond G as the future.

Awareness (A) and Irreality (I)

Anything of which any P might be aware is categorized as belonging to Awareness (A).

Whatever any given P is aware of, and is therefore able to conceptualize, is in their individual awareness (AP); in addition, anything that P identifies as factual is part of their model of reality (RP) within AP. This is where the categorized instance resides for that P, whether or not other Ps agree with that P about it being factual:

This diagram adds onto what has come before. At the point on the timeline where the thin grey layer starts, a parabolic curve begins and heads to the right, then it levels out. An outer curve starts at the same place, enclosing the inner curve with soem space in between. Imagine cutting a cucumber lengthwise (make it a straight, typical garden cucumber), where you would have a thin line down the middle, then a gel layer (with seeds), where that gel layer lies within an outer layer that is the flesh. The thin cucumber skin would be the outer curve, then, and the division between the flesh and seed areas would be the inner curve. In the deescription of this model that appears in the primary text, the seed area would be the area that gets identified as reality, and the flesh area would be fantasy. The union of those two areas (i.e., anything inside of the cucumber) would be awareness. Anything outside of the cucumber would be unawareness. Anything outside of reality (i.e., beyond the seeded area, including everything entirely outside of the cucumber) woudl be irreality. At this point, the diagram only goes partway to the right, slicing the cucumber transversely at the present moment, just to the right of the ground.
Awareness (A) and Irreality (I)

Everything that P does not identify as a factual component of objective reality is a member of their irreality (IP).

In this model, then, anything that lies outside of RP is P’s irreality, which comprises fantasy plus anything of which P is simply unaware (which seems a nicer term to use than “ignorance,” although that won’t stop us on occasion).

All of this renders the following equations for FOSN (Friends of Set Notation):

  • {A ∩ U} = ∅ (A and U are mutually exclusive)
  • {R ∩ I} = ∅ (R and I are mutually exclusive)
  • {F ∪ R} = A (Fantasy + Reality = Awareness)
  • {F ∪ U} = I (Fantasy + Unawareness = Irreality)
  • {A ∩ I} = F (Awareness and Irreality overlap at Fantasy)

While we will never use these equations in a truly mathematical way, they are nonetheless fun to list, and can help those with mathy brains to keep these notions clear; after all, we are ultimately all about the mnemonics (and other cool words that start with ‘mn-’).

There are gradients within AP; that is to say, while P identifies some entities with very stable parts of their reality (e.g., that the sun rises every morning), other entities — while still treated as real — are held to be more tenuous (e.g., that a daily breakfast of eggs might pose a cholesterol hazard). The strongest of those parts will naturally tend to define a relatively stable core (that we will discuss later as P’s “archive”).

The same gradation is true of FP; for example, P might be pretty sure that unicorns don’t really exist as biological creatures in objective reality, and yet remain unsure about the possible existence of extraterrestrial conceptualizers… or of grape-flavored gummi fish.

In some sense, there might be a gradation rather than a boundary between fact and fiction (reality and fantasy); however, whenever something is labeled as being “based on a true story,” you know that it is fiction (i.e., not actually fact). In other words, one drop of fantasy seems to dye the whole vat to fiction… while the vat is viewed as a whole, anyway. We remain open to discussion.

Entities can travel within those areas over time, as P’s awareness changes; for example, P might read new research that exonerates eggs as a dietary culprit, so the earlier “fact” about eggs is reassigned as “fiction,” and gets moved to fantasy. And then that “fiction” might just as easily travel back again to reality as a “fact” at some later time. That change does not necessarily mean that such an item is stored close to the border holding between R and F; while that might happen (and there are cognitive functions to support that kind of categorization), those sorts of entities can sometimes switch from being identified as very real, and then go straight back to being treated as very unreal (and back again).

Some entities can move into P’s awareness as P learns something new, such as that “nutria” is the name of a color, or maybe that “nutria” is not just the name of a color (but rather is also an animal); similarly, entities can disappear back into unawareness (aka ignorance) if P forgets about them. The important thing to know is that material of which P is unaware is not currently available for P to reference during a communication event; that is to say, some other P would have to introduce it into the conversation (and thereby into P’s awareness).

In sum, the contents of these areas will change over time. The leading edge (or timeslice) of R as it interfaces with the future is referred to as immediate reality; similarly, there is an interface called immediate awareness. If you compare slices at different points in time, the main areas and their boundaries will continue to exist, but their contents will change (including the gradients).

And of course Ps will vary in their agreement about what should be classified where, such as in the firmness of their belief in the biogical reality of Bigfoot (or the aforementioned grape gummies).

The following figure is a 3D rendition of these diagrams. It is the capsule of P’s awareness, which we portray as exhibiting radial symmetry as it extrudes along the timeline (through a Sea of Ignorance):

This is a 3D rendering of the reality model as depicted so far. That object is turned somewhat so that the viewer can see the concentrically enclosed areas that define the end of the cucumber (as described in the previous alternate text.)
Awareness and Irreality (3D)

The timeline, then, is the black axis of symmetry that protrudes back into the past, and forward into the future (as based on a prevalent time model common to users of English as a language of origin). We colored P’s sense of self reddish (previously dark grey) to make it easier to identify in this figure. Similarly, R is now the relatively orange area, and F is bounded by the cheerful yellow shell. Anything outside of that is U (i.e., the white area around the capsule).

This portrayal of the capsule has been sheared off with a frontal plane at the present moment (i.e., at immediate awareness). If you were to view this model face on, it would simply look like concentric circles.

To transform this capsule back into the 2D diagrams that we have been using, you would just take a radial slice along the timeline to provide an exposed view from the side.

