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Pragmatics and Language Evolution  

Marieke Woensdregt and Kenny Smith

Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that deals with language use in context. It looks at the meaning linguistic utterances can have beyond their literal meaning (implicature), and also at presupposition and turn taking in conversation. Thus, pragmatics lies on the interface between language and social cognition. From the point of view of both speaker and listener, doing pragmatics requires reasoning about the minds of others. For instance, a speaker has to think about what knowledge they share with the listener to choose what information to explicitly encode in their utterance and what to leave implicit. A listener has to make inferences about what the speaker meant based on the context, their knowledge about the speaker, and their knowledge of general conventions in language use. This ability to reason about the minds of others (usually referred to as “mindreading” or “theory of mind”) is a cognitive capacity that is uniquely developed in humans compared to other animals. What we know about how pragmatics (and the underlying ability to make inferences about the minds of others) has evolved. Biological evolution and cultural evolution are the two main processes that can lead to the development of a complex behavior over generations, and we can explore to what extent they account for what we know about pragmatics. In biological evolution, changes happen as a result of natural selection on genetically transmitted traits. In cultural evolution on the other hand, selection happens on skills that are transmitted through social learning. Many hypotheses have been put forward about the role that natural selection may have played in the evolution of social and communicative skills in humans (for example, as a result of changes in food sources, foraging strategy, or group size). The role of social learning and cumulative culture, however, has been often overlooked. This omission is particularly striking in the case of pragmatics, as language itself is a prime example of a culturally transmitted skill, and there is solid evidence that the pragmatic capacities that are so central to language use may themselves be partially shaped by social learning. In light of empirical findings from comparative, developmental, and experimental research, we can consider the potential contributions of both biological and cultural evolutionary mechanisms to the evolution of pragmatics. The dynamics of types of evolutionary processes can also be explored using experiments and computational models.

Article

Morphological and Syntactic Variation and Change in European Spanish  

María José Serrano

Since the 1990s, there have been major developments in the variationist approach to morphological and syntactic variation and change in European Spanish. This research area has garnered increasing interest because of the various morphosyntactic phenomena available for study. A significant amount of work on morphological and syntactic variation and change has been devoted to analyzing the linguistic differences among variants and the social and stylistic communicative settings in which they are used. The main phenomena studied in European Spanish are classified in three main groups: variation of personal pronouns, variation of verbal forms, and variation of syntactic constructions. Morphological and syntactic variants are linguistic choices constructed in a meaningful way that reveal speakers’ perceptions of real-world events and are projected stylistically onto the domain of discourse and interaction. Effective engagement with these choices requires the adoption of a broad, multifaceted notion of meaning to overcome earlier methodological controversies about studying variation at the morphological and syntactic levels because of the meaning that variants convey. In recent years, variation theory has benefited greatly from research in cognitive linguistics, a field whose basic tenet is that grammatical structures reflect the human perception of events. In fact, the most modern theoretical approach to morphosyntactic variation is based on the study of the cognitive meanings underlying variants, which is at the core of the empirical concerns of cognitive sociolinguistics. From a cognitive viewpoint, language is not a separate ability within the realm of human cognition; rather, it is developed along with all other cognitive skills. Studies of morphosyntactic variation address the social contexts in which variation takes place to adequately explain linguistic variation phenomena. The analysis of the communicative and cognitive backgrounds of morphological and syntactic variation challenges the traditional, structural, and behavioral concepts of linguistic variability and change. Thus, the study of these changes reflects the diversity and evolution of ways of thinking.

Article

Acquisition of Pragmatics  

Myrto Grigoroglou and Anna Papafragou

To become competent communicators, children need to learn that what a speaker means often goes beyond the literal meaning of what the speaker says. The acquisition of pragmatics as a field is the study of how children learn to bridge the gap between the semantic meaning of words and structures and the intended meaning of an utterance. Of interest is whether young children are capable of reasoning about others’ intentions and how this ability develops over time. For a long period, estimates of children’s pragmatic sophistication were mostly pessimistic: early work on a number of phenomena showed that very young communicators were egocentric, oblivious to other interlocutors’ intentions, and overall insensitive to subtle pragmatic aspects of interpretation. Recent years have seen major shifts in the study of children’s pragmatic development. Novel methods and more fine-grained theoretical approaches have led to a reconsideration of older findings on how children acquire pragmatics across a number of phenomena and have produced a wealth of new evidence and theories. Three areas that have generated a considerable body of developmental work on pragmatics include reference (the relation between words or phrases and entities in the world), implicature (a type of inferred meaning that arises when a speaker violates conversational rules), and metaphor (a case of figurative language). Findings from these three domains suggest that children actively use pragmatic reasoning to delimit potential referents for newly encountered words, can take into account the perspective of a communicative partner, and are sensitive to some aspects of implicated and metaphorical meaning. Nevertheless, children’s success with pragmatic communication is fragile and task-dependent.

