Saturday, January 16, 2010


It is usual to distinguish between a piece of language and its context. This distinction is, I think, bogus. Whether "flies" in "Fruit flies like butter" is a verb or a noun is determined by context (a "typical" context is still a context, just as a flat delivery is an intonation). Consider some ways one might try to make the distinction:

  1. "Context is everything over and beyond the sentence." But this is useless unless we have an account of what "the sentence" as distinguished from the "context" contains.
  2. "Context is everything over and beyond what is written or pronounced." But this is false—since a part of the context may be what was written or pronounced earlier. And if one amends to say "what is written or pronounced in the sentence", the the problem in (1) comes back. Besides, this definition would make everything in sign language count as context. There is an infinite variety of ways that linguistic expressions could be realized, and there is no hope of listing them all to make a definition like this work out.
  3. "Everything that is linguistically relevant but which the speaker might not know about while responsibly uttering the sentence is context." But a speaker might not know what words she is using. For instance, the discovery that a linguistic sequence can be broken up into words is a genuine empirical discovery, and a speaker might not have it. It is normal, further, for the speaker of a language to fail to know exactly the sounds she is making. (In Russian and Polish, final voiced stops get devoiced; thus, a final written "d" is pronounced "t"; however, native speakers often do not know this, and falsely believe they are pronouncing a "d"!) Moreover, there will be aspects of what is traditionally called "context" which a speaker had better know about, because it determines the parsing of the sentence (e.g., "Fruit flies like butter").
  4. "The sentence is what is intentionally produced by the speaker; everything else is context." This is dubious, because one can utter a written sentence simply by cutting out an apposite sentence from a newspaper story and mailing it to someone, we may suppose with a signature appended. In that case, one has asserted whatever was in that sentence, but one has not intentionally produced that sentence, unless "produced" includes exhibiting, taking up, making relevant, etc. But if "produced" is understood in such a wide way, then what are traditionally thought of as parts of the context may well be "produced", in that the time at which one speaks, the way one's face looks, etc. can often indicate which parts of the context are relevant.
  5. "The sentence is what is chosen by the speaker's intention; everything else is context." But just a speaker can choose the precise wording, she can choose the precise context, either by producing it or by waiting for it. Of course, sometimes a speaker does not choose the context and may be even unaware of it. But likewise, sometimes a speaker does not choose the words and be even unaware of them (e.g., consider cases of misspeakings or cases where habit rather than choice determines the wording).
  6. "Context is that which is not governed by conventional rules of grammar." This is either trivially true, if we take "grammar" to include only the rules that govern things other than context, or else is simply false—for there are rules that involve the interaction of wording and context.


Heath White said...

I would have thought that a language was defined by (1) a vocabulary and (2) grammatical rules for constructing sentences. Then the sentence is a string of vocabulary, plus its structure from the rules, while context is everything else.

When a sentence could be interpreted in multiple ways wrt either its vocabulary or its structure, you have a special kind of epistemological problem, in which context is your main set of clues.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, one way of putting the problem is by noting that there are alternate ways of specifying the vocabulary and grammatical rules that seem to do equal justice to the normative phenomena and yet give completely different answers to the question of what context is.

For instance, suppose I point to a dog, and say "George is that kind of animal".

1. The most conservative view is that my sentence is "George is that kind of animal", and both my pointing and the individual pointed out are context. On the view, the relevant bits of vocabulary are "George", "is", "that", etc., and they have a grammar, and the rest is context.

2. But there is a more revisionary view which takes pointings to be a part of vocabulary. (Obviously, hand movements can be a part of vocabulary--in fact, they constitute much of the vocabulary of sign language.) On this more revisionary view, a pointing in a particular direction is a word or a part of a word. The grammar of "that" on this reading requires a determiner, and one kind of determiner is a pointing. The grammar then says that "that" and a simultaneously uttered pointing combine to form the complex expression "that [speaker points along vector (x,y,z)]" (where we take the stage directions in square brackets to be a part of the expression). This approach makes the grammar more complex, but the semantics simplifies by the exact same amount. (To determine the referrent of "that kind", we anyway need to advert to the pointings and the rules governing them. Whether we do this at the level of syntax or semantics is, I think, just a matter of convenience, and the total amount of work to be done will be the same.)

3. Finally, there is an even more revisionary view on which not only pointings but the items pointed out become part of the vocabulary. On this view, the grammar says that the object pointed to is a part of the gesture, so that we have expressions like "[points to O]". Certainly, a linguistic expression can contain as a part of itself an object not produced by the speaker (for instance, take the case of someone who communicates with a pointing board). The grammar then allows "that kind of X" to combine with "[points to O]" to form the complex expression "that [points to O] kind of X". The grammar has grown complex, but the semantics is much simpler. Whereas the semantics of "that [points (x,y,z)] kind of X" (option 2) and "that kind of X" (option 1) were pretty complicated as they had to take account of salience conditions for pointing (typically, one isn't pointing to air molecules in the (x,y,z) direction, the semantics for "that [points to O] kind of X" are much simpler: "that [points to O] kind of X" refers to K iff the kind of X that O is is K. (We still have salience entering into the "kind of X" part. Maybe the salient "kind of animal" is "friendly" and not "dog". But that's also true on option 1 and option 2, though there we also need salience in pointing.)

The interaction between context and voice (or writing or gesture or magnetic polarity structure, depending on the language and its encoding) is, indeed, rule-governed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Also, strictly speaking, it's incorrect to speak of a sentence in general as a "string of vocabulary", unless one takes "string" in a very wide sense. Sentences in compositional languages are formed by applying functors (one can take a basic item to be a functor with no arguments). The words correspond to the functors. An individual word need not be an identifiable sequential element in a sentence. For instance, we can have a language where one negates a sentence by speaking it in a warbling way. In that case, the word we might transcribe as "it-is-not-the-case-that" corresponds to a functor that maps an utterance to a warbled version of itself (maybe one can doubly negate by warbling twice as fast). But while one can graphically represent the warbled sentence as "not(s)", where s is a representation of the unwarbled sentence, the warbled sentence is not a string composed of something that corresponds to the "not" and something that corresponds to the rest of the sentence.

One of my basic rules for thinking about language is not to get hung up on what appear to me to be mere accidents such as that many functors in human languages can be represented by sounds that can approximately be isolated within a linearly structured sentence. (The "approximately" is anyway important. For instance, "Les" is the same word in "Les professeurs" and "Les hommes", but in the former case the "s" is not pronounced but in the latter it is.)

Heath White said...

So, my first thought is that demonstratives are a special (specially hard) case and we shouldn’t start with them.

My second thought, relevant to demonstratives, is that ostension is always needs interpretation. If you point to a dog (we’ll assume, though we probably shouldn’t, that we can distinguish pointing at a dog and pointing at something on the other side of it) you might be pointing out a temperament or a natural kind or that particular dog or a dog-stage or a gait or a color or anything. This can be disambiguated to an extent in the language (“that particular dog”) but salience still plays a major role in coming up with the right answer. This is simply a matter of common human psychological reactions, and if we met a race of very different aliens, it might be that our forms of ostension failed miserably. So I am inclined to think that no uninterpreted pointing acts should be incorporated in the language. That rules out option 2.

Option 3 is interesting, but I would need to see an argument for it. It seems to me to have no advantages over leaving the language at “that” and letting the thing be pointed to be the referent. (I worry that it makes languages unlearnable.)

Maybe your point is that what we count as language (vocabulary) and what we count as “context” is somewhat arbitrary. That might (might!) be true, but I’m not sure what it shows. For theorizing purposes, we can (within limits) stipulate vocabulary and let that determine “context.”

I agree with you about not getting hung up on accidental features of the language. Interpret my “string” in a way that makes my sentences true. :-)