The use of radial symmetry reflects the strength of P’s convictions about whether their model truly reflects objective reality; in other words, P’s sense of self is the core of R, and then R is surrounded by F, rather than having R and F run side-by-side along the timeline. Of course, P would not tend to think about their convictions in those terms (unless P had been exposed to this sort of tutorial), but we will show that P’s behavior during communication events shows evidence of this type of functional organization.

Entirety (E)

This is what you get as P conceptualizes possible futures, which (as the diagram shows) are not part of established reality:

This diagram finishes the model. The seeded area tapers off towards the participant's eventual demise, and that curve encloses projected reality; however, unlike a cucumber, the outer curve flairs outward as it represents potential reality.
Entirety (E)

R becomes projected R (i.e., what P hypothesizes), and F becomes potential R (i.e., what P speculates). (Unawareness remains unchanged.) Notice the flange effect, where projected R shrinks as P becomes increasingly unsure about its contents the farther away that it gets from immediate reality; in comparison, potential reality fans out into a vast array of possibilities.

It is occasionally helpful to refer to the whole picture (i.e., awareness plus unawareness) as the Entirety (E), which has an equivalence with “subjective reality” as a whole. Then why not just call it subjective reality? Partly because ‘S’ is already used to mean speaker/signer/subject, but mostly because E is just one model (albeit a pretty important one) among the whole networked set of cognitive models that comprise P’s subjective reality (which also contains a whole lot of stuff that is not necessarily organized in terms of complex models). It is more clearly identified, then, as EP.

Just to be clear, we have not been talking about the categorization of objective reality in the development of all of these nifty diagrams of E. EP is a given P’s system of subjective opinions (about objective reality), which consists of meanings, which are not things in objective reality.

It might not be readily apparent why we are exposing you to such a complex construct without providing illustrative examples of its practial application as we add each piece. So we are going to give one example here in anticipation of explaining why we are otherwise tending to wait. The following is a model of a limited part of what happens as P conceptualizes a meaning (in preparation for taking on the role of S), where that meaning involves a concept along the lines of [may]:

This is a schematized portion of the Entirety model. A short arrow extends rightward along the timeline from the immediate ground, indicating a point in the future. A bold dotted arrow leads rightward and upward from the tip of that arrow to a point where potential reality starts.
Modal: May

A modal (e.g., “may,” “might,” “can,” “will,” and so on) can be used in spoken English as a verbal grounding predication (VGP); that is to say, selecting a modal (or deciding against using any modal) is one part of what S does when anchoring an event relative to G (where that event will be represented by an accompanying verb). (This epistemic meaning historically derives from, but is different than, the modal's deontic value, such as where “may” is an indicator of having permission.) That strategy helps S and L to establish mutual mental contact; for example, S’s choice of the word “may” tells L that S categorizes the event as a member of potential reality (as opposed to anywhere else in E). And whereas “ate” is an event located in past awareness, “may eat” is still just a matter of potential reality (rather than a projected one), plus it is more proximal than an event grounded by the phrase “might eat,” where that modal would be diagramed as follows:

This is a schematized portion of the Entirety model. A bold dotted arrow leads from the immediate ground rightward and upward to a point where potential reality starts, and then a lighter dotted arrow leads from the tip of the bold arrow into an area in the distal portion of projected reality.
Modal: Might

It would not be effective, then, for you to expect a student to use the word “might” to reliably refer to distal potential reality before their cognitive model reliably included distal potential reality (and the other components to compare it to); similarly, including a set of modals in a student’s AAC programming runs a significant risk of promoting clutter effects if that student does not yet share some sort of underlying cognitive model that works along the lines of E (which we have now described to you). These two cautions are both instances of the principle regarding reliable skills, which helps us to determine whether a system is being used as a training tool, or as an actual AAC system.

Again, we do not contend that anyone will have a picture of this specific diagram in mind, or even that they would process their thoughts with specifically visual imagery; the point is that the diagram represents something that has to exist for both S and L if their language is going to work well between them.

Now, showing you this one example wasn’t so bad. And we could stop to go over the rest of the modals (and explain that the diagram’s chained arrows distinguish distal from proximal modals). But the predications in English that ground verbals also include: a) the tense/aspect system, which requires its own involved explanation; and b) subject-verb agreement, because S cannot (for example) choose a verb form to use without knowing whether it has a singular or plural subject. So, in providing this isolated example for “may versus might,” we have introduced the process of verbal grounding before we have discussed all of its components, and in fact before we have finished discussing a whole lot of other germane material. And that is the consequence of interrupting the description of the big picture.

We have made a design decision, then, to get you through the broader, underlying constructs related to grounding (i.e., subjective and objective reality) while postponing a focus on the components that they ground, because a lot of switching onto sidetracks runs a significant risk of derailment.

So we are counting on your ability to delay gratification. We promise that when we get all of this front loading finished, the explanations of how this all works will fall into place with a lucrative payoff.

And now back to our irregularly scheduled program.

Nonphysical Context: Awareness

Every P’s non-physical context or individual awareness (as described earlier) is part of E, which is subjective in nature; therefore, AP only exists in association with P conceptualizing. Nonetheless, despite EP’s tie to P’s subjective, personal conceptualization, P still expects material in AP to be shared by other Ps, as if it were effectively the same for everybody. That’s because P derives EP from their experience of objective reality, which P therefore expects to be essentially the same from P to P.

We talked earlier about there being gradients in P’s individual awareness (Ap), where P holds some ideas to be more stable than others. P’s expectation of sharing increases with that stability; for example, the notion of ”the sun rising every morning” is so stable that P doesn’t even tend to treat it as their personal opinion. P expects every other P to share that idea as a universal fact (i.e., as part of R within A, not as RP).

Idealized Cognitive Model (ICM)

As P moves from one timeslice to the next, P updates AP, which is a cognitive model of their expectations about objective reality, based on the stability of their personal experience (which naturally includes the information that they absorb about other people’s experiences).

Stable expectations reinforce parts of the model. P will not tend to change their expectations based on occasional exceptions. The longer that something remains stable, the more resistant it becomes to change, which is known as perseverence (“per-SE-verence”). In this way, P’s models become idealized, because P has a tendency to monkey with the data to save their theory (i.e., they want to maintain their ideal, so they ignore exceptions to their ideal rules... so they take a formalist approach to reality).

That stable subset of RP is described by P’s personal set of idealized cognitive models (ICMP).

P’s individual archive (small ‘a’) contains their system of ICMs, and it is the store of those things about RP which P holds to be resistant to change. Some of P’s cognitive models will be more thoroughly idealized than others, so it can be more helpful to look at P’s archive as containing those ICMs that represent greater resistance to change, rather than the set of all ICMs.

In the following diagrams, darker color signifies greater stability (whether as a continuous gradient or in discrete areas):

A horizontal color gradation deepens continuously from left to right, where the lightest portion represents the participant's personal model of reality, the middle area is the participant's set of idealized cognitive models, and the darkest area towards the righthand side is the participant's personal archive. The depth of intensity is chosen to increase iconically with the degree of stability that it represents, and it did not have to be a color modality in particular.
P1’s archive in RP (Continuous)
Three concentric circles are aligned at their right borders, discretely bounding three areas of solid color. The largest circle has the lightest color, and represents the participant's personal model of reality. The middle circle is filled with a somewhat darker color, representing the participant's set of idealized cognitive models. The smallest circle, with the darkest color, is the participant's personal archive. The depth of intensity is chosen to increase iconically with the degree of stability that it represents, and it did not have to be a color modality in particular.
P1’s archive in RP (Discrete)

The actual stability distribution is best understood to be a hybrid between (a) smooth, continuous gradients and (b) sets of nested, discrete concentrations.

Note that “stable” does not mean “highly likely to occur”; for example, there are conventional notions insisting that anyone can win the lottery, or that anyone can become President of the United States. These ideals are maintained as stable despite the low expectation of seeing them realized, and P can support them right alongside a high expectation that they will not be realized; in fact, that they are not realized is yet another ICM. So, something which P expects to never happen might actually happen on occasion; it just might not happen often enough to change P’s expectations about the likelihood of its occurrence.

P should expect things from their individual archive to be ‘given’, ‘obviously true’, or ‘not open to question’, so their archive is a location to which P readily refers during a conversation. Mansfield (1997) gives evidence to suggest that this intuition about archival knowledge being ‘given’ is so strong that each of the participants in a conversation (P1… Pn) will expect their individual set of archival knowledge to be shared entirely by all of the other participants, the main point being that this is a false consensus because their individual archives will necessarily intersect much less closely than any of them expects.

The Archive (X)

It follows that archival ICMs should tend to be similar from P to P since they are all building expectations about what the same objective reality is like. Different Ps should find a core of similar things to be stable about objective reality: gravity keeps you on the ground, other drivers are inconsiderate, and bees are great. ICMs dealing more with discourse tell you that when you want to refer to something, you point to it somehow, or you point in the direction of its location.

These are all intuitions that will tend to hold from P to P; however, to the extent that their archival knowledge is different, it becomes necessary to distinguish between any given P’s archive and the core of archival knowledge shared by any given set of Ps. This communal core is the Archive (X for ‘intersection’, since we already use A), and it is naturally the material in the intersection of all of the individual personal archives.

Just as there are central and peripheral densities in our perception of the world, the archive has areas distinguished by their accessibility. Chafe (1973) first describes this viscosity in terms of a familiar depth-continuum, defining surface, shallow, and deep memory; later on (1994), he modifies this portrayal to align better with his newer descriptions of active, semi-active, and inactive states of consciousness (ch. 5). In both works, Chafe shows that there are normal sentence structures and intonations designed to plumb each of these three depths or activation states.

Chafe’s earlier work suggests that specific prominence patterns can be used to reach particular depths of a cognizer’s memory, and he says in the later work (ch. 6) that accessing less active information exacts a greater activation cost, and prominence is an expression of that cost. Not only would activation of one’s own inert memories (as experience for distal events) be costly, but so would activating any equally inert memories in someone else through the energetic articulation of prominence. This cost is in direct proportion with memory or inertial depth. The coin of the realm is quanta of energy, which intense prominence spends in an iconic expression of energy. It takes that energy to recruit muscle fibrils during articulation, for example.

One cognizer can even pay the cost of a proximal event, activating deep or inert material in another cognizer’s mind, which brings us to the discussion of cognizers working together as a group.

As some number (n) of Ps engage in a shared event, they each contribute their non-physical context, namely their personal awareness (i.e., AP1 through APn). Within that awareness, they will tend to focus on the contributions of their personal realities (i.e., RP1 through RPn). The following diagrams illustrate the immediate timeslice across two RPs at a given moment of their mutual interaction (where color intensity signifies increased stability):

This is a Venn diagram of the intersection between people’s experience of reality. On the left, a pale yellow circle darkens in gradation from left to right. On the right, a pale blue circle darkens right to left. Their intersection (in their darker portions) is a green area identified as The Archive. The following labels appear in each circle at increasing distances from that central intersection: archive, ICM sub P sub n, and R sub P sub n.
Reality and the Archive (Continuous)
This diagram is similar to the previous one, except that yellow and blue areas are each subdivided by three concentric circles, rather than being depicted with smooth gradients. The circles in the yellow area have their right edges aligned, and the circles in the blue area have their left edges aligned. The smaller, inner circles are darkest, and the large outer circle is palest. The yellow and blue areas intersect at their regions of highest saturation (i.e., the right edge of the yellow and the left edge of the blue).
Reality and the Archive (Discrete)

So this is what happens non-physically as P1 approaches an event that will be shared with Pn. Again, the actual stability distribution is best understood as a hybrid between (a) smooth, continuous gradients and (b) sets of nested, discrete concentrations.

Further discussion will be deferred until after we have provided a similar explanation of objective reality.

Objective Reality (O)

Each and every P lives in just one objective reality (O) that is shared with each and every other P.

The argument in favor of O’s objective reality (which, yes, is ironic in some way) is that the vast majority of the universe would exist even if nothing had the ability to conceptualize. All of the stuff that comes of conceptualizing is subjective reality.

O would exist even if the ability to conceptualize had never existed in the universe at all; similarly, O would continue to exist even if the ability to conceptualize entirely disappeared. O, then, is what exists without regard to any meaning arising from conceptualization. So, if you get rid of what it all means, then just the interrelated stuff remains. Similarly, there is no timeline, and the immediate moment in the present is all that exists for O (i.e., the rest of time is a subjective construct).

For example, an entity such as “the potential risks posed by any dietary properties that are associated with eggs” has some sort of valid, objective existence that is entirely independent of any conceptualization in which any P (human or otherwise) might engage. So that existence holds without regard to any subjective opinions formed by any given P (as does the existence of eggs, diets, hazards, and their associated relationships). It would exist even if every P lost its ability to conceptualize.

In other words, that particular property of eggs is either a member of O (i.e., it is a fact), or it is not a member of O (i.e., it is fiction), no matter what any P thinks about it.

This status as a member of O can change (relative to a given section of time); for example, we know that (as of this writing):

  • dinosaurs no longer exist on Earth as a living species in O (except as birds),
  • passenger pigeons no longer exist as a living species in O (even as birds), and
  • the large cactus finch has recently come into existence in O as a living species (among all other species, including birds).

This status of an entity relative to O does not change due to what P conceptualizes. P’s thinking about it does not bring it into existence in O, and the entity does not disappear from existence whenever P stops performing as a thinking being (for one reason or another).

Here, then, are a few things that are part of O:

  • Bigfoot books
  • Bigfoot drawings
  • Bigfoot statues
  • Bigfoot costumes
  • Bigfoot movies
  • bears
  • the universe
  • The Academy Awards ceremony

And here are a few things that are not part of O (as far as we can tell at this point):

  • evidence contributing to valid proof of Bigfoot
  • valid proof of Bigfoot
  • Bigfoot
  • grape-flavored Swedish Fish™ that are actually made by Malaco

This leaves us to clarify the nature of P’s thoughts and feelings about Bigfoot, which can exist. The form of that thought would be a member of O, to the degree that it is a “snapshot” of a dynamic activation pattern occurring across an electro(neuro)chemical network that we will call “cracklin’ wetware” (on occasion). The meaning, however, would not be a member of O, as that would only be the subjective opinions that arise in association with that wetware. So while that meaning does exist, it does not exist in O. (We somewhat discussed its existence in subjective reality earlier, and will do so in more detail later.)

So, while P does not bring an actual Bigfoot into O by thinking about it, the form of P’s Bigfoot thoughts exist in O for the duration of P’s thinking. This cracklin’ never stops altogether in the wetware of a healthy P.

It is beyond the scope of this tutorial to explain what is happening as P exerts “direction” (or something functionally like it) over its cognition, in large part because there is no viable answer to give. We know that:

  • there are executive functions associated with the likes of focus of attention, (dis)inhibition, and so on, and
  • the availability of certain neurotransmitters can affect our ability to use those executive functions well, but…

that still doesn’t really tell us how we exert control over those control functions without getting circular in our reasoning. We know how it feels to direct our thoughts, and we can practice techniques to improve concentration (and so forth), but we don’t fundamentally know what we are doing when we cognize, or engage in conceptualization. There are a whole lot of guesses out there, but no reliable answers (yet).

What follows is another cognitive model of O (which we will call Eo), whose existence is just as subjective as the earlier model of the Entirety (i.e., Es); however, they each model different likelihoods:

  • Es: that P has an opinion about something’s existing in O, versus
  • Eo: that P has physical experience of something in O.

You can understand how the likelihood of something being experienced in Eo is tied to a likelihood of how it gets categorized in Es.

This distinction should become clearer as we proceed.

The World (W)

There is a whole lot of O that has never been physically sensed by any P, such as: the cold of absolute zero, colors that require more than four cones, scents for which humans have never had olfactory receptors, processes occuring within our own bone marrow, and so on. (We don’t really have a need to designate that set with a label.) Everything whose signals are potentially available for reception is a designated part of the World (W), as a subset of O.

While some signals are inaccessible through our innate sensory array, they can be made available through the indirection of tools (e.g., scopes of various kinds, drugs that alter sensory capacities, and the like), so those signal generators are also part of W while those tools are in use; for example, something that you see through substantial aided night vision is only part of W for you while you are using your night vision goggles. (When you take the goggles off, that same thing remains part of O even though you cannot see it as part of W.)

It can be helpful to distinguish (a) the set of signal generators that are external to the body from (b) those that are internal, and we went into greater detail about that topic earlier in this tutorial (in the section on sensation).

To the degree that brains have signals acting with objectively perceivable effects (i.e., thoughts and feelings), those forms are part of W (along with their electrochemical processing events), even though their associated meanings are not (i.e., their meanings are all subjective).

This should all be recursive, in that the generators whose signals we are receiving exist in O, and they are receiving signals from other generators, and so on. In that sense, O should include all such entities, whether we experience their signals directly, or they are just part of the infrastructure without which none of this would be happening (i.e., their signals, or their consequences, are potentially available). Fortunately, we don’t need to be overly concerned here with such deeper philosophies.

Everything (E)

Add all such considerations together and we can posit this cognitive model of O called Everything (which we identified earlier as Eo, so as not to spoil our big reveal). Clearly, Eo is a lot less internally complex than the Entirety (Es, in case you’ve forgotten). Again, Es is a symbolic structure, so the physical form that supports Es (i.e., the cracklin’ wetware) is part of Eo, but the meaning of Es is not.

One big difference between the Entirety and Everything is that physical accessibility is (as far as we know) inapplicable to the past and the future. There is no physical, objective timeline, so there are no projected or possible states of O to exist as part of Eo. All of that sort of stuff only exists subjectively, in the Entirety.

Which is why we began this explanation with Es, namely: Ps converse as if O extended through time (one way or another), so their cognitive models of O incorporate a temporal dimension (generally with projected and possible futures), so it is better to diagram out the more comprehensive model in full, and then reduce that template to match the needs of its more restricted relative.

And now we are ready to move forward.

Physical Context

P’s individual physical context, then, is part of W (i.e., WP, or P’s small-w world); therefore, P’s personal world exists whether or not P is conceptualizing. (P’s world is a very small part of W, and a vanishingly small part of O, but to P it is significant.) When P’s experience of their world gives rise to conceptualization, it influences P’s personal model of O, as we have discussed.

P expects their world to be shared by others essentially as if their world were W: if P feels wind, then they expect other Ps near them (i.e., P1… Pn) to feel wind as well; if they see a tree, then they expect it to be seen; same thing if they taste something sweet, or feel something soft… ad somnium.

Even when their worlds do overlap (while everyone is experiencing the wind together, or whatever), there will be degrees of difference in their worlds that arise from such pragmatic factors as Ps facing different directions, or from a given P not using one or more of their sensory modalities (due to nasal congestion, blindness, and the like).

And even when the shared sensation is similar, the individual perceptions might not be. Whereas P1 might experience physical discomfort due to the noise in a particular environment (WP1), Pn might only experience comfortable or neutral reactions (WPn). (Again, this is just the physical experience, and not what that experience means to either P.) Even though there is only one set of noise conditions in W, the individual experiences of that environment differ from P to P, so their personal physical realities (i.e., their worlds) are no more than similar (WP1 ≈ WPn).

Universal Somatosensory Experience (USE)

Any particularly stable form in P’s world (e.g., that extreme sensation is always painful) is more likely to belong to a pattern of physical experiences that will be shared in common with other Ps. The most stable of these universal somatosensory experiences (USE) will belong to a collection that we will call the vault (i.e., this is the parallel with ICMs and the archive).

A USE might be more likely (than an unstable pattern) to influence a shared event in a couple of ways:

  • without needing to associate these forms with meanings, the behavior of the involved Ps will tend to reflect this shared experience (e.g., their shared avoidance of extreme sensation will tend to occur without explicit communication); and
  • these forms are more likely to contribute to meanings that are also shared among Ps, such as the conceptualization of extreme sensation as always being painful.

This latter consequence was discussed in the section on idealized cognitive models.

As with ICMs, USE overlap between Ps is (significantly) reduced in intensely special education.

In the following diagrams, darker color signifies greater stability (whether as a continuous gradient or in discrete areas):

A horizontal color gradation deepens continuously from left to right, where the lightest portion represents the participant's personal model of the world, the middle area is the participant's set of universal somatosensory experiences, and the darkest area towards the righthand side is the participant's personal vault. The depth of intensity is chosen to increase iconically with the degree of stability that it represents, and it did not have to be a color modality in particular.
P’s vault in WP (Continuous)
Three concentric circles are aligned at their right borders, discretely bounding three areas of solid color. The largest circle has the lightest color, and represents the participant's personal model of the world. The middle circle is filled with a somewhat darker color, representing the participant's set of universal somatosensory experiences. The smallest circle, with the darkest color, is the participant's personal vault. The depth of intensity is chosen to increase iconically with the degree of stability that it represents, and it did not have to be a color modality in particular.
P’s vault in WP (Discrete)

Within P’s world (WP), USEs represent some stability, and P’s vault will be the location that holds the collection of P’s most stable USEs. The actual stability distribution is best understood as a hybrid between (a) smooth, continuous gradients and (b) sets of nested, discrete concentrations.

The Vault (V)

The Vault has a structure similar to that of the Archive.

USEs in the vault should tend to be similar from P to P since they are all experiencing the same O. Even at that, Ps will differ in their identification of which experiences are most likely to be the most stable; therefore, for any set of Ps grouped together for an event, the Vault (V) will be the intersection of all of their individual vaults; that is to say, it is the set of all of the USEs that they are most likely to experience in common.

The following diagrams illustrate such an overlap:

This is a Venn diagram of the intersection between people’s experience of the world. On the left, a pale yellow circle darkens in gradation from left to right. On the right, a pale blue circle darkens right to left. Their intersection (in their darker portions) is a green area identified as The Vault. The following labels appear in each circle at increasing distances from that central intersection: vault, USE sub P sub n, and W sub P sub n.
The Vault (Continuous)
This diagram is similar to the previous one, except that yellow and blue areas are each subdivided by three concentric circles, rather than being depicted with smooth gradients. The circles in the yellow area have their right edges aligned, and the circles in the blue area have their left edges aligned. The smaller, inner circles are darkest, and the large outer circle is palest. The yellow and blue areas intersect at their regions of highest saturation (i.e., the right edge of the yellow and the left edge of the blue).
The Vault (Discrete)

Deeper color saturation still signifies greater stability, but we switched to blue and yellow gradients with more transparency to make their intersection more evident. As with their non-physical counterparts, the stability distribution is a hybrid between continuous gradients and discrete concentrations.

Now we are finally ready to discuss what happens when Ps collide.


Conversation is mind blowing:

  1. A conceptualizer has a meaning in mind that is associated with a form, where it articulates that form into its shared environment (i.e., it generates a signal).
  2. Another conceptualizer receives that signal from its shared environment, which evokes a meaning in their mind.
  3. Both conceptualizers end up entertaining similar meanings.
  4. Such exchanges continue reciprocally, sometimes at great length (often involving repair strategies along the way).

Functional communication, then, is a meeting of the minds. That this process works even as well as it does is frankly astonishing.

That meeting emerges from cognitive processes that establish mutual mental contact with information. One of those processes is the creation of the current discourse space, and another is an appeal to the objective scene, both of which are detailed below.

These topics are also covered in Langacker (and elsewhere), but we will try to simplify it all with smaller steps and more examples. While our versions might take longer to get through, we are more likely to make it to the end without losing people along the way (or requiring multiple readings).

This is our goal, then: less nope, more hope.

Current Discourse Space (CDS)

When people converse, the roles of S or L will usually be passed around from P to P, and a temporary model of reality or discourse space (DS) will be created for the purposes of conversation. The contents of the Archive plus the Vault (i.e., {X ⋃ V}), plus the information from earlier stages of the discourse (if any), all add together to make the current discourse space (CDS). This communal construct creates a broad “playground” for mutual mental contact, which is then refined as follows…

The CDS is updated frequently as people converse, on a faster than per-clause basis, and the most recently updated portion of the CDS is called the immediate discourse space (IDS). The construction of the specific initial state of the CDS (i.e., CDS0) begins before any symbols have been expressed. It is the state of the CDS which exists before any conversant tries to update it by taking on the role of S and drawing something into it from the surrounding contexts (physical or non-physical), or by referring to any instance which already exists in CDS0.

In short: {X0 ⋃ V0} = CDS0.

In long, the physical context includes anything of which all of the conversants share a current sensory perception in their physical surroundings, and the nonphysical context is the intersection of all of the conversants’ personal views of reality, so the initial state of the CDS includes anything in the physical context which provides sensory experience for all of the conversants (warm sun, rough floor), their perceptions of these stimuli, plus the core of archival knowledge shared by all of the conversants. The initial state of the CDS is the set of all entities (types, instances) of which the conversants are already mutually aware just prior to the beginning of any discourse, so those entities do not need to be drawn into the IDS by any form of elaboration.

One important priority in this tutorial is to make the material in that paragraph clear. We should bring you to understand everything that goes into a typical conversation even before the participants actively engage. In special education therapy contexts, there will of course be some mismatch between Ps (just as there are in any conversation), but compare that expectation to what occurs when X and V are moderately-to-profoundly different for one or more of the Ps, and what you would need to include in the design of informed therapy to scaffold those expectations. Your therapy should help a conversant and their partners to establish a sufficient overlap of mental contact.

This temporary model is any given P’s CDS, and it lives for the length of the conversation. Since no two people actually use the same brain, each person must have its own CDS, even though people behave as if they were manipulating only one CDS between them. Again, this feeling of being in consensus about shared information is strong, but always at least partly false; however, to the extent that the people are supposedly building a shared body of information between them, we will refer to the CDS as if it were one entity, rather than a set of multiple, overlapping, near-identical copies, with one copy being distributed to each person. Such a view does not change this analysis, it merely makes the CDS much easier to discuss.

Given this definition of the CDS, it is surrounded by (and is a subset of) its context, which is the union of its physical and nonphysical contexts. The set of information known commonly by all of the members of the group (the intersection or Archive) is a subset of the sum of the information known by all of the members of the group taken as a whole (the union). The physical context works in a parallel fashion. S can update the CDS by drawing new material into the IDS from the context of the discourse, including material drawn recursively from older stages of the CDS which have fallen farther away from proximal time as the CDS is updated. Some of this new material has the potential to update the Archive in general, and therefore the archive of any P involved in the discourse.

Objective Scene (OS)

(This next paragraph is clearest when written in terms of “I” and “you,” after which we will return to a more standard register.)

Generic awareness is rather passive and vague; for example, I “kind of always know” that I perpetually have things to do, even when I am not actively thinking about that fact (of consistently having things to do), or about a specific item on that list. In comparison, conscious awareness is more active, and less fuzzy; that is to say, I can identify the cleaning of litter boxes as an indefinite chore across the decades of my lifespan, and devote some conscious awareness to the fact that this task has involved various litter boxes over the years, where those litter boxes then define a schematic type of entity that is always an element in that scenario. I know that litter boxes exist, then, and I think about them as a class of entity (and can bring specific instances to mind). Beyond such notions about types of chores and elements, I have individual conscious awareness of the specific litter box that I have to clean this evening during a specific instance of that duty. Given the imminence of that chore, I have current mental contact with that specific litter box right this very moment. And now you do too. You now have individual conscious awareness of the specific litter box that I have in mind as well (i.e., an instantiation of a type). While it might not “look” the same in my mind as in yours, there’s a specific litter box in your mind all the same, and it is identified with the one that I have to clean this evening.

And all sorts of language processes (in that written paragraph) helped us to establish that mutual mental contact.

That said, it would have been a lot easier to come to a meeting of the minds if we had been sharing the same ground (G), and I could just have pointed to the specific litter box, or signed/said, “that litter box,” “this litter box,” or — my exceedingly rare favorite — “your litter box to clean this evening.”

Whatever you are conceptualizing is getting some of your attention, whether vageuly automatic or deliberately volitional, where we have previously discussed focus in terms of profiling and prominence. Such functions narrow down the scope of reference and help minds to meet on the same targets.

There are many clarifying metaphors that address this notion of attention. We will be using one about a theater, which involves such components as actors, an audience, a stage, props, focal lighting, and so on. Again, this doesn’t mean that you have the neurostructural equivalent of a theater in your head, but rather that conceptualization relies on some sort of constituency that provide these functional roles; for example, if you have read the material on technology in education that is posted on Lane ESD’s website (for example), then you already have some familiarity with the distinction between “subject” and “object” in terms of jectivity.

