Alignments across disciplines

By Ira Noveck & Tiffany Morisseau
This book left a very positive impression on us both. It is practically a manifesto for clear thinking about doing proper Gricean analyses in applied areas of communication. Speaking our minds (SOM), which describes and reshapes the theoretical landscape in the evolutionary biology of communication, allowed us to compare and contrast that field of inquiry with the field of experimental pragmatics, the area we know best. Here is how the two are similar: Both fields make room for the Code model and a Gricean Ostensive-Inferential model, both recognize Grice’s monumental proposal as important, and yet in each of our respective fields, it seems like a majority takes it for granted that the Code model should be the point of reference.

Another generally appreciated feature of the work is the way Thom clears away misconstruals and addresses incorrect assumptions, for example when he points out that shared function does not mean shared histories:

“ostensive communication is far more expressive than coded communication, but that is no argument in favour of continuity. To argue otherwise … is also to argue … that flying evolved from walking” (Chapter 2.7)

or when he refers to the qualitative difference between code as used in the Code model among his colleagues as opposed to the way it is used as linguistic code. Interestingly, he also goes on to point out how his colleagues use the word “mean” in a descriptive way (“territory marking ‘means’ ‘do not encroach upon this territory’”) whereas Gricean formulations use “mean” in a theoretical way that addresses speaker’s intentions being recognized. This allowed us to appreciate a distinction when comparing our two areas: In evolutionary biology, defenders of the Code model recognize that the point of signals is to “do things to an audience” whereas those who implicitly adopt the Code model in our area are hardly concerned with that (their focus is mostly about determining the extent to which words and grammar capture extra-logical or extra-literal meaning).

As part of our effort to draw parallels and see where concepts in his academic world line up (or not) with ours, we were however drawn to one important difference between Thom’s outlook on his field and our outlook on ours—the pragmatic phenomena that are being accounted for. Whereas his explanandum is any given convention (the way a community chooses a side of the road to drive on, the way a Pictionary game evolves, the “drift-to-the-arbitrary” in the evolution of writing symbols, finding a common language in intention-reading games etc.), ours is on-the-spot interpretations of utterances. For instance, while we both might be concerned with metaphors, Thom is interested in the way metaphors make their way more-or-less permanently into language (Chapter 5.1), while we are interested in the way an original metaphor is processed for the first time (and if it succeeds in being part of communication, how does that work). His question is how do individuals manage to build conventions that render communication expressively powerful. Our question is, how are we able to say and pragmatically understand an endless number of new utterances.

The upshot is that this leaves at least a couple of places where we are no longer working in parallel. While he is interested in the process of grammaticalization, the fact that historical changes observed in languages are “overwhelmingly unidirectional” (Chapter 5.5) has not been seriously investigated from an experimental pragmatics point of view (though historical linguists are interested in pursuing this line alongside experimental pragmatists, see Grossman & Noveck, 2015). In fact, we can go further and say that experimental investigations into conventions (conceptual pacts, lexical entrainment and the like) are said to pose a challenge to a Gricean picture (e.g. see Brennan and Clark’s work, which shows how participants will use a more informative name, such as Golden Retriever, to be as informative as possible in a given situation but then will stick with it even later, when the more general term dog would do).

We have more than a passing interest in this misalignment because we would like to draw lessons from SOM that could have an impact in our area. However, we wonder about the extent to which that is possible. While SOM heralds the Ostensive-Inferential model, and Relevance Theory in particular, by underlining the advantages such models bring when compared to its rivals, the book—and perhaps it is inherent to the study of Language Evolution in general—is focused on different phenomena. While Thom’s explanations are Grice-inspired, the examples seem to arrive at a nexus where Gricean explanations end and Lewisian concerns begin.

Given our shared theoretical commitments (i.e. in SOM and our own work), we have two reactions. One is that we suspect that there is a way to integrate Thom’s framework into accounts of spontaneous pragmatic interpretation. For example, it strikes us as plausible to view coercive and cued actions as two flexible, non-overlapping categories of expressive verbal behavior at the moment of production (before an addressee provides a reaction). Our other reaction is to remain circumspect and conclude that the answer to our query (can the approach in Thom’s book be reconciled with the worries of experimental pragmatics?) is, not readily (and that would take nothing away from the book’s brilliance). However, we remain hopeful for the former, i.e. that Thom’s framework can provide the means for one to align evolutionary biological accounts of language with the everyday comprehension of utterances.


Brennan S.E., & Clark H.H. (1996). Conceptual pacts and lexical choice in conversation. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22, 1482-1493.

Grossman, E. & Noveck, I. A. (2015). What can historical linguistics and experimental pragmatics offer each other? Linguistic Vanguard.

1 Comment

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    Thom Scott-Phillips 26 June 2015 (00:05)

    These are forward-looking, thought-provoking comments. Thanks Ira & Tiffany for several astute observations about the similarities and differences between how evolutionary biologists and experimental pragmaticists conceive of communication. And also for a positive suggestion about how different frameworks for communication might be aligned across disciplines.

    I’d like to endorse and elaborate on a couple of points that Ira & Tiffany make. First, they write that “in evolutionary biology, defenders of the code model recognize that the point of signals is to “do things to an audience” whereas those who implicitly adopt the code model in our area [experimental pragmatics] are hardly concerned with that”. This is true, and I had actually not noticed before now quite how stark this dichotomy is! Interestingly, language evolution is an area where these two worldviews meet. Researchers working on the cultural evolution of languages, focused as their are with the origins of language structure, are not much concerned with what languages are actually used for (there are exceptions, of course). In contrast, researchers with a more biological perspective often emphasise that signals are tools for doing things to the world. What unites these two schools of thought is a commitment to the code model as a framework for linguistic communication. I hope that SOM will help to bring attention to the limitations of this commitment.

    Second, I’d like to endorse Ira & Tiffany’s observation about the possible utility of experiments on grammaticalization. I suggested in SOM (p.120) that a pragmatic perspective might help to explain the directionality of grammaticalization. Experiments that test this idea will, I’m sure, face significant methodological challenges, but aside from this the fruits are rather low-hanging. Gareth Roberts has for some time being saying that historical linguists should do more experiments. It would be interesting to see what common ground Ira & Tiffany might share with Gareth.

    Looking forwards, Ira & Tiffany suggest that there may be “a way to integrate Thom’s framework into accounts of spontaneous pragmatic interpretation”. This is clearly related to Dan’s comments, about the possibility of developing of general framework for communication, one that can naturally describe both the code model the ostensive-inferential model. Ira & Tiffany are “hopeful” about the prospects for such a project. It is certainly a tantalising possibility. I don’t have anything of substance to add right now, but Dan’s comments and Ira & Tiffany’s suggestion are giving me pause for thought. What do others think?