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Human sociality and systems of language use -


This project was funded by a European Research Council Starting Independent Researcher Grant from January 2010 to December 2014.

Informal conversation is the primary context for all central processes of language: acquisition, comprehension, production, change, and evolution. Yet it is the least studied. It is time to build on the achievements of linguistic typology and bring our understanding of language into line with its predominant empirical format: sequences of interlocking ‘turns’ at conversation within a rich social context. The ‘Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use’ project pioneers a systematic approach to the comparison of language use. This not only forges a new field of comparative linguistics, it opens up a new horizon in the study of language and mind, by which we mean not just perception, categorization, and other individual-grounded processes but also the high-order social-relational intelligence that defines what is unique about being human: our ‘human sociality’. This term refers to our special intelligence tailored for dealing with interpersonal relationships in large, complex social groups. The project builds on established traditions in the study of language and mind by showing that language is a window onto the social mind.

A team of eight is working on nine languages from five continents (English, Murrinh-Patha, Siwu, Lao, Kri, Cha’palaa, Duna, Russian, Argentine Sign Language, and Italian), to meet three project objectives. Objective 1 is collection of extensive corpora of video-recorded natural conversation in the field. Objective 2, drawing on these corpora, is a systematic description of three defined systems of language use in each language: (1) repair (how problems in speaking and understanding are corrected), (2) reference (focusing on reference to places), and (3) recruitments (how people use language to get others to do things). Objective 3, drawing on Objective 2, is a detailed coding and quantitative comparison across the languages, focusing on repair and recruitments. This systematic comparison of systems of language use aims to do two things: (1) set the agenda for a new tradition in linguistics—a ‘typology of language use’—which will look for both universals and constraints on diversity, and (2) bring new evidence to bear upon interdisciplinary questions of the nature and cultural variability of human sociality.

Project leader:

Nick Enfield

Joe Blythe
Mark Dingemanse
Simeon Floyd
Lila San Roque

PhD students:
Julija Baranova
Elizabeth Manrique
Giovanni Rossi

Research assistant:
Julija Baranova

Last checked 2016-03-02 by Mark Dingemanse

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