We are not talking about grammatical roles here; that is to say, we are not referring to the subject or object of a verb. We are discussing an aspect of construal, namely the subjects and objects who participate in an event of perception, namely the perceivers and the perceived. As a construer of content as meaning (i.e., as a conceptualizer), any P can act as a subject. Such perceiving subjects are not referred to in a conversation in their role as subjects, but rather such subjects make reference to perceived objects; in other words, if P uses a word like “I” (or entertains that meaning even without expressing it overtly) then that perceived aspect of P becomes an object of P’s own attention (while the referent of “I” remains a grammatical subject). If a conversation is like a theater play, then P1 saying “I” moves P1 from out of the audience and onto the stage (overlapping the grammatical subject referent), where the other Ps can then also refer to P as an object of the group’s perception.

Basically, when you are acting as a subject, then everything else is an object. The subject is the experiencer, and the object is the experienced. The subject is the user, and the object is the used.

When an object behaves more like a subject, then it is subjectified.

When a subject behaves more like an object, then it is objectified.

Time for an example.

Let’s say that you, as a subject, have relatively typical vision, and you are outside on a sunny day. (This example would work just as well with any other exteroceptive sensory modality.) You are looking at some objects at a distance away from you, perhaps flowers. (Aw, how pretty.) You have sunglasses in your hand, and you can see those as well, so they are also objects.

You put on the sunglasses and the world around you appears to be darker, including the flowers. You are initially aware that this is an effect of the sunglasses, so the eyewear remains objective, albeit not as objective as before you put them on, because now most of your visual experience is filtered through them (as if it were a part of you as a perceiving subject).

After a while, you might become less aware of the sunglasses as something that you were wearing, which would make them even less objective (and more subjective). When you get to the point where the world itself seems dark (i.e., as if you were simply a perceiving subject in a dark world), and you forget that this darkness is due to the sunglasses, then they have become primarily subjective. Take them off and they are suddenly once again an object.

Similarly, if you were wearing contacts (or had intra-ocular lens implants), then you might be even less likely to think objectively about their affect on the appearance of the world. They would be an integrated part of your subjective perspective.

So, when an object is absorbed into a subject’s experience, and becomes part of the subject, it is subjectified; similarly, when an element of the subject is removed from the subject itself and is treated as an object of experience, it is objectified.

Your conceptualizations are objects that can vary in their jectivity. They are the products of something that you are doing. When you forget about that, and “absorb” them into your sense of self, then they are subjective. If something in one of your conceptualizations is so absorbed that you don’t realize that it is just something that you are thinking about, then it is subjective. When you remember that they are objects that you can volitionally cognize, and that you can refer to them and their contents, then they get some perceptual attention as items that are not part of you as a subject, and they are treated more objectively.

The point is that your conceptualizations are like sunglasses, in that they (and their components) can shift in their jectivity.

Now consider the conceptualization of the ground (G), which consists of S, L, and their contextual circumstances. G helps to provide mutual mental contact. It acts as a communal reference anchor point, allowing Ps to meaningfully use words like “us,” “this,” and “there,” all to establish contact with the same intended referents. All expressions that invoke G objectify its components to some degree; that is to say, you can’t say something like “that nearby pig” without bringing some amount of perceptual attention to yourself as a point of reference from which to locate the pig. In an earlier example, we portrayed the imperative [stop] by diagramming part of G overlapping the OS; in specific, L is portrayed as an element of G on which the imperative has trained the perceptual spotlight in the OS.

So, if S and L are conversing about themselves as part of G, then they have objectified themselves; however, if they are talking about material that is not part of G, then they are acting more like full perceptual subjects, with their focus of attention on something that is away from them.

Communication and Sensory Lifestyles

If a person grows up in an environment with an impoverished inventory of sensory experiences (i.e., a reduction of Eo), then they do not have the same range of forms to draw upon as they develop language (i.e., a reduction of Es); therefore, that lack of equitable access to sensational engagement significantly challenges the development of their communication.

At base, then, sensory lifestyles (once known as “sensory diets”) improve the development of communication by adding variety to the range of sensory engagement typically available to a neurodiverse individual.

Furthermore, consider how different a person’s forms and meanings might be, much less their symbolic pairings, if their sensory experience of our objective reality is intensely diverse.

You have to exercise some care, then, in the choice of representations that you are using with a student (i.e., pictures, audio cues, tactile object sets); for example, if you are using pictures, will they be:

  • Realistic ←→ Abstract (e.g., photos, cartoons, line drawings, sight words)
  • Color, monochrome, greyscale, black and white
  • How many in a field (from which to choose)?
  • Contextual (i.e., a figure with a background)
  • Multimodal (pictures with audio feedback, pictures with raised textures, and so on)

For pictures, there is a test that the AAC Specialist can administer that can help to figure this out (Test of Aided Communication Symbol Performance; TASP).

Lane ESD describes an approach to sensory lifestyles, sensitivity, and desensitization in their special education programs. That material considers: a) the design (with a specialist) and implementation of a sensory lifestyle; b) engagement in simple sensory interactions with students (including adjusting their environment); and c) just trying to figure out what’s going on in a student.


When it comes to understanding communication, it is inadequate to study form in the absence of meaning, sentences in the absence of conception, syntax in the absence of semantics, or (generally speaking) x in the absence y; in contrast to such formalist paradigms, we have illuminated several principles that directly inform the development of appropriate CDT, where:

  • conception is ultimately grounded in sensorimotor experience,
  • grammar is a part of cognition (being deeply conceptual and imaginative in nature),
  • syntax is not autonomous (nor are other categories in general), and
  • proposed elements are grounded in events that are directly perceived to occur, without props, filters, or other kludges.