Article

Experimental Semiotics  

Bruno Galantucci

Experimental Semiotics (ES) is a burgeoning new discipline aimed at investigating in the laboratory the development of novel forms of human communication. Conceptually connected to experimental research on language use, ES provides a scientific complement to field studies of spontaneously emerging new languages and studies on the emergence of communication systems among artificial agents. ES researchers have created quite a few research paradigms to investigate the development of novel forms of human communication. Despite their diversity, these paradigms all rely on the use of semiotic games, that is, games in which people can succeed reliably only after they have developed novel communication systems. Some of these games involve creating novel signs for pre-specified meanings. These games are particularly suitable for studying relatively large communication systems and their structural properties. Other semiotic games involve establishing shared meanings as well as novel signs to communicate about them. These games are typically rather challenging and are particularly suitable for investigating the processes through which novel forms of communication are created. Considering that ES is a methodological stance rather than a well-defined research theme, researchers have used it to address a greatly heterogeneous set of research questions. Despite this, and despite the recent origins of ES, two of these questions have begun to coalesce into relatively coherent research themes. The first theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to acquire features that are similar to key features of natural language. Most notably, they tend (a) to rely on the use of symbols—that is purely conventional signs—and (b) to adopt a combinatorial design, using a few basic units to express a large number of meanings. ES researchers have begun investigating some of the factors that lead to the acquisition of such features. These investigations suggest two conclusions. The first is that the emergence of symbols depends on the fact that, when repeatedly using non-symbolic signs, people tend to progressively abstract them. The second conclusion is that novel communication systems tend to adopt a combinatorial design more readily when their signs have low degrees of motivation and fade rapidly. The second research theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to begin systematically with motivated—that is non-symbolic—signs. ES investigations of this tendency suggest that it occurs because motivation helps people bootstrap novel forms of communication. Put it another way, these investigations show that it is very difficult for people to bootstrap communication through arbitrary signs.

Article

Orthography and the Sociolinguistics of Writing  

Mirka Honkanen

Orthography is not a neutral tool for representing language in writing. Spelling is a linguistic variable capable of carrying social meaning, and orthographies are technologies embedded in larger societal structures. Spelling plays a role in the construction of national and other social identities, the delimitation of languages, the authentication and stigmatization of speaker groups, standardization, and the written representation of paralinguistic features. In these and further ways, orthography is a topic of high sociolinguistic relevance. After written language had long received less sociolinguistic attention than speech, there is now a growing body of sociolinguistic research into spelling variation and orthography as a socioculturally situated practice. Sociolinguists investigate the social role of orthographies and spelling choices. When orthographies are developed for previously unwritten languages, decisions have to be made not only regarding phonemic representation but also between creating distance from and closeness to related languages. Orthography becomes a highly debated topic also when spelling reforms are proposed; different ideological, aesthetic, financial, educational, and sociopolitical arguments are typically brought forth. Standardized spellings are seen by language users as granting languages and speakers authority. When non-standardized spellings are used in transcripts of speech, they have been shown to assign sociolinguistic stigma to the speakers represented. Non-standardized spellings are used in different less than fully regulated orthographic spaces, such as digital writing, company and personal names, literary texts, subcultural publications, advertising, and private writing. Sociolinguistic studies on spelling often rely on data from digital communication such as text messaging or social media interactions. Such studies not only describe and classify different kinds of non-standardized spellings but also increasingly establish quantitative tendencies, explore correlations with macro-level sociodemographic factors, and show the potential for respelling to construct identities, personae, and meaning at the micro level of the utterance. Spelling can index identities and stances, act as a contextualization cue, and represent prosodic and dialectal features.

Article

Conversational Implicature  

Nicholas Allott

Conversational implicatures (i) are implied by the speaker in making an utterance; (ii) are part of the content of the utterance, but (iii) do not contribute to direct (or explicit) utterance content; and (iv) are not encoded by the linguistic meaning of what has been uttered. In (1), Amelia asserts that she is on a diet, and implicates something different: that she is not having cake. (1)Benjamin:Are you having some of this chocolate cake?Amelia:I’m on a diet. Conversational implicatures are a subset of the implications of an utterance: namely those that are part of utterance content. Within the class of conversational implicatures, there are distinctions between particularized and generalized implicatures; implicated premises and implicated conclusions; and weak and strong implicatures. An obvious question is how implicatures are possible: how can a speaker intentionally imply something that is not part of the linguistic meaning of the phrase she utters, and how can her addressee recover that utterance content? Working out what has been implicated is not a matter of deduction, but of inference to the best explanation. What is to be explained is why the speaker has uttered the words that she did, in the way and in the circumstances that she did. Grice proposed that rational talk exchanges are cooperative and are therefore governed by a Cooperative Principle (CP) and conversational maxims: hearers can reasonably assume that rational speakers will attempt to cooperate and that rational cooperative speakers will try to make their contribution truthful, informative, relevant and clear, inter alia, and these expectations therefore guide the interpretation of utterances. On his view, since addressees can infer implicatures, speakers can take advantage of their ability, conveying implicatures by exploiting the maxims. Grice’s theory aimed to show how implicatures could in principle arise. In contrast, work in linguistic pragmatics has attempted to model their actual derivation. Given the need for a cognitively tractable decision procedure, both the neo-Gricean school and work on communication in relevance theory propose a system with fewer principles than Grice’s. Neo-Gricean work attempts to reduce Grice’s array of maxims to just two (Horn) or three (Levinson), while Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory rejects maxims and the CP and proposes that pragmatic inference hinges on a single communicative principle of relevance. Conversational implicatures typically have a number of interesting properties, including calculability, cancelability, nondetachability, and indeterminacy. These properties can be used to investigate whether a putative implicature is correctly identified as such, although none of them provides a fail-safe test. A further test, embedding, has also been prominent in work on implicatures. A number of phenomena that Grice treated as implicatures would now be treated by many as pragmatic enrichment contributing to the proposition expressed. But Grice’s postulation of implicatures was a crucial advance, both for its theoretical unification of apparently diverse types of utterance content and for the attention it drew to pragmatic inference and the division of labor between linguistic semantics and pragmatics in theorizing about verbal communication.

Article

The Language of the Economy and Business in the Romance Languages  

Franz Rainer

The expression language of the economy and business refers to an extremely heterogeneous linguistic reality. For some, it denotes all text and talk produced by economic agents in the pursuit of economic activity, for others the language used to write or talk about the economy or business, that is, the language of the economic sciences and the media. Both the economy and business contain a myriad of subdomains, each with its own linguistic peculiarities. Language use also differs quite substantially between the shop floor and academic articles dealing with it. Last but not least, language is itself a highly articulate entity, composed of sounds, words, concepts, etc., which are taken care of by a considerable number of linguistic disciplines and theories. As a consequence, this research landscape offers a very varied picture. The state of research is also highly diverse as far as the Romance languages are concerned. The bulk of relevant publications concerns French, followed at a certain distance by Spanish and Italian, while Romanian, Catalan, and Portuguese look like poor relations. As far as the dialects are concerned, only those of some Italian cities that held a central position in medieval trade, like Venice, Florence, or Genoa, have given rise to relevant studies. As far as the metalanguage used in research is concerned, the most striking feature is the overwhelming preponderance of German and the almost complete absence of English. The insignificant role of English must probably be attributed to the fact that the study of foreign business languages in the Anglo-Saxon countries is close to nonexistent. Why study foreign business languages if one own’s language is the lingua franca of today’s business world? Scholars from the Romance countries, of course, generally write in their mother tongue, but linguistic publications concerning the economic and business domain are relatively scarce there. The heterogeneity of the metalanguages used certainly hinders the constitution of a close-knit research community.

Article

Semantics and Pragmatics of Monkey Communication  

Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla, and Klaus Zuberbühler

Rich data gathered in experimental primatology in the last 40 years are beginning to benefit from analytical methods used in contemporary linguistics, especially in the area of semantics and pragmatics. These methods have started to clarify five questions: (i) What morphology and syntax, if any, do monkey calls have? (ii) What is the ‘lexical meaning’ of individual calls? (iii) How are the meanings of individual calls combined? (iv) How do calls or call sequences compete with each other when several are appropriate in a given situation? (v) How did the form and meaning of calls evolve? Four case studies from this emerging field of ‘primate linguistics’ provide initial answers, pertaining to Old World monkeys (putty-nosed monkeys, Campbell’s monkeys, and colobus monkeys) and New World monkeys (black-fronted Titi monkeys). The morphology mostly involves simple calls, but in at least one case (Campbell’s -oo) one finds a root–suffix structure, possibly with a compositional semantics. The syntax is in all clear cases simple and finite-state. With respect to meaning, nearly all cases of call concatenation can be analyzed as being semantically conjunctive. But a key question concerns the division of labor between semantics, pragmatics, and the environmental context (‘world’ knowledge and context change). An apparent case of dialectal variation in the semantics (Campbell’s krak) can arguably be analyzed away if one posits sufficiently powerful mechanisms of competition among calls, akin to scalar implicatures. An apparent case of noncompositionality (putty-nosed pyow–hack sequences) can be analyzed away if one further posits a pragmatic principle of ‘urgency’. Finally, rich Titi sequences in which two calls are re-arranged in complex ways so as to reflect information about both predator identity and location are argued not to involve a complex syntax/semantics interface, but rather a fine-grained interaction between simple call meanings and the environmental context. With respect to call evolution, the remarkable preservation of call form and function over millions of years should make it possible to lay the groundwork for an evolutionary monkey linguistics, illustrated with cercopithecine booms.

