Theiling Online    Sitemap    Conlang Mailing List HQ   

Re: Semantic precision and (vs?) context / pragmatics / culture

From:Sally Caves <scaves@...>
Date:Tuesday, July 4, 2006, 2:46
Speaking on "oratio" in his _Dialectica_, twelfth-century philosopher Peter
Abelard offered the image (and impossibilia) of the "infinite sentence"
which Brian Stock paraphrased thus: "no statement is linguistically or
meaningfully complete while anything which can contribute to the sense
remains unsaid" (Implications of Literacy).

And Rosta says that the following is credited to John Cowan: "the price of
infinite precision is infinite verbosity".   A wonderful statement,
aphoristic; one that I'll add to the list with Abelard's.  Along with
Spock's "infinite diversity in infinite combination." :)  I miss both Spock
and Cowan.

I once wrote a book in my salad days about explicitness, but it was about
poetic, not linguistic, explicitness, examining how two specific medieval
cultures and corpora varied with respect to what we consider
"under-specified," as you say, in poetry.  But that was years ago.  One of
its more pertinent remarks does talk about how a text means and what
philosophies we bring to making it mean:

"Deconstructive theory has had serious impact on literary and linguistic
analysis in its distrust of the notion that language is simply a mirror, a
glassy vehicle of some deep structure of meaning which grows more visible as
the vehicle becomes more transparent, or that there can be anything
approaching a perfect congruence between text and reader.  Both reception
and reader-response theory posit that text and reader/hearer provide a
symbiotic relationship whereby 'meaning' is never perfectly fixed in either
the utterance or the hearer of the utterance but that acts of interpretation
work to establish one's conception of the text as much as the text does on
its own."

I probably will still agree with that. So I guess I don't have "semantic
precision" as a foremost desideratum, but I do appreciate precision in any
spoken language.  Of course I was talking about written texts, mainly, that
were tinkered with by editors and interpreters so that they made sense, and
by dead writers who couldn't defend themselves.  We can always get a living
speaker to clarify something, as best she can, if we don't understand.

I'm familiar with Edward T. Hall, but not with _The Dance of Life_.  He
wrote a book called _Beyond Culture_ (1976) in which he used the terms "high
and low context communications" as they were reflected in cultures around
the world.  It was criticized for painting in slightly broad strokes, but I
found it fascinating.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Sai Emrys" <sai@...>

> To those of you who have "semantic precision" or some variant as a > desideratum... > > How do you deal with the issue of context / pragmatics? Namely, it > seems to me to be inevitable that any finite piece of communication > must be underspecified, and rely at least partly on > a) linguistic context > b) social context (especially for social 'messages' that overlie it) > c) indexing rather than specifying the referent of any named object. > > ... at least. I'm sure the cognitivists in the audience can flesh this out > more. > > To clarify (c), what I mean is that no thing can be (AFAICT) > completely defined in a contextless manner. Inevitably at some point > it's just a reference to "that thing we both know that I'm pointing to > enough for you to recognize which thing I mean". (Again, philosophers > in the audience can chip in here about things like qualia, > inten(s/t)ionality, etc.) > > Do you consider this a problem? Do you even agree with what I said above? > > BTW, a related book on this topic - not mainly linguistic in nature > but very interesting and you'll see what I mean when you read it - is > Edward T. Hall, /The Dance of Life/. > > - Sai >