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Linguistic Competence

This project addresses three interconnected sets of issues about the kinds of competence that underlie linguistic agency.

The first centres around the question of whether linguistic agency exhibits a kind of knowing-how. The second addresses issues having to do with knowledge of word meaning. The third addresses questions about syntactic competence and its acquisition.


  • Questions about the putative role of knowledge-how in linguistic competence arise at all three levels of syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Are syntactic well-formedness judgements based on a kind of knowledge-how? Can semantic competences be so grounded? Within pragmatics, there are a number of related questions: Appeals to relevance play an important role in many pragmatic theories (e.g. Grice and Sperber & Wilson) and for such theories it is important to clarify whether assessments of relevance involve a form of knowledge-how or are better construed as a form of knowing-that. Many philosophers of language (e.g. Soames, Bach, Cappelen & Lepore) posit a gap between semantic content and communicated content. Is that gap bridged by a kind of know-how? Some theorists (e.g. Fodor, Cappelen & Lepore) have argued for a kind of ‘no-theory theory’ about the transition from semantic content to communicated content. Can the distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that be of help in articulating such theories? These issues will be discussed in the context of the larger contemporary debate about the distinction between knowing-how and knowing that (which is addressed from a complementary perspective in sub-project A above).
  • The second set of issues engages more directly with a specific domain of competence: knowledge of word meaning. Recent work in semantics, pragmatics and philosophy of language raises a series of questions about the nature, acquisition and evolution of our competence with and knowledge of word meanings. Taking as our starting point Grice’s proposed division of labour between lexical semantics and pragmatics, we plan to investigate (a) how the semantics-pragmatics distinction applies at the level of the word, as opposed to the whole sentence, and (b) what are the implications for lexical semantics of the ongoing debate on semantic minimalism vs. contextualism. We also aim (c) to assess the advantages and disadvantages of analysing word meanings as full-fledged concepts, schematic concepts (‘pro-concepts’), or procedures (rules or instructions for use); and (d) to consider the implications for the analysis of word meaning of the ‘massive modularity’ thesis in cognitive science. A preliminary workshop on this topic was held at CSMN in September 2010.
  • Another aspect of linguistic competence relates to the nature of linguistic structure, in particular syntax, and its acquisition. The object of inquiry is the linguistic competence of individual speakers - the I-language - and its nature, use, and acquisition. This competence is acquired through an interplay of the innate language faculty and the social norms of the learning environment. Professor Jan Terje Faarlund, building on his work in the first phase of CSMN, plans to focus his research on two specific issues: (a) the transfer of structural knowledge from one generation to the next and thus through time (diachronic syntax), and (b) the role of the socio-cultural environment in the evolution of language, especially related to the question of linguistic and cultural complexity.
Published Jan. 20, 2012 3:07 PM - Last modified Feb. 18, 2015 11:03 AM