Article

Text-Messaging in Africa  

Ana Deumert

The concept of Africa requires reflection: what does it mean to study a social phenomenon “in Africa”? Technology use in Africa is complex and diverse, showing various degrees of access across the continent (and in the Diaspora, and digital social inequalities—which are part and parcel of the political economy of communication—shape digital engagement. The rise of mobile phones, in particular, has enabled the emergence of technologically mediated literacies, text-messaging among them. Text-messaging is defined not only by a particular mode of communication (typically written on mobile phones, visual, digital), but it also favors particular topics (intimate, relational, sociable, ludic) and ways of writing (short, non-standard texts that are creative as well as multilingual). The genre of text-messaging thus includes not only short message service (SMS) and (mobile) instant-messaging (which one might call prototypical one-to-one text messages), but also Twitter, an application that, like texting, favors brevity of expression and allows for one-to-many conversations. Access to Twitter is still limited for many Africans, but as ownership of smartphones is growing, so is Twitter use, and the African “Twittersphere” is emerging as an important pan-African space. At times, discussions are very local (as on Ghanaian Twitter), at other times regional (East African Twitter) or global (African Twitter and Black Twitter); all these are emic, folksonomic terms, assigned and discussed by users. Although former colonial languages, especially English, dominate in many prototypical text messages and on Twitter, the genre also provides important opportunities for writing in African languages. The choices made in the digital space echo the well-known debate between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: the Africanization of the former colonial languages versus writing in African languages. In addition, digital writers engage in multilingual writing, combining diverse languages in one text, and thus offer new ways of writing locally as well as shaping a digitally-mediated pan-African voice that draws on global strategies as well as local meaning.

Article

Clinical Linguistics  

Louise Cummings

Clinical linguistics is the branch of linguistics that applies linguistic concepts and theories to the study of language disorders. As the name suggests, clinical linguistics is a dual-facing discipline. Although the conceptual roots of this field are in linguistics, its domain of application is the vast array of clinical disorders that may compromise the use and understanding of language. Both dimensions of clinical linguistics can be addressed through an examination of specific linguistic deficits in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, craniofacial anomalies, adult-onset neurological impairments, psychiatric disorders, and neurodegenerative disorders. Clinical linguists are interested in the full range of linguistic deficits in these conditions, including phonetic deficits of children with cleft lip and palate, morphosyntactic errors in children with specific language impairment, and pragmatic language impairments in adults with schizophrenia. Like many applied disciplines in linguistics, clinical linguistics sits at the intersection of a number of areas. The relationship of clinical linguistics to the study of communication disorders and to speech-language pathology (speech and language therapy in the United Kingdom) are two particularly important points of intersection. Speech-language pathology is the area of clinical practice that assesses and treats children and adults with communication disorders. All language disorders restrict an individual’s ability to communicate freely with others in a range of contexts and settings. So language disorders are first and foremost communication disorders. To understand language disorders, it is useful to think of them in terms of points of breakdown on a communication cycle that tracks the progress of a linguistic utterance from its conception in the mind of a speaker to its comprehension by a hearer. This cycle permits the introduction of a number of important distinctions in language pathology, such as the distinction between a receptive and an expressive language disorder, and between a developmental and an acquired language disorder. The cycle is also a useful model with which to conceptualize a range of communication disorders other than language disorders. These other disorders, which include hearing, voice, and fluency disorders, are also relevant to clinical linguistics. Clinical linguistics draws on the conceptual resources of the full range of linguistic disciplines to describe and explain language disorders. These disciplines include phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse. Each of these linguistic disciplines contributes concepts and theories that can shed light on the nature of language disorder. A wide range of tools and approaches are used by clinical linguists and speech-language pathologists to assess, diagnose, and treat language disorders. They include the use of standardized and norm-referenced tests, communication checklists and profiles (some administered by clinicians, others by parents, teachers, and caregivers), and qualitative methods such as conversation analysis and discourse analysis. Finally, clinical linguists can contribute to debates about the nosology of language disorders. In order to do so, however, they must have an understanding of the place of language disorders in internationally recognized classification systems such as the 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association.