Reference on the fly

by Suspended Reason

Linguistic carvings have fitness to a function or use, and/or a generic fitness to a set of functions. The basic Roy G Biv color scheme—and purple is now usually substituted for indigo and violet—has higher generic fitness than the repertoire needed of a painter. And where farmers know a complex sand-clay-dirt conceptual pyramid by heart, most of us just know dirt is for plants and sand is for oceans.

While some carvings become institutionalized, that is, standardized among a community of talk, in conversation among members who are not known to be institutionally aligned, carvings and distinctions are typically improvised on the fly, and based in the available set of shared referents established thus far in the interaction. See two Anglo customers divvying up their Ethiopian dish: Not the yellow goopy stuff, the brown one with peas on the edge of the tray. The one you said you didn’t like.”

I’ve been reading and getting a lot out of David Chapman’s In The Cells of the Eggplant, particularly this ethnomethodological idea that reference is established, by humans, through a kludge” of ad-hoc and makeshift maneuvers designed to intervene on (1) the environmental context (2) the recipient’s cognition. (Rather than correspondence relationships happening automatically, or just being the case, or getting handwaved away as mental computation.”) I can say pass the salt” because we are dealing with a local context at-hand, and you are modeling my mind and my desires, and can make an assumption as to what I want, the relevance of my request, seize the appropriate object (there is typically just one salt; if there are two, I’ll distinguish, or assume that you’ll pass the one nearest you, rather than reach for one across the table).

The pragmatic I’ll distinguish when I run into a possible confusion”—where mental modeling and theory of mind are at the forefront of reference—is key. But when you get to even slightly more complex utterances—“I love her amulet!”—it falls short. One thing worth pointing out is that the interlocutor has ostensibly encountered a lot of invocations of amulet” in association with that object. Their history of those associations—modulated, perhaps, by an encounter with a more formal linguistic description, distinction, or specification of what an amulet is—summon a prototypal image-object that the interlocutor then matches against the objects in a zone of reference—here, ostensibly anything on her” person (where the her” is perhaps obvious because there is only one female interlocutor, or they are both—joint attention—looking at someone already; the area of interest therefore becomes implicit). What’s important to note is that this isn’t a perfect search—if she” merely is wearing a large pendant, or really any type of neck jewelry, then, because that is the closest thing to an amulet, even if we know it is not actually” an amulet, we know the object of reference. Often, we establish reference by calling something which we know not to be a thing X, the thing X’s name—because it is similar enough to the thing that we convey the sense, or narrow the options. We expect our interlocutor to complete the analogy; often they will repair” our speech for us: “Yes, the pendant has a great chain.” (Sometimes, they will ask, Oh, is that what an amulet is?” and we will be embarrassed, and say no, but it was close enough to accomplish the reference.) I’ve had this happen personally with colors—I may point out a teal storefront” because this is sufficient to direct attention, and I am unsure the most correct name for its color—only to be corrected that the storefront is not, in actuality, teal. Oh well!

Often, to prevent interaction proceeding this way, we will signal that we know it is not exactly” the thing, to avoid social error & correction, or just to increase clarity: That amulet-ish thing”—that thing like an amulet. We could also say, that shiny thing” or that round thing” or any other attribute, but to say the thing like an amulet” is to convey many approximate attributes at once; it is compressive.

Here’s another good example of how much this is predicated on mind-modeling (including the mind’s intentionality, priors, default behaviors, prejudices, etc):

As with all things reasonable, referring can’t be guaranteed to work. If it fails, as in other routine activity, one can usually repair it. Pick up the amulet,” I advise, watching over your shoulder as you play the sword-and-sorcery game. And then, as you head in the wrong direction, No, the other one!” I wrongly assumed you knew that one was cursed; I meant the one on the left, not the one on the right.

This mutual modeling of futures—MMF, or MFM (mutual future-modeling) if you prefer—is double-penetrative—it pops two mysteries—why functional distinctions (differences that matter matter by definition, in an optimization process), and how functionality is grounded in theory of mind.