Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Language and Context

Communication, argues Michael Tomasello (channeling Wittgenstein), requires a shared context.  So:

[E]veryday conversation is full of communicative exchanges such as, Ernie: "Wanna go to the movie?," Bert: "I've got a test in the morning"-in which Ernie can only understand Bert's response given much shared background knowledge and inferences from facts outside of any code (e.g., knowing that having a test in the morning means studying the night before, which precludes going to a movie). 
The insight applies not just to the language of abstract sounds but to the more primordial language of gesture (which, not incidentally, Tomasello understands to be the real root of communication).  So:

A man in a bar wants another drink; he waits until the bartender looks at him and then points to his empty shotglass. Gloss: Attend to the emptiness of the glass; please fill it up with liquor.
 Which is to say:
  Even the very simple first example requires a common understanding that customers are at the bar because they want to drink, that an empty drink if the customer can pay, that a shotglass usually holds liquor and not beer or wine, and so forth.
Michael Tomasello. Origins of Human Communication (Bradford Books) (pp. 58, 63, 65). Kindle Edition.

So far, the best thing I've ever read on the topic.  I hear tell that the French Academy once suspended its prize for the best paper on the origins of language because there were so many theories all so completely unprovable.  I wonder what they would have done with Tomasello.   

No comments: