Language is Social: A Quick, Slightly Angry, Introduction by Way of Media Response

A couple of articles have crossed my Twitter path in the last few days that are, from a linguistic anthropological perspective, shockingly ignorant. They come not from random people writing about language, but actually from prominent academics, including linguists. I’m writing this in response to those articles/discussions, first in order to give a very basic, accessible rebuttal to them, and second in order to illustrate a very frustrating pattern of thinking about language from a limited, asocial perspective.

The first example is really low-hanging fruit, come from Steven Pinker, who despite his status as a Harvard cognitive scientist, frequently demonstrates a remarkable lack of intellectual curiosity or willingness to engage beyond his assumptions. He tweeted:

There are several layers about this that are fundamentally incorrect, including the idea that Plato believed that words held limited power (Plato was in fact very concerned about the potential power of speech and art). It’s also highly debatable as to what one should call “the first insight of linguistics” — there’s no reason to discuss Plato as a linguist, or to dismiss insights about language that come from outside of a very limited conceptualization of what counts as a canonical tradition of knowledge. And at the core, the statement is a fundamentally incorrect one – the idea that words are conventions doesn’t nullify their power. Taboo words, ritual words, even everyday bits of interaction like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ cannot be explained and expressed through a mere reference to conventional representation (a form of meaning we call “denotation”). The meaning of so much of language depends entirely on how it is used and what it does socially. In addition to really well known theoretical formulations of this concern (e.g. JL Austin’s How to do Things with Words), this premise drives almost the entire field of linguistic anthropology. Language isn’t made of ‘words’ detached from their use and effect in the world – rather, it is a social and interactional practice that has immense power, “magical” and otherwise.

This is in no way a new insight, nor a particularly challenging one – which brings me to my second example, an article that came in to my feed when it was tweeted by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) entitled “Scientists Advocate New Approach to Linguistic Research”. This new approach? That context matters in understanding meaning.

I know. Shocking, right? The article gives the example that the statement “every night I drink a glass of wine before I go to bed” would be interpreted differently if the speaker is a ten year old girl (than if, presumably, it is an adult speaking). Which is to say – the meaning of language doesn’t rest strictly on denotative content of component ‘words’, but rather requires interpretation of information about speaker identities, interlocutors, setting, etc. It goes on to say that psychological research on the processing of meaning should look at more ‘natural’ use, recognizing that laboratory environments deliberately strip context from the situation. My problem with this, of course, has nothing to do with the content of the observation – this is all 100% true. My problem lies with the claim that this is new, because it’s literally the entire basis of more than one academic (sub)discipline (linguistic anthropology, sociology of language, sociolinguistics…), not to mention of any number of Indigenous philosophical frames of thought about meaning,

giphy (1)
Self portrait of the author when reading this article today.

language, and society. The article and the LSA has been dragged on Twitter pretty quickly for exactly this reason, and while it enrages me that there are apparently linguists who think a) this is insightful and b) the best collaborators for this project come from the disciplines of “neurosciences, psychology, …and biology”, it’s worth noting there are also plenty of linguists, including those in the non-socio subfields, offering this critique.

These two stories share more than just a mockability factor of 10/10, though – they’re both based in a view of ‘meaning’ that is about words and conventional ‘definitions’. This is a position that is really pervasive in Western contexts, reproduced in educational practice, and manifested in the relationship that people have to texts like dictionaries (note here that I don’t mean the goal of lexicographers themselves – the people who make dictionaries can be profoundly aware of the instability and complexity of the meanings that they try to reduce to a clear definition and a few example sentences – but rather to the way laypeople come to use the dictionary to tell them ‘what a word means’). It also emerges frequently in fields like developmental psychology, where discussions of toddlers’ linguistic practices centres on counting the words that they know and use (or, as Nelson Flores critiques so thoroughly, counting the words that their caregivers apparently expose them to). And, of course, it emerges in discourses about racial slurs, as prominent authors like Pinker are disdainful of the very basic idea that some words carry a great deal of power to hurt, or that the meaning of these expressions is fundamentally altered by the identity of the speaker using them.

Thinking about language as a socially situated practice is actually really important in any number of ways, but this basic insight can still be dismissed, not only by laypeople, but by academic researchers and policy makers. At the very least, getting angry about things like that helps to remind me why I do linguistic anthropology, and why it matters.

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