Submitted for Cognition and Language, Brno, Czechia, November 24-26, 2017.
Could the Basis for Language Be the Reduction of Vagueness In Order to Coordinate Activity?
We explore how we can derive various aspects of language by considering its original purpose to be the reduction of vagueness in order to coordinate activity.
Generally, in discourse, there is a remarkable agreement as to which words and sentences are spoken. Traditionally, linguists have supposed that language therefore conveys meaning through assemblies of well defined terms. More broadly, analytic philosophy, and more specifically, cognitive linguistics, have held such an outlook, which we argue is implausible, psychologically, phenomenologically and pragmatically.
Psychologically, the unfolding sense of meaning which we experience only loosely matches the flow of words that we speak and hear. Phenomenologically, speaker and listener are quite disconnected in what they personally feel. Indeed, thinking itself is extremely vague. And, pragmatically, people need not agree on what their terms actually mean, nor know themselves, for that matter.
Cognitive linguistics has reconsidered language in terms of thinking and so has developed an understanding of cognitive frameworks. However, these frameworks are still discussed from the prevailing point of view of assembling items. Thus, Langacker (2008) considers how we may conceptualize a drinking glass as a space, shape, container, instrument, material and so on. Instead, we suppose that the purpose of language is to coordinate activity. Thus we conceive of a world in which what is well defined are recurring activities. We pick things up and set them down; we drink liquids; we serve them to others. It is the recurring activity which determines what a "drinking glass" might mean for us. For example, we may be told to clean the glasses in the sink but leave the plates. Thus we have an activity of distinguishing glasses from plates. The implementation of such an activity can be particular to any individual. There need be no definition of what a "glass" is, nor what properties it has, but rather there is an activity of selecting glasses, which may lead to an ad hoc concept, or not. Architect Christopher Alexander (1979) has described how recurring activity evokes structure, and structure channels activity, yielding patterns - general "rules of thumb" - which come together in pattern languages. We can apply his thinking to linguistics.
The goal of language then can be to reduce the general vagueness of thinking, by a variety of strategies, for the purpose of coordinating activity, old and new. This is compatible with Tomasello's (2016) concept of joint intentionality. Working together with others, we must leverage general models of intention, attention, and serving the interests of others, for example, by appreciating status, as in who submits to whom. We must punctuate our actions, much as if they were sentences. Some strategies can be most abstract, such as dividing the vagueness of our minds into two perspectives, as when distinguishing construal and content. Other strategies can be familiar to us as transformations of our own self-identity. Thus we overview strategies which help us coordinate activity and we show what they might variously ground to make language possible.