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

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CONTEXT IN LANGUAGE

Susan M. Ervin-Tripp University of California, Berkeley

Everyone is familiar with contexts in language. We understand that there is hyperbole in introductions but not in mid-career reviews. Yet just how context affects language is not treated in core theories of language. Models for the human capacity for language have focused on the function of description, report, analysis, as if talking about the world -- physical description or abstract description -- were the main use of language. Language is seen as a map of reality, either the reality outside, an abstract reality, or an imaginary reality. In this view, context gets into language mainly by reference. We talk about the context.

A dictionary implies a view of language. A dictionary takes as a definition what is centrally different about the meaning of a word from another. Dictionaries are designed merely to distinguish. But language is not a direct map; multiple meanings, or polysemy, is common in language. Among the common words in the English dictionary, get has 72 meanings, and face has 23 meanings as a noun and 12 as verb. Language tolerates both polysemy and homonymity heavily because humans are very context-sensitive, unlike a machine translator, which can be tripped up.


EVIDENCE ABOUT CONTEXT IN LANGUAGE

My claim is that context permeates language, that contextual assumptions affect how we understand language, and that contexts of speech have to be better understood to develop realistic theories of language and of language learning. First, let us clarify what we mean by context. Take as an example getting a book from a reserve library counter. We normally remember the setting -- the counter -- and the activity that occurred -- a service request -- and we remember that the librarian said the book was checked out These facts we can report, and we have a focused memory about them. But typically we do not notice, unless they are unusual, the physical layout in detail, who else was present behind the counter or before it, the exact exchange, the librarian's syntax, accent, lan-

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A version of this chapter was presented as the 1994 Faculty Research Lecture, following Susan Ervin Tripp's election as Berkeley Faculty Lecturer -- a rare honor. -- Editors.

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