Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Peter Harder: "Meaning as input" (2009)

This paper by Peter Harder argues---building on William Croft and D. Alan Cruse's Cognitive Linguistics (2004)---that sentences should be thought of as little programs that are run in the head of a hearer.

The main example supporting this view of semantics is the case of the definite article. In sentences like
  • The UN condemned the test,
the noun phrase the test can be read as an instruction to find a suitable referent (p. 18).

This invites a view of grammar in which the syntactical structure of a sentence is seen as a chronological structure of a program. The sentence The test happened thus receives the following interpretation (p. 23):
  • declarative (past tense (HAPPEN (definite (TEST))))
This should be read as a LISP-style program. Harder illustrates the syntax of this instructional language with the following "recipe" (p. 24):
  • serve (sprinkle with lemon (grill (add salt (slice (salmon)))))
It should be quite obvious how this is intended to work. Note the parallel to Montague grammar.

The consequence of adopting such a view seems to be that language becomes a narrow communication channel that only allows for the transmission of code, not of meaning. If this is correct, understanding can be compared to a client-side execution of a server-provided script.

Meaning is thus constrained by the resources of the hearer, but the instruction is designed by the speaker. This may be what Harder means by the following quote, although I'm not entirely sure:
Knowing a language, I suggest, essentially consists of knowing the input properties of the forms you choose [the meaning of the keywords in the scripting language?] -- whereas actual outputs [interpretations, meanings?] can never be known for certain in advance [because you cannot control the settings and properties of the client-side computer?]. (p. 16)
The paper was published in New Directions in Cognitive Linguistics (2009), edited by Vyvyan Evans and Stéphanie Pourcel.

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