Plenary Lecture 7: „Communication without conventions“

May 3rd, 2014, 14:00 – 14:45

For obvious and very good reasons the study of human communication is dominated by the study of language. But from a psychological point of view, the basic structure of human communication – how it works in terms of the intentions and inferences involved – is totally independent of language. Pragmatics should be the discipline that studies these basic psychological processes directly, but traditional pragmatics studies them only as they supplement and support linguistic communication.

But there is also a bottom-up approach, a pragmatics first approach. The most important data here are acts of human communication that do not employ conventions, that do not have anything like „sentence meaning“. Such acts are ubiquitous in situations when language is for some reason not an option, for example, in a foreign land when one does not speak the language, or even in one’s own land when in a noisy environment or across a crowded room. In such situations people often produce spontaneous, non-conventionalized gestures, including most prominently pointing (deictic gestures) and pantomiming (iconic gestures). These gestures are universal among humans and unique to the species, and in human evolution they almost certainly preceded conventional communication, either signed or vocal.

We may infer this both from logical considerations and from observations of prelinguistic infants communicating gesturally. For prelinguistic infants to communicate effectively via pointing and pantomiming, they must already possess species-unique and very powerful skills and motivations for shared intentionality as pragmatic infrastructure. Conventional communication is then built on top of this infrastructure – or so I will argue.

Michael Tomasello, MPI für Evolutionäre Anthropologie, Leipzig

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