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Friday, September 6, 2013 - 12:00pm

IRCS Conference Room

Joshua Armstrong
Department of Philosophy
University of Pennsylvania

Language and Communication On The Fly

Natural language semantics is often characterized as the study of the conventional meanings of linguistic expressions, and how they can be combined in context to determine the meanings of complex expressions. Donald Davidson famously argued that natural language semantics, so characterized, has little role to play in explaining the process of successful linguistic communication. This argument turns on cases of what I call lexical innovation—cases in which a speaker uses a sentence containing an expression for which no meaning has been conventionally established, but nevertheless successfully communicates her intended meaning to her audience. In this talk, I develop an adaptive account of linguistic conventions that addresses the problem raised by lexical innovations. According to my account, background linguistic conventions may be either expanded to incorporate new word meanings or shifted to revise the meanings of words already in circulation. Successful linguistic communication does not, according to my account, require speakers and their audiences to share prior knowledge of word meanings. Rather, it requires that the members of a conversation successfully coordinate on the meanings of words occurring in an uttered sentence as their dialogue unfolds. The talk will conclude with a discussion of the implications that such an account has for the relationship between semantics and pragmatics.