In our functionalist approach, grammatical morphemes do have meaning, and in fact those meanings have their historical origins in lexical items. Idiomatic expressions fall somewhere between the grammatical (with an idiom’s predictable structure) and the lexical (with their open-classed variety). So, rather than using exclusive categories (typical of linguistics formalisms), a spectrum describes the fluid boundaries of phonology, lexicon, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

Formalisms do have a respectable place in the study of language. In a non-trivial sense, they are sports whose rules generate only a specific subset of sentence structures while ignoring their meaning; in that context, there is no harm in propping up such a system with auxiliary elements that have no perceived form or meaning of their own (e.g., “wh- traces”), or in crafting tidy screens (e.g., case filters) that selectively erase any messy overage that the rules create. Such grooming elements have no linguistic identity outside of the proposed rule system, which is only harmful when CDT is then designed to teach that specific game to a client, rather than actual communication and language. No client should be expected to show an awareness of traces, or a mastery of filters, and yet this sort of therapy exists. This is not the fault of the formalisms, but rather of their misapplication. They were never intended for this purpose.

In addition to those concerns, formalist grammars simply do not lend themselves modally to an adequate representation of conceptualization in its encyclopedic glory, continuous prototype categorization, and symbolic compositionality. While diagrammatic systems might eventually find some usefulness in the development of some formalist details, not enough is known yet about communication and language for that project to be viable.

In the meantime, we have some hope that this tutorial will help to remedy the situation.

Sources and Suggested Reading

  • Armstrong, David F (1995) Gesture and the Nature of Language. [ISBN 0521467721]
  • Bolinger, Dwight (1974) Meaning and Form. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol 3, Issue 2, Series II, pp. 218-233. []
  • Bolinger, Dwight (1977) Meaning and Form. English Language Series, Title No. 11. Randolph Quirk (gen. ed.). London, England and New York, NY: Longman Group Limited. [ISBN 058255103X]
  • Borror, Donald (1960) Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms. [ISBN 0874840538]
  • Chafe, Wallace L (1994) Discourse, Consciousness, and Time. [ISBN 0226100545]
  • Fauconnier, Gilles (1985) Mental Spaces: Aspects of meaning construction in natural language [ISBN 9780521444996]
  • Givón, Talmy (1984) Syntax. [ISBN 0915027089]
  • Goldberg, Adele E (1996) Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language. [ISBN 1575860406]
  • Goldberg, Adele E (1995) Constructions. [ISBN 0226300862]
  • Gomez, Emilio; Iborra, Oscar; De Córdoba Serrano, María José; Juárez-Ramos, V; Rodríguez Artacho, M.A.; and Rubio, José. (2013) The Kiki-Bouba Effect A Case of Personification and Ideaesthesia. Journal of Consciousness Studies. Vol 20, Numbers 1-2, pp. 84-102(19).
  • Greenberg, Jill (2006) Monkey Portraits [ISBN 9780316005128]
  • Harris, Randy Allen (1993) The Linguistics Wars. [ISBN 019509834X]
  • Hauser, Marc D (1996) The Evolution of Communication. [ISBN 0262082500]
  • Iacobini, Marco (2008) Mirroring People. [ISBN 0374210179]
  • Jahn, Robert G, and Dunne, Brenda J (1987) Margins of Reality: the Role of Consciousness in the Physical World. [ISBN 9781936033003]
  • Johnson, Julia, and Mansfield, Tracy (2001) Similarity measures for natural language images. In M. Gabbouj (Ed.), Proceedings of the Workshop on Image Analysis for Multimedia Services: Vol. 3 (pp. 69-74). Tampere, Finland.
  • Lambrecht, Knud (1994) Information Structure and Sentence Form. [ISBN 0521587042]
  • Lakoff, George (1987) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things [ISBN 9780226468044]: idealized cognitive models (ch. 4) and radial categorization (ch. 6)
  • Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh. [ISBN 0465056733]
  • Langacker, Ronald W (1991) Concept, Image, and Symbol [ISBN 9783110172805]: discourse model, particularly 3.1.1
  • Langacker, Ronald W (1987) Foundations of Cognitive Grammar (v1&2). [ISBN 0804712611/19098]
  • Langacker, Ronald W (2008) Cogntive Grammar: a basic introduction. [ISBN 9780195331950; 9780195331967 pbk]
  • Levin, Beth (1993) English Classes and Alternations. [ISBN 0226475336]
  • Magnus, Margaret (1999) Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants. [ISBN 0943549523]
  • Mansfield, Tracy (1997) Prominence: from Sensation to Language. [UMI 9820869]
  • McNeill, David (1992) Hand and Mind. [ISBN 0226561348]
  • Nippold, Marilyn (2007) Later Language Development. [ISBN 141640211X] (See also the articles in the American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 2007-2009.)
  • Ohala, John (1987) Cross-language use of pitch: An ethological view. Phonetica, Vol 40, pp. 1-18.
  • Roy, Parama (2010) Alimentary Tracts. [ISBN 9780822348023]
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994) The Origin of Language. [ISBN 0471584266]
  • Schiffman, Harvey R (1982) Sensation and Perception. [ISBN 0471082082]
  • Schwartz, Bennett L (2002) Tip-of-the-Tongue States. [ISBN 0805834451]
  • Shermer, Michael (2011) The Believing Brain: from Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies. [ISBN 0805091254]
  • Tomasello, Michael, and Slobin, Dan I (Eds.) (2005) Beyond Nature-Nurture: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Bates [ISBN 9780805850277]
  • Van Hoek, Karen (1997) Anaphora and Conceptual Structure. [ISBN 0226848930]
  • Vesterinen, Rainer (2006) Subordinação adverbial: um estudo cognitivo sobre o infinitivo, o clitico SE e as formas verbais finitas em proposições adverbias do Português Europeu. [ISBN 9171551956]
  • Watkins, Calvert (1985) The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. [ISBN 0395360706]