Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

By Dan Isaac Slobin; Julie Gerhardt et al. | Go to book overview

suggests that current theories of language acquisition have too narrow a definition of language.

Why have we so systematically kept context out of the language system? There are certain points where it crept in even in the most formalist linguistics. There was no way to deal with such differences its imperative versus interrogative without at least thinking about function (though as we have seen, the relation is complex). Languages like Korean, which index addressee or referent status, force us to find out what status is for the speaker. Robotics designers have been compelled to address those aspects of context at the time of speech that would affect the ability of the machine to carry out commands, that is, aspects of language dealing with contextual physical features such as motion and direction. Such attention is within the paradigm of focused attention and reference mapping. But directions for robots, unlike human directions, do not have to deal with extensive presupposition and allusion. Robots are not polite. They do not run the risks that airline pilots do, of failing to understand directives because of social masking ( Linde, 1988).9

The omission of context from linguistic accounts has occurred because some linguists have considered contextual structure to be too chaotic, too idiosyncratic, to be characterized systematically. When linguists began to identify variable rules ( Labov, 1969), the separation of the variable from the obligatory or categorial was obvious and unavoidable. Variationists have gradually introduced context into their analyses. What we are now beginning to do is use contrasts in linguistic features, including those that are variable, as our guideposts for identifying both the structure of conversation and the structure of context, indeed the immediate social structure for speakers. Linguistic features can tell us what are natural human categories for context. Such an approach can at last systematize the domain of context.


REFERENCES

Andersen, E. ( 1993, July). Discourse markers in children's controlled improvisation. Paper presented at the International Association for the Study of Child Language, Trieste.

Andersen, E. ( 1990). Speaking with style: The sociolinguistic skills of children. London: Routledge.

Budwig, N. ( 1989). "The linguistic marking of agentivity and control in child language". Journal of Child Language, 16, 263-284.

Clancy, P. ( 1993). "Preferred argument structure in Korean acquisition". In E. V. Clark (Ed.), The proceedings of the 25th annual Stanford Child Language Research Forum (pp. 307-314). Stanford: CSLI.

____________________
9
Linde's study of airplane crashes and airplane simulated cockpit exchanges revealed that important warnings from subordinate personnel might be couched in the language of deference and fatally ignored.

-35-

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