November 12, 2006

On meanings, actions, and speech

Those in the know have defined human language as a ‘meaning-activator device’. When it comes to the process of discourse, this device activates meanings of different kinds. At one level, there is a system configured by both the denotational meaning and the several logical sense relations established among lexical items, namely, the semantic meaning. At a higher level, there is a socio-cognitive type of meaning, which is related to language users’ intentions as well as the actions underlying what is actually said in specific socio-cultural contexts (speech acts).

The first type of meaning is logical because it belongs in a systemic dimension of a pure formal (and therefore abstract) nature. The second, on the contrary, calls for the participation of varied factors, which interrelate one another, at a nearly simultaneous pace, viz, shared knowledge involving normal expected patterns of things and events, and the ability to actualize appropriate communicative behavior according to different socio-cultural conventions.

In relation to this last point, Historical Linguistics has focused on the description of language change from a formal point of view. Thus, among other issues, specialists in this area have described changes in the form and semantic field of lexical items of specific languages through time. Likewise, language change has indeed been described at a phonological level. Nevertheless, little, if at all, has been done concerning the historical study the socio-pragmatic dimension of language change. This is additional evidence of how specialists have neglected communicative aspects of language.

I have witnessed youngsters adulating their peers for displaying a “cara de raja” behavior when expressing themselves in a given situation. How do certain people evaluate the way others break from the expected conventional behavior of preceding generations in our Chilean society today? It could be claimed that youngsters have always acted in this way, as a natural sign of the growing stage they are going through. True. But the understanding of how certain groups adhere or deviate from conversational principles is a potential instrument of power and influence. The widely used cliché “approach the young in their own language” has to be based on descriptions that account for change patterns not only related to form, but also intentions and actions.

No comments: