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Linguistic Conventions and the Problem of Lexical Innovation

Josh Armstrong

Thursday, September 13, 2012, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Rutgers University, Department of Philosophy

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Natural language semantics is often characterized as the study of the conventional meanings of linguistic expressions, and how they can be combined to determine the meaning of complex expressions. Donald Davidson argues that natural language semantics, so characterized, has little role to play in explaining the process of successful linguistic communication. This argument turns on cases of what I call lexical innovation—cases in which a speaker uses a sentence containing an expression for which no meaning has been conventionally established, but nevertheless successfully communicates her intended meaning to her audience.  In this talk, I develop a dynamic account of linguistic conventions that addresses the problem raised by lexical innovations. The account holds that the conventions governing expressions and their meaning can be shifted to incorporate new word meanings or to revise the meanings of words already in circulation. Successful linguistic communication does not, according to my account, require speakers and their audiences to share prior knowledge of word meanings. Rather, it requires that the members of a conversation successfully coordinate on the meanings of words occurring in a sentence as their dialogue unfolds. The talk will conclude with some general remarks on the relation between semantics and pragmatics.

Josh Armstrong