Author Topic: A question about the name of a linguistic competence  (Read 270 times)

Offline Old Nick

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A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« on: June 23, 2017, 05:17:15 PM »
Hi all

Correct me if I am wrong:
For an efficient communication, the speaker needs to be more or less fluent in the language grammar, vocabulary, phonology, etc., but need also a competence whose name I am looking for that's very similar to rhetoric.
For example, if I tell you: “I saw her that day. She told me they were OK with it and they would come too.” you'll tell me: “Wait a minute. Who is she? When did you see her? Who are they?” and so on. My mistake is to suppose you know the implicit information.
OTOH if I tell you: “She put on the light by pressing the switch that's by the door. It resulted in closing the electrical circuit of the lamp hanging from the ceiling.” you'll certainly answer: “OK, she switched on the light, period.” I said much more information than necessary and which could be left implicit.

Not long ago an elderly woman I know asked me to help her with issues she had with her computer. After a while I noticed she didn't really get what I was saying so I asked her if she knew what a software is, what a file is, and so on. She didn't. There was a little embarrassment. It's a typical situation: the speaker has to make an educated guess about what the interlocutor knows or not and sometimes fails.

What I don't like about the term rhetoric is its literary connotation. I am talking about a daily communication competence that one doesn't really learn. I guess it's a matter of pragmatics.
Is it a studied, named competence for a speaker: telling exactly the right amount of information, not too little and not too much? Conversely, what about the corresponding incompetence? I know plenty of people who are incompetent in that respect.

I am currently writing an essay about a book in which the author obviously presupposes the reader has the same state of mind as hers and knows the same things as she does. The issue is that lots of this stuff is absolutely subjective and personal so one can only guess what she means.

Regards

Nick
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Offline Daniel

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #1 on: June 23, 2017, 07:49:48 PM »
I'm not sure of a precise term for that competence, but "pragmatic competence" might generally cover that.

Pragmatics is the study of language meaning in context, as opposed to Semantics which is the study of the inherent structural/lexical meaning of sentences. If I say "It's cold in here" the literal/semantic meaning is clear, but contextually I might be saying "Please close the window."

There are of course many approaches to Pragmatics. Just see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatics

But some of the major points include:
1. The Cooperative Principle: Grice's idea that humans generally tend to communicate in a way that is cooperative, in that both the speaker and hearer accept that words are meaningful and intended to convey that meaning. Even for people not behaving cooperatively their communication is still cooperative in that sense, such as during a fight-- the insults are used cooperatively in that both sides agree they have a meaning.

2. The Gricean Maxims are a way of trying to understand the extended interpretation of literal meanings in context:
The Maxim of Quantity says don't say more than you need to.
The Maxim of Quality says be accurate.
The Maxim of Relation says be relevant.
The Maxim of Manner says be clear, orderly, and avoid confusing usage.
Importantly, these correspond to the idea of "implicatures", which are communicative implications that arise in context due to violating one or more of the maxims. That is, if I violate any of the maxims, there is probably a reason for it: saying too much might be for emphasis, saying something false might be because I think the question you asked is ridiculous, saying something that seems irrelevant would suggest I'm thinking about it as relevant in some other way (so maybe you should change your perspective), and saying something in a confusing way might indicate my lack of desire to bother continuing the conversation. Or various other interpretations. But the point is that the way we speak has meaning.

And specifically, the Maxim of Quantity (mostly, but maybe the others too) can explain what you're talking about. It's weird if someone says too much. The only reason to say too much is if there's some reason for saying too much, and therefore it isn't too much. When no reason is found, the person seems weird. That's what you're describing. So I don't know of a specific term for the competence, but you can refer to it as violating a maxim. That's technical phrasing, so maybe you could say "a conventional principle for human communicative interaction" or something like that.

By the way, newer proposals have rephrased/reduced/rearranged these maxims, such as Relevance Theory combining them all as coming out of a principle of "Be Relevant", but the basic concept remains.

I hope that is helpful and gets you started.
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Offline Old Nick

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #2 on: June 24, 2017, 12:25:51 PM »
Thanks for your quick response Daniel.

I'm not sure of a precise term for that competence, but "pragmatic competence" might generally cover that.
OK, but I am afraid it would make no sense to the layman. I noticed very often that very few people have even heard of pragmatics.

Pragmatics is the study of language meaning in context, as opposed to Semantics which is the study of the inherent structural/lexical meaning of sentences.
That's why I chose the Semantics and Pragmatics forum.

But some of the major points include:
1. The Cooperative Principle: Grice's idea that humans generally tend to communicate in a way that is cooperative, in that both the speaker and hearer accept that words are meaningful and intended to convey that meaning. Even for people not behaving cooperatively their communication is still cooperative in that sense, such as during a fight-- the insults are used cooperatively in that both sides agree they have a meaning.
There is an example that's very relevant to me: Napoléon's military genius was due in great part to his ability to guess the state of mind of his adversaries and luring them into doing what he wanted. His win of the Battle of Austerlitz is a text book case of military tactics consisting in deceiving the opponent.
Deception was also one of the most decisive part of the American Army's tactics during the Gulf War.
It's a case of efficient communication: making the other believe what you want. For sure it's not very 'cooperative' but, hey, the message is conveyed 5/5. To me it belongs to the competence I think of.

2. The Gricean Maxims are a way of trying to understand the extended interpretation of literal meanings in context:
The Maxim of Quantity says don't say more than you need to.
The Maxim of Quality says be accurate.
The Maxim of Relation says be relevant.
The Maxim of Manner says be clear, orderly, and avoid confusing usage.
Very interesting.

Here is an example that occurred to me:
One of my neighbors is on one hand extremely talkative, cheerful and friendly with everybody but, on the other hand, is almost impossible to understand by anybody.
One day he told me: “Yesterday night I was on the internet but I was cold!” (it was winter). Knowing he had no computer at that time I asked: “Where were you? In a cyber-cafe? There was no heating?” Him: “No. I was downloading videos. It was going fine but I was so cold!” Me: “OK, what kind of videos? But how come you were so cold?” Him: “I was downloading this and that videos but my fingers were getting frozen. I was feeling I had to come back home.” The conversation continued for a while like that until I noticed he was mimicking typing on a smartphone. I said: “OK. You were outside, right?” Him: “No. But when I finished I came back. I was so cold.” He belongs to a type of person who is just unable to give a factual answer to a factual question. In such cases I try a Monte Carlo procedure: I make the questions and the answers until I hit the right one. So I finally understood he was at the railway station where there is a free WiFi.
I know several persons with the same handicap: I am sure they would agree with the Gricean Maxims, yet they are incompetent to apply them. They obviously can't figure out what's enough or too little, what's accurate, what's relevant and what's orderly.
When my neighbor starts a topic (and he starts many because he has a lot to say) I can literally see his ideas having a fight in his mind for the one to come out first. The one that wins is systematically the less relevant, most meaningless detail. He is unable to start with the core and to then give the details.
IMHO, it's a psychological issue: in his mind the fact he was at the railway station was so obvious for him that it could only be obvious for me too and it would be just ridiculous to tell such a truism. It would be like saying: “I could sit on my chair thanks to earth gravity.” It's true but idiotic, isn't it? When I told him: "OK, you were at the railway station." he answered: "Naturally." because to him it was just evident.
I know many examples with different people.

Bottom line: this (in)competence has no name, right? Has it been studied in the first place?

Nick
« Last Edit: June 24, 2017, 12:28:14 PM by Old Nick »
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Offline Daniel

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #3 on: June 24, 2017, 05:59:29 PM »
The assumption is that normal speakers adhere to the maxims (or principle of Relevance, or whatever iteration of pragmatic theory you choose).

I once heard the argument that if someone does not follow at least the Cooperative Principle, they could be considered insane. That is, if one's goal of speaking is not to be understood and to understand others, then they are clearly outliers in society.

But different strategies for the maxims doesn't necessarily mean they aren't being Cooperative. They might just have a different perspective on what is optimal. This may vary between cultures. For example, politeness varies (