Nicholas Elwyn Allott
Position and affiliations
I am senior lecturer (førstelektor) here in the English section, at ILOS, the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages at the University of Oslo.
I’m a research associate (‘Prof II’) on the research project Creativity and Convention in Pragmatic Development: Typical and Atypical Perspectives, also at the University of Oslo, funded by Research Council of Norway. (From 1st January 2021 for three years.)
I am a member of the Centre for Philosophy and the Sciences, which involves interdisciplinary research and teaching on life, maths and language. (Funded by the Humanities Faculty as part of its Strategic Priorities 2019–2023).
I am also an honorary research associate at the Department of Linguistics, University College London.
I work on
- pragmatics – Gricean and post-Gricean, especially relevance theory
- inference, reasoning and rationality in communication
- word meaning, lexical modulation and ‘ad hoc concepts’
- legal language and interpretation in the English-language common-law tradition
- the philosophy of linguistics, particularly of cognitively realistic approaches such as generative grammar and relevance theory
- Chomsky’s thought
See below for a list of publications by topic
Here’s a fairly recent CV
My ORCiD id is orcid.org/0000-0001-9742-080X
I’m interested in supervising graduate work (MA or PhD) on any of the topics listed above, plus the application of pragmatic theory to literary texts.
Prospective doctoral students: please read this information about how to study for a PhD at Oslo, especially the section ‘Before Applying’. Also useful: how to apply to do a PhD within the Faculty of Humanities.
I am giving two courses:
I gave three courses:
I also taught one of the ENG1103 classes: Group 9 (GA)
Previous academic posts at UiO
From 1st April 2012 to June 2015 I was employed as research fellow on the FRIHUM funded project ‘The Reflective Mind’ on metarepresentation and reasoning. My strand of the project was concerned mostly with the roles of metarepresentation and reasoning in communication.
From 2008 to 2015 I worked as postdoctoral research fellow, then research fellow (see above) at CSMN, IFIKK, University of Oslo, and after that was affiliated to CSMN until it ended in 2017.
- Inferential accounts of utterance interpretation
- Lexical modulation and word meaning
- The meaning and interpretation of legal language
- Philosophy of linguistics and cognitive science
- Handbook papers and encyclopaedia articles on pragmatics
- Writing for the general public
- PhD thesis
Chomsky and pragmatics. (with Deirdre Wilson) (2021). In N. Allott, T. Lohndal & G. Rey (Eds.), A Companion to Chomsky (pp. 433–447). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. Currently embargoed: email me for a postprint
Chomsky has written that “[i]t is possible that natural language has only syntax and pragmatics” but he is sceptical about the prospects for pragmatic theory. We examine his reasons and argue that they do not rule out systematic work. On the contrary, we claim that his work provides a blueprint for the study of mental systems in terms of an explicit theory of their proprietary principles, and that work in theoretical and experimental pragmatics implements these recommendations in investigating the system that generates interpretations for overt communicative acts. We outline an approach that is compatible with this methodology, based on an alternative conception of pragmatics which treats communication as something which can take place independently of language but is vastly enriched when combined with language use.
Metacognition and inferential accounts of communication. (2020). In T. Chan & A. Nes (Eds.), Inference and Consciousness (pp. 125–148). London: Routledge. Postprint (pdf)
I claim here that utterance interpretation relies on a minimalist kind of metacognition whereby a mental process is unconsciously monitored and controlled by another, perhaps without the latter metarepresenting the former. I argue that cognitively realistic inferential theories of utterance interpretation require there to be such feedback, even in normal smooth communication, and briefly review some experimental work that shows that feedback occurs in comprehension without hearers being aware of it.
Scientific tractability and relevance theory. (2019) In K. Scott, R. Carston & B. Clark (Eds.), Relevance: Pragmatics and Interpretation (pp. 29–41). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Postprint (pdf)
There is a widespread view that communication and language use more generally are too complex to study systematically and scientifically. I distinguish three separate arguments for the view. I provide brief counter-arguments to the first two and then focus on the remaining one, the claim that language use is a massive ‘interaction effect’ of many mental systems. It has been essential to scientific progress to abstract away from real complications in order to frame law-like generalisations. Some special reason would need to be given for thinking that this ‘Galilean style’ of theorising should not apply in pragmatics, but what little has been said on the topic is unconvincing, and in fact considerable progress has been made in understanding how we communicate.
Lexical modulation without concepts: Introducing the derivation proposal. (with Mark Textor) (2017). Dialectica, 71(3), 399–424. Postprint (pdf)
We argue that there are cases of lexical modulation that cannot be explained in terms of narrowing/broadening of the extension of a concept. We suggest that being competent with a word is a matter of being immersed into a practice to the extent that one can (reasonably) intend to convey to conform with previous usage. Lexical modulation of a word puts a new sense into play when the intention of a speaker to conform to prior usage is in conflict with her communicative intention. We sketch analyses in this framework of loose use, Travis cases, metaphors, and cross-categorial uses, and we draw attention to cases where a background assumption that had been taken for granted is found not to hold.
Lexical pragmatic adjustment and ad hoc concepts. (with Mark Textor) (2012). International Review of Pragmatics, 4(2), 185–208. Postprint (pdf)
We argue that difference in extension should not be taken as the crucial feature of lexical pragmatics, since ad hoc concepts can have the same extension as the lexicalized concept. We propose a positive view of ad hoc concepts as clusters of information poised to be used in inference. (Surprisingly, ad hoc concepts turn out not to be concepts at all.) The cluster account drops the assumption that ad hoc concepts are atomic and can therefore provide a satisfactory explanation of lexical pragmatic adjustment.
The illocutionary force of laws. (with Ben Shaer) (2017). Inquiry, 61(4), 351–369. Postprint (pdf)
This article provides a speech act analysis of ‘crime-enacting’ provisions in criminal statutes, focusing on their illocutionary force. Our main claim is that the illocutionary force of such provisions is primarily ‘world-creating’, i.e. effective, or declarational, rather than directive (behaviour-guiding). We show that provisions need not contain the linguistic items that make for direct directives and that according to standard tests no indirect directive is present. A potential counter-argument is that any utterance serving to direct behaviour is necessarily a directive. We show that this behaviour-directing property is shared by some clear non-directives.
Inference and intention in legal interpretation. (with Ben Shaer) (2017). In J. Giltrow & D. Stein (Eds.), The Pragmatic Turn: Inference and Interpretation in Legal Discourse (pp. 83–118). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. Postprint (pdf)
We argue that the interpretation of legal texts such as statutes is of a piece with utterance interpretation more generally: inference to the best explanation in terms of communicative intentions. We show ways in which linguistic/conventional meaning of an expression in a legal text underdetermines the speech act (and legal) content with examples drawn from statutes and other legal instruments. We argue against Andrei Marmor’s claim that the legal content is nearly always exactly “the content which is determined by the syntax and semantics of the expression uttered” and John Perry’s ‘meaning-textualist’ view that what is conveyed by the use of a particular word in a legal text can only be (one of) its ordinary meaning(s), where this is (/are) the conventional meaning(s) of the word-type.
Legal speech and the elements of adjudication. (with Ben Shaer) (2017). In B. Slocum (Ed.), The Nature of Legal Interpretation: What Jurists Can Learn About Legal Interpretation From Linguistics and Philosophy (pp. 191–217). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Postprint (pdf)
We look at judges’ adjudications in speech act terms. Decision-making rather than uncovering meanings is at the heart of judging activity, and adjudication often goes beyond inferring what the legislature intended to convey. We argue that there is a distinction to be drawn between cases where the legislature intended courts to interpret a term more precisely than specified in statue and others where the court acts in the absence of such a legislative meta-intention.
Some linguistic properties of legal notices. (with Ben Shaer) (2013). Canadian Journal of Linguistics, 58(1), 43–62. Postprint (pdf)
We consider legal notices of various forms, including imperative, indicative, and non-sentential and argue that they convey various illocutionary forces. In particular, those that prohibit actions — unlike laws that do so — typically have ‘directive’ illocutionary force, with different linguistic classes of legal notices achieving this force through different means, given their distinct linguistic properties. We propose a ‘bare phrase’ treatment of non-sentential notices, whereby these are underlyingly and not just superficially non-sentential.
Chomsky’s “Galilean” explanatory style. (with Terje Lohndal & Georges Rey) (2021). In N. Allott, T. Lohndal & G. Rey (Eds.), A Companion to Chomsky (pp. 517–528). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. Currently embargoed: email me for a postprint
Chomsky argues we need to abstract away from the complexities of linguistic behaviour in characterizing the underlying system, I-language, and claims that such idealization is what Galileo and Newton engaged in when they provided laws not of the complex motion of leaves in the wind but of objects falling in a vacuum. We defend Chomsky’s conception against the charges that it is non-empirical, leading to “unfalsifiable” theories, and ignores linguistic phenomena. Two points are crucial. First, a scientist aiming to frame deep explanatory principles is not well served merely by collecting surface data, since their relation to underlying structure is typically quite indirect. Secondly, the data that matter are those that help to distinguish between theories.
Chomsky and Fodor on modularity. (with Neil Smith). (2021). In N. Allott, T. Lohndal & G. Rey (Eds.), A Companion to Chomsky (pp. 529–543). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. Currently embargoed: email me for a postprint
We set out Chomsky’s conception of mental faculties/organs, also known as “competence” or “analytic” modules, and their relation to processing, discussing three ways that it has been understood. We also explore Jerry Fodor’s different idealization: his influential notion of encapsulated processing modules. We give an overview of evidence for modularity from dissociation data, where selective impairment of one ability leaves another ability intact, concluding that there is evidence both for Fodorian modularity of input systems, and for a central Chomskyan language faculty.
Synoptic introduction. (with Terje Lohndal & Georges Rey) (2021). In N. Allott, T. Lohndal & G. Rey (Eds.), A Companion to Chomsky (pp. 1–17). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. Currently embargoed: email me for a postprint
This introduction to our edited volume on Chomsky explains the importance of his work for linguistics, cognitive science and philosophy, with sections on the historical development of linguistics; contemporary issues in syntax; competing frameworks; processing and acquisition; semantics, pragmatics and philosophy of language; and cognitive science and philosophy of mind. We argue against the claim that his programme has been replaced by proposals in general statistical learning and “functionalist/ constructionist” linguistic theories. On the contrary, Chomsky’s ideas are at the centre of much of the most successful current work on the grammar of human language and his work has been influential across many other areas of linguistics. It has also had profound and enduring significance for psychology and philosophy, and indeed for our understanding of human nature generally.
The many errors of Vyvyan Evans’ The Language Myth. (with Georges Rey) (2017). The Linguistic Review, 34(3), 1–20. Postprint (pdf)
Vyvyan Evans’ book The Language Myth argues that Chomsky’s program of Universal Grammar (UG) is “completely wrong”. We argue that it makes serious errors, including: (i) a misunderstanding of the empirical character of the evidence that Chomsky and other generativists have adduced for UG, in English and in many other languages, coupled with a mistaken claim that the theory is unfalsifiable; (ii) a confusion of superficial typological universals, or features present at the surface of all of the world’s languages, with UG features that are apparent only under analysis; and (iii) a failure to appreciate the significance of Fine Thoughts (the things one cannot say in natural languages, even though it would be clear what they would mean) as critical evidence of UG, and of the difficulties presented by them for the kinds of “language-as-use” and related empiricist theories that Evans favours.
Relevance theory. (2013). In A. Capone, F. Lo Piparo & M. Carapezza (Eds.), Perspectives on Linguistic Pragmatics (pp. 57–98). Cham: Springer. Postprint (pdf)
This paper provides an overview of relevance theory as a research programme, attempting to distinguish between its core assumptions, research strategies and auxiliary hypotheses. I show that the core includes assumptions relating to cognition: the definition of relevance as a trade-off between effort and effects, and the claim that cognition tends to maximise relevance. It also includes assumptions about communication: the claims that understanding an utterance is a matter of inferring the speaker’s communicative and informative intentions and that the communicative principle of relevance and the presumption of optimal relevance mandate a heuristic that guides the search for the intended interpretation of utterances. I also set out strategies that guide the explanation of phenomena in relevance theory.
Relevance theory [Annotated bibliography]. (2020) In M. Aronoff (Ed.), Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics. [Online resource]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199772810-0256 Postprint (pdf)
This bibliography begins with an introduction to relevance theory and then lists key works by topic, including Developmental Work; Experimental Work; Explicature and the Explicit/Implicit Distinction; Irony; Lexical Pragmatics and Lexical Semantics; Metaphor, Hyperbole, and Idioms; Mutual Knowledge and Mutual Manifestness; Procedural and Non-Truth-Conditional Meaning; Reasoning and Epistemic Vigilance; and Relevance Theory and the Gricean Background. For each topic, there is a one-paragraph overview of the literature followed by up to 10 references, each of which is briefly described. Over 140 works are listed.
Conversational implicature. (2018). In M. Aronoff (Ed.), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics [Online encyclopaedia]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Postprint (pdf)
In this encyclopaedia article, I explain what conversational implicatures are, attempting a definition (perhaps rashly), and then distinguish them from conventional and non-conversational implicatures. I set out Grice’s ‘theory of conversation’, discuss some problems with it and briefly explain two other frameworks that attempt to explain implicatures: neo-Gricean theories and relevance theory. I set out properties possessed by typical implicatures – calculability, cancellability, and non-detachability – and argue that none provides a fail-safe test. I also discuss indeterminacy of implicatures, the scope principle, experimental work and Modified Occam’s Razor.
