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Evolang coverage: Andrew Smith: Linguistic replicators are not observable, nor replicators

Andrew Smith asks what are Darwinian linguistic replicators.  He starts with Croft's conception of the lingueme.  Croft says that linguemes are external manifestations: utterances including their full context.  However, this might mean that they are not observable, since we can't observe the full context of an utterance nor the speaker's intention.  Furthermore, this ignores the fact that meanings are different for each hearer.  So linguemes cannot be observed on the hearer's side either.  Nikolas Ritt's conceptualisation of the lingueme suggests that it is an entirely internal entity.  However, this means that we can't observe the lingueme at all.  Furthermore, it ignores the fact that langauge is ostensive and inferential.  Smith advocates a view stronger than Mufwene's position that meanings are re-constructed in the minds of hearers:  Hearers build their own knowledge and infer the meaning of speakers - this is a far remove from replicating anything in the speaker's mind.   So the lingueme does not replicate faithfully.  In fact, we should not expect the lingueme to replicate faithfully, but be on the opposite side of the continuum to replicators.

Smith concluded with the paradox that linguemes must contain some aspect of meaning, but meaning is individual and not observable.

Monica Tamariz asked whether linguistic replicators needed to have an aspect of meaning.  Alternatively, Tamariz argued you could have replication of forms without replication of meaning.  Smith disagreed, seeing a pairing of form and meaning as an essential part of a linguistic replicator.

Smith pointed out that some priming effects demonstrated that people can re-create speaker's individual voices in their minds, so would this count as faithful replication.  Smith replied that we shouldn't expect linguistic replicators to be faithfully transmitted.

Luke McCrohan later suggested that perhaps you could have replication of a communicative event- that is, the lingueme is both the speaker's intention and the hearer's inference and the external form.

This was a refreshing and no-nonsense take on the linguistic replicator question.  But whatever the right answer, it demonstrates that evolutionary linguists are still struggling to reconcile language in the individual and language in the environment.  Nowhere is this clearer than in models, where typically addressing one aspect compromises the other.

  • Interesting stuff (as with pretty much everything you've posted about the conference). I'm a big fan of Andrew Smith's work. I think taking into account the concept of degeneracy might shed some light on the issues of the linguistic replicator problem. From this perspective, it makes sense that linguistic system has evolved replicators (attractors, signal-meaning pairs, or whatever you want to call them) that are highly plastic, largely because it makes them robust to what are inherently unstable interactional environments. But it goes beyond this: by having this potential ambiguity mismatch between speaker and hearer, language is able to evolve and adapt to novel conceptual and indexical situations, which actually means it's advantageous for the replicators to exist in this state.

  • Kevin

    While I of course appreciate any serious discussion of linguistic replicator theories, I think his dismissal of Croft's conception of linguemes is based on a strange take on them. He criticises them for the non-observability of the speaker's intention - but this is of course not part of the replicator (which is an external manifestation) precisely because it is not directly observable! Production and interpretation are part of the replication process, but not definitional of the replicator itself.

    Croft's population-based conception of linguemes was directed exactly against the kind of essentialist characterisation of linguistic replicators (particularly the meaning side) on which other theories (and Smith's interpretation) are based.

  • @Kevin: I second that point. It's why I used the term 'interactional environment' to describe the replication process. To be honest, I don't think Smith and Croft would have too much to disagree on: they both seem to becoming at the problem of replicators from a pragmatic 'language in use' perspective. In Smith's case, he seems to be more influenced by the work of Sperber and co in the Ostensive-inferential camp, whereas Croft is more closely aligned with Herbert Clark's work (although this probably an over-generalisation on my part).

  • You gotta' get rid of any HINT of the notion that meaning somehow hitches a ride on sound in a miracle ride from mouth to ear. When I put it THAT way, of course, everyone agrees that, no, meaning doesn't hitch a ride on sound (except for the interesting business of sound symbolism). But one can still smuggle that hope in under the cover of more abstract formulation.

    When applied to culture & language this replicator terminology seems to get people stuck on the notion that 'meaning' happens in discrete particles that physically move from one brain to another.

  • I've posted Monica Tamariz's reply to this debate here

  • Remember that Dawkins explicitly defined a replicator as being: "anything in the universe of which copies are made" (The Extended Phenotype, p. 83). There's surely no question that language is copied during transmission. *If* you use the replicator definition of Dawkins, there's surely no debate.