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This section presents a simple model of how the different structures of language work. Of course, there are many different (and more complex) theories and opinions about some of the detail, but because we are trying to provide a workable set of concepts for non-specialists, we will just present one version here.

Levels of language

When we speak or write, we are simultaneously drawing on a series of 'levels' of language which consist of smaller-to-larger elements as follows:

• Phonology/graphology — smallest units (sounds or letters)

• Morphology — parts of words making up complex lexical items

• Lexis — lexical items (i.e. words)

Syntax — structures (phrases, clauses, sentences) made up of words

• Discourse — texts (spoken or written) made up of structures

There is more detail about each of these levels below, as well as suggestions for further reading on these topics.


Sounds or letters are the smallest elements of language. Although English is not a 'phonetic' language — meaning that the written form does not reflect pronunciation directly — there are a set of individual sounds that can make a difference to meaning in English and in other languages. These are known as 'phonemes' and they are equivalent to the idealised 'letters' of the alphabet, which are written slightly differently by everyone, but which can be recognised as the same letter in essence. Phonemes, then, are the building blocks of the spoken language. They only become of interest to conflict researchers and practitioners when the way that people speak — for example, their accent — affects the person they are speaking to (see Speaker identity).


Morphology looks at the parts of words which are the smallest units of language with meanings. Free morphemes look like words — they can stand alone (e.g. bird, sing, sudden) but they can also have bound morphemes added to them, to change the number (birds), the extent of activity (singing) or to change word class (suddenly). Morphemes are of interest to users of this site mainly as they contribute to the features discussed in the How people present the world through language section.


Lexis refers to the words that speakers use in their utterances. In purely size terms, words are on average larger than morphemes (though many of them are one morpheme long) and this is why the lexical level is situated between morphology and syntax in this model. You could also see lexical items as a 'store cupboard' of items which are available for placing into the 'slots' of syntactic structures. These are different ways of conceptualising language use and both have advantages and disadvantages.


Syntax has to do with the arrangement of morphemes and words into phrases, clauses and sentences or utterances. There are many features of syntax which contribute to How people present the world through language, but here are some basic facts about English syntax which may help the non-specialist recognise relevant phenomena when they read later sections from the Toolbox.

Clauses are made up of five basic elements: Subject, Predicator, Object, Complement and Adverbials. The seven core clause structures made up from these elements are:


Although optional adverbials can be added at any point in these structures, all clauses reduce to one of these seven types. Here are some simple examples of each of the seven structures:

SP The old man died
SPO The old man ate a biscuit
SPC The old man is my father
SPOO The old man gave me a biscuit
SPOC The old man made me angry
SPA The old man went to the seaside
SPOA The old man took his aunt to the seaside

The typical forms that function as each of these clause elements are as follows:

Whilst we may be tempted to see syntax as linking to meaning in a very automatic way, with nouns referring to things and verbs to actions etc., these links between form and meaning are not set in stone and the result is that we are able to say one thing and mean another (see How people interact), persuade people to our way of thinking (see How people present the world through language) or create language-based art like poetry and fiction.

Discourse analysis

Discourse analysis looks at the organisation of sentences or utterances into larger texts. This is the purely structural view of discourse. Other types of discourse analysis take context into account too.

There are some features of sentence-linking and lexical patterning that can be traced to demonstrate what makes a text (spoken or written) more coherent than a random series of unrelated sentences or utterances. They are relevant here only to the extent that coherence and lexical patterning may create ideological meaning. This topic is addressed in How people present the world through language.


Semantics — the study of meaning — doesn't fit into any particular level. Meaning occurs at all levels, though the types of meaning that occur are different. Thus, phonology is usually only meaningful if it is mimetic (as in onomatopoeic words like baa) or sound-symbolic (i.e. a particular sound or group of sounds repeatedly occurs in words with some element of shared meaning... slip, slide, slope, slither, slime). Semantics is discussed most regularly in relation to word meaning (as you would find in dictionary entries) and there are theories of lexical meaning which propose that there are elements or components of meaning shared by different words. For example, relational terms like mother and father share components to do with being a generation above their offspring, but they differ in gender. It is also worth noting that bound morphemes (i.e. parts of words that cannot stand alone) can also carry meaning. Thus –er often means 'the person who does x' as in baker, teacher and banker.

Semantics is also studied as a feature of syntax, sometimes in relation to the 'truth value' of the sentence. However, the meanings of phrases, clauses and sentences is harder to divorce from context, so it is often more interesting to see how an utterance is used as well as what it means out of context. "I thought you were going to pick me up" has a basic meaning, but it could be used to perform an innocent statement of fact, a threat or a nag, depending on who is talking to whom and what their relationship and history is like. See How people interact for more on this.

Recommended reading

Jeffries, Lesley. 2006. Discovering Language: The Structure of Modern English. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Graddol, David, Jenny Cheshire and Joan Swann. 1987 Describing Language. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Kuiper, Koenraad and W. Scott Allan. 1996. An Introduction to English Language: Sound, Word and Sentence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

O'Grady, William, Michael Dobrovolsky and Francis Katamba. 1996. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. London: Longman.

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