The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

MIT Joint Ling-Phil Colloquium: David Beaver (The University of Texas at Austin)

Speaker: David Beaver (University of Texas)
Title: How to do even more things with words
Time: Friday, May 10, 3:30 – 5:00pm
Room: 32-141


Material drawn from:
David Beaver and Jason Stanley (to appear), “Hustle: the politics of Language”, Princeton University Press

The notion of a language as primarily a representational system is natural when you think of the words laid out on the page of an encyclopedia, or even a talk abstract. It’s less natural when you watch some guy ranting angrily in the supermarket, or at an academic talk. This leads to the Wittgensteinian and Austinian thought that language consists in the first place of things you do, not things that sit passively on the page or screen. Grammars, then are practices, and those practices consist of conventions for performing communicative actions. But how far can this program be taken, and how far should it be taken? Is there value to focusing on the actions of, say, uttering nouns and verbs and relative clauses, rather than limiting linguistic study to the corresponding classes of strings and the things they symbolize? 

First things first: is it even possible to formulate a grammar in terms of actions? Yes. I will show that formulating grammars in terms of actions does not necessitate much alteration to the technical machinery of formal linguistics, albeit that the change invites further innovation. I introduce Action Grammar, a way of looking at what language is that centers on the actions that a speaker performs. While the target of the approach is ultimately an account of the place of language in social interaction, the proposed paradigm can also be seen as making formally explicit the idea in contemporary linguistic theory that grammatical representations are “instructions for the interface systems”. In Action Grammar, it is not merely combinatorial operations like “merge” that are actions, but the merged objects themselves. 

As regards semantics, Action Grammar conservatively maintains insights of modern post-Montagovian compositional grammar, while providing a new way of cutting up semantic/pragmatic space that might be thought of as a precisification of the Relevance Theoretic distinction between conceptual and procedural aspects of meaning. Crucially, although it appears mysterious how one expression can simultaneously mean multiple things, there is no mystery at all in the fact that a speaker can use an expression to do several things (of which describing the world is just one). I will sketch how the approach offers the possibility of simplifying aspects of grammatical composition and the semantics-pragmatics interface, and suggest that it offers insights into both sentence level markers of speech acts, such as performatives, and subsentential speech acts, which may include uses of expressives, politeness markers, and parentheticals. Among other things, I will argue not merely that modern analyses of “conventional implicature” are in error, but that the term itself is a misnomer.