Metarepresentation. (2017). In A. Barron, G. Yueguo & G. Steen (Eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics (pp. 295–309). Abingdon: Routledge. Postprint (pdf)
In this handbook paper I set out the ways in which pragmatic theories make use of the notion of metarepresentation. It is at the heart of analyses of speaker meaning and communication. Grice's theory of meaning relies on embedded intentions, and the working-out schema he suggests for conversational implicatures is also metarepresentational. I explain relevance theory's informative and communicative intentions, and connections between ‘mindreading’ and utterance interpretation. Then I explore another kind of connection: forms of language and types of language use that have been analysed as metarepresentational, including quotation, metalinguistic negation, and echoic language use including verbal irony.
Misunderstandings in verbal communication. (2016). In A. Rocci & L. de Saussure (Eds.), Verbal Communication (pp. 485–507). Berlin: Walter De Gruyter. Postprint (pdf)
In this handbook paper, I note that there is no dominant theory of misunderstanding, perhaps because causes of breakdown in communication are too disparate, and I review research in several different areas. Work in cognitive pragmatics suggests that communication is inherently risky and there are many ways to misunderstand. Work with a more sociological orientation has focussed on misunderstandings that are due to cultural differences, and on strategies for repair. There is consensus that a) speakers maximise their chance of being understood by tailoring utterances to the hearer, anticipating and trying to head off problems; b) participants in a conversation demonstrate that, and how, they have understood, and monitor each other’s comprehension.
Sperber, Dan (biographical entry). (2014). In C. A. Chapelle, K. Aijmer, M. Gonzales-Lloret, L. Ortega, L. Plakans & B. Wolter (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics: Online Version. Wiley-Blackwell. Postprint (pdf)
Short encyclopaedia article on the work of Dan Sperber, introducing his work on culture and on inference.
Wilson, Deirdre and Relevance Theory. (2014). In C. A. Chapelle, K. Aijmer, M. Gonzales-Lloret, L. Ortega, L. Plakans & B. Wolter (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics: Online Version. Wiley-Blackwell. Postprint (pdf)
Short encyclopaedia article on the work of Deirdre Wilson, with an introduction to relevance theory.
Creativity and freedom: Nicholas Allott considers Chomsky at ninety. (2019). The Philosophers’ Magazine, 87, 55–60. Postprint (pdf)
In this article for a popular philosophy magazine I attempt an overview of Chomsky’s thought. I explain Chomsky’s most important ideas about language and the impact they have had on the study of the mind. Then I set out his political views including his work on the ‘manufacture of consent’. Finally I sketch some connections between these very different sides of Chomsky’s thought in his two notions of creativity and explain how that relates to his view that there is a human ‘instinct for freedom’.
Short article on communication for a general readership (for the leading Norwegian-language encyclopaedia). I set out the difference between language and communication and then explain why the expression and recognition of intentions is central to human communication. I also show that animal signalling systems such as bee dances and vervet alarm calls are communicative in a different sense: they have evolved to convey information. And in fact the picture is more complex, because humans also have such evolved signals: smiling is probably an example.
Pragmatics and Rationality. (2008). PhD thesis, University of London. Full text (pdf)
I attempt to reconcile realistic views of rationality with inferential-intentional theories of communication. Working out what a speaker meant by an utterance is a matter of inferring certain of the speaker’s intentions. Such Gricean derivations of speakers’ intentions seem costly, but we have limited time and resources for computation and generally hearers are not aware of performing explicit reasoning: utterance interpretation is typically fast and automatic. I draw on relevance theory’s view that the comprehension procedure is a heuristic which exploits environmental regularities due to utterances being offers of information. This kind of heuristic, I argue, is the ‘quick way’ that reasoning proceeds in utterance interpretation.
Some notes on the centrality of Chomsky’s methodology to the cognitive sciences. (2018). In M. Schiffmann (Ed.), Revolutionary New Ideas Appear Infrequently: Essays for Noam Chomsky’s 90th Birthday (pp. 23–29). (Informal festschrift.) Full text (pdf)
Brief, personal piece for an informal online collection assembled as a tribute to Chomsky on his 90th birthday. In a few paragraphs I set out three of Chomsky’s ideas that are central to linguistics and cognitive science: i) the ‘Galilean style’ of idealisation; ii) the claim that progress will mostly come from studying relatively discrete mental systems in abstraction from the rest of cognition; and iii) the requirement that theories be explicit.