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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

What is the difference between surface and deep layer in language?

The terms "surface layer" and "deep layer" refer to different levels that information goes through in the language production system. For example, imagine that you see a dog chasing a mailman. When you encode this information, you create a representation that includes three pieces of information: a dog, a mailman, and the action chasing. This information exists in the mind of the speaker as a "deep" structure. If you want to express this information linguistically, you can, for example, produce a sentence like "The dog is chasing the mailman." This is the "surface" layer: it consists of the words and sounds produced by a speaker (or writer) and perceived by a listener (or reader). You can also produce a sentence like "The mailman is being chased by a dog" to describe the same event -- here, the order in which you mention the two characters (the "surface" layer) is different from the first sentence, but both sentences are derived from the same "deep" representation. Linguists propose that you can perform movement operations to transform the information encoded in the "deep" layer into the "surface" layer, and refer to these movement operations as linguistic rules. Linguistic rules are part of the grammar of a language and must be learned by speakers in order to produce grammatically correct sentences.


Image: Duncan Rawlinson

Rules exist for different types of utterances. Other examples of rules, or movement operations between "deep" and "surface" layers, include declarative sentences (You have a dog) and their corresponding interrogative sentences (Do you have a dog?). Here, the movement operations include switching the order of the first two words of the sentence.

by Gwilym Lockwood & Agnieszka Konopka

Further reading:

Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic Structures. Mouton.
Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos