UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Pragmatics Reading Group

This series of seminars and workshops takes place over terms 1 and 2 (2020-2021), at UCL Linguistics.

 All meetings of the group this term will take place online via Zoom invitation - links to join will be sent out nearer to each meeting date.


DateSpeakerTitleAbstractRelated document
14th October 2020 at 14:00Eliot Michaelson (KCL)What Fake News is, and Why that Matters (note: this is joint work with Jessica Pepp and Rachel Sterken)A number of theorists have recently offered characterizations of what fake news is. Most of these appeal, one way or another, to the intentions of the agent(s) generating the story in order to classify these stories as fake news. We argue that this line of thought, however it is spelled out, is ultimately unappealing. The basic problem is that it rules out the possibility of their being machine-generated fake news---which is either soon to be or, more likely, already a part of the reality we live in. We offer an alternative analysis of fake news according to which fake news is news which is both widely shared and which fails to live up to journalistic standards. This analysis makes evident the importance of the notion of 'sharing' in our present communicative environment. We therefore supplement our analysis of fake news with a preliminary analysis of sharing and lay out some further avenues of development on this front. Finally, this package of views helps to highlight what has changed so radically in the last decade or so about fake news---the infrastructure of sharing has come to be owned by social media companies---which in turn suggests a range of potential remedies to our present situation. 
28th October 2020 at 14:00Kirstine La Cour (UCL)Exchange FetishismRichard Moran (The Exchange of Words, 2018) contends that telling someone that P is importantly different from providing them with evidence for P. What accounts for the difference is that a special kind of interdependence of speaker and audience is required for the former, but not the latter; in a slogan, telling takes two. This interdependence, Moran holds, is the at the heart of the social or interpersonal character of testimony and is what distinguishes it as a genuinely communicative phenomenon.
The objective of this paper is to investigate this interdependence claim by evaluating Moran’s account of what a hearer has to provide for a telling to take place. I first show that Moran’s characterisation of speaker-audience interdependence is open to two contrasting interpretations, which I term Active and Passive. The point of contention between these is whether the audience’s contribution to a telling (i.e. their recognition and uptake of the speaker’s intention) is something that can be supplied or withheld at will.
I argue that only an Active interpretation, on which the audience’s contribution is voluntarily offered, coheres with the rest of Moran’s position and with his criticism of the so-called Unilateral Model (broadly speaking, a traditional Gricean model) of telling. This matters because the Active interpretation faces a number of explanatory challenges that make it difficult to defend. In particular, Moran’s model will struggle to explain the fact that we can be told things against our will. Communication, I argue, is not a free and fair exchange, and our theorising about it needs to account for this fact.

Due to the highly philosophical nature of the talk, you might want to do some background reading. A relevant paper can be accessed below:

4th November 2020 at 14:00

Mikhail Kissine (ULB)

Autism, Constructionism and NativismThe aim of this paper is to provide a balanced assessment of the significance autism has for the scientific study of language. While linguistic profiles in autism vary greatly, spanning from a total absence of functional language to verbal levels within the typical range, the entire autism spectrum is robustly characterized by life-long deficits in intersubjective communication and persistent difficulties in adopting other people's perspective. In that sense, autism constitutes a unique profile in which linguistic competence is dissociated from communication skills. Somewhat paradoxically, autism is often mentioned to underscore the importance of mind reading for language use, and of inter-subjective communication for the emergence of language. Yet, experimental studies on pragmatics in autism indicate that many pragmatic processes unfold without adopting one's conversational partner's perspective. Moreover the patterns of language acquisition and learning in autism represent a strong challenge to the central role constructionist theories assign to socio-communicative skills. Data on autism thus forces a reconsideration of the a priori conceptual boundaries on language learnability that shape the foundational debates between constructionist and nativist linguistic theories. 
18th November 2020 at 14:00Josephine Bowerman (UCL)

Innovative and Non-literal Reference-Making Before Age 4: A Corpus Study of Young Children’s Spontaneous Production

My focus is the development of children’s reference-making abilities in everyday communication. Existing evidence suggests that, from at least as young as three years old, children are able to produce novel noun-noun compounds (e.g. ‘clown boy’ = boy who is a clown) (Clark, Gelman & Lane, 1985) and novel instances of referential metonymy (e.g. ‘the flags’ = game involving flags) (Falkum, Recasens & Clark, 2017). Further, children’s apprehension of so-called relations of contiguity (e.g. between an individual and his/her distinctive features), which is claimed to underlie both referential metonymy and many cases of early nominal compounds, appears to emerge early in the preschool years (Rosch, et al., 1976). 

However, additional questions remain unanswered. How do young children use creative/non-literal referring devices like referential metonymy and noun-noun compounds in spontaneous speech in a naturalistic setting, and how does this usage change over time? In light of research from Rundblad and Annaz (2010a, b) that suggests that metonymy may develop at a faster rate than metaphor, might we see differences between children’s use of referential metonymy (e.g. ‘the football’ = boy with a football) vs referential metaphor (e.g. ‘the hedgehog’ = spiky-haired boy who resembles a hedgehog), and metonymic compounds (e.g. ‘kittens book’ = book about kittens) vs metaphorical compounds (e.g. ‘kitten cloud’ = cloud that looks like a kitten)? Finally, how does the acquisition of reference-making abilities relate to the development of other pragmatic phenomena, such as metalinguistic awareness?

In this talk, I report on an ongoing exploratory investigation of 18 months’ worth of production data from the CHILDES database, gathered from two children— Eleanor (2;6-2;12) and Thomas (2;6-3;12)— and the adults with whom they interact. Strikingly, the data reveal that, even before the age of three, Eleanor and Thomas are able to use phenomena including referential metonymy and noun-noun compounds to produce innovative labels for entities in an adult-like manner. The data also point to interesting differences in the frequency of occurrence of the different referential phenomena; in particular, the predominance of compounds in both the children’s and the adults’ speech. This suggests that each phenomenon may offer distinct communicative advantages that determine its pattern of use. Finally, I discuss how the corpus data provide insight into aspects of the children’s broader pragmatic development that are relevant to reference-making; most notably, their apprehension of, and capacity to exploit, relations of contiguity vs relations of resemblance; their ability to take into account common-ground information; and their emergent metalinguistic awareness.

Along the way, I highlight the utility of the corpus method to pragmatics, and discuss the value of using real-life performance data to enhance our theoretical understanding of pragmatic competence.

2nd December 2020 at 14:00

Bart Geurts (Radboud University, Nijmegen)

Evolutionary Pragmatics: From Chimp-style Communication to Human DiscourseOne of the most distinctive features of social interaction in our species is that we use language to coordinate our future activities, and in many cases far ahead. Non-human primates don't do this (and perhaps they can't), as a consequence of which their interactions remain comparatively simple and short-range. I argue that the evolution of communication for coordination into the future was enabled by two developments: an increase of interactivity during the communicative exchange and the emergence of normative behaviours in the follow-up. Interactivity was required to coordinate future interactions, but wasn't enough for coordinating interactions beyond the immediate future, which required normativity, to boot. 
9th December 2020 at 14:00

Deirdre Wilson (UCL)

Explaining Metonymy

Recent approaches to pragmatics offer plausible explanatory accounts of metaphor and irony, but metonymy (e.g. suit for business executive, or the crown for the monarchy) has long presented a challenge. Why should a rational speaker use suit to refer to a business executive, or the crown to refer to the monarchy? When are such metonymic uses appropriate, and how are they understood?

Standard treatments of metonymy (e.g. Nunberg, Recanati) appeal to ‘transfer of meaning’ operations which assign new meanings to existing words. However, these merely describe existing regularities rather than explaining why they exist, and they say little about the pragmatics of metonymy. In this talk, I will present a new approach, developed jointly with Ingrid Lossius Falkum, which makes no appeal to ‘transfer of meaning’ operations, and treats metonymy as a type of motivated neologism, or word coinage, which provides clues to the speaker’s meaning without necessarily determining it completely. I will end by considering the implications of this approach for pragmatic accounts of metonymy.



Previous meetings