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Natural languages as distributed action systems

Culture and languages

Eleni Gregoromichelaki, professor at the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, leads a seminar on Natural languages as distributed action systems.

11 Feb 2021
15:15 - 17:00

Eleni Gregoromichelaki
the Department of Swedish


In this talk, I will outline a model of natural language (NL) “syntax” and a programme for semantics/pragmatics taking NL interactions as realisations of distributed social cognition mechanisms. The model conceives of NLs as processes orchestrating the interacting agents’ behaviour patterns as they dynamically establish and follow normative standards that emerge synchronically and diachronically during social interactions. This contrasts with orthodox static accounts where NLs are investigated as codes, i.e., sign systems registering synchronic correspondences between representational levels. The present view is motivated by the inability of such standard syntactic/semantic frameworks to account adequately for informal dialogue data. In my view, such data demonstrates the supra-individual nature of NL licensing and the need to model complementary and synchronised interlocutor actions in order to explain how temporally-extended multimodal conversational coordination emerges incrementally [Gregoromichelaki et al., 2020, Gregoromichelaki, 2018, Mills and Gregoromichelaki, 2010].

The NL interactional stimuli, cognitive actions, and the joint activities they orchestrate during interpersonal engagements pose representation dilemmas for orthodox frameworks in that they do not seem to be the outcome of (propositional) intentions or individual inference [Gregoromichelaki et al., 2011]. Instead, they seem to arise spontaneously under the influence of social organisation processes (sociocultural practices) [Hutchins, 2011] and practical knowledge of sensorimotor dependencies [No¨e, 2012] expressed as flexible dispositions to act when embedded in ongoing dynamic engagement with other agents, the self, and/or the environment. I will argue that the key explanatory factor of such processes is not internal mental states or brain-bound mindreading capacities but situated prediction and temporality in human processing. This externalist processual view takes NLs as resources for generating (joint) predictions of action opportunities (affordances) extending individual brains/bodies outwards across agents and the physical resources of the environment [Gregoromichelaki, 2013, Gregoromichelaki and Kempson, 2019, Gregoromichelaki et al., 2020, 2019].



E. Gregoromichelaki. Grammar as Action in Language and Music. In M. Orwin, R. Kempson, and C. Howes, editors, Language, Music and Interaction, pages 93–134. College Publications, 2013

E. Gregoromichelaki. Quotation in Dialogue. In P. Saka and M. Johnson, editors, The Semantics and Pragmatics of Quotation, Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy & Psychology, pages 195–255. Springer International Publishing, Cham, 2018. ISBN 978-3-319-68747-6.

E. Gregoromichelaki and R. Kempson. Procedural Syntax. In R. Carston, B. Clark, and K. Scott, editors, Relevance: Pragmatics and Interpretation. 2019.

E. Gregoromichelaki, R. Kempson, M. Purver, G. J.Mills, R. Cann,W.Meyer-Viol, and P. G. T. Healey. Incrementality and intention-recognition in utterance processing. Dialogue and Discourse: special issue on Incremental Processing in Dialogue, 2(1):199–233, 2011.

E. Gregoromichelaki, C. Howes, and R. Kempson. Actionism in syntax and semantics. In Gothenburg Proceedings of Conference on Dialogue and Perception. CLASP, 2019.

E. Gregoromichelaki, G. J. Mills, C. Howes, A. Eshghi, S. Chatzikyriakidis, M. Purver, R. Kempson, R. Cann, and P. G. T. Healey. Completability vs (In)Completeness. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia, 52(2):260–284, July 2020. ISSN 0374-0463. doi: 10.1080/03740463.2020.1795549.

E. Hutchins. Enculturating the Supersized Mind. Philosophical Studies, 152(3):437–446, Feb. 2011. ISSN 1573-0883.

G. J. Mills and E. Gregoromichelaki. Establishing Coherence in Dialogue: Sequentiality, Intentions and Negotiation. In Proceedings of the 14th SemDial, Pozdial, 2010.

A. Noë. Varieties of Presence. Harvard University Press, Feb. 2012. ISBN 978-0-674-06301-3.

own draft papers available: