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The Question of "Common Language"

Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg

Tuesday, May 02, 2006, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

University of California at Berkeley, School of Information

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A persistent -- indeed, defining -- theme of modern linguistics is the denial of the existence of "languages" in the ordinary sense of the term; that is, as collective linguistic realities. "[N]o notion of "common language" has ever been formulated in any useful or coherent way," Chomsky writes, and sociolinguists and the earlier structural linguists have been saying exactly the same thing for the past fifty or sixty years. On the standard linguistic view, people who believe they're speaking the same language are merely suffering from a folie � deux brought about by the fact that the speech-forms they use are similar and that everybody calls them by the same name. But people's beliefs in "a common language" are always self-fulfilling, and linguists' failure to understand that has had a number of unfortunate consequences. It ensures the irrelevance of any serious linguistic contribution to the "language questions" that dominate public debates about language, and for that matter, to a number of other important cultural and literary questions, one important reason why linguists and humanists have had less and less to say to each other in recent years. And it places linguists in a curiously unhelpful position with regard to a great deal of recent work in the philosophy of language (for example by Saul Kripke and Hillary Putnam) that depends crucially on the idea of a common language in the social sense of the term. In this talk, then, I'll try to show why linguists should take languages seriously, and briefly sketch some of the consequences for a range of semantic issues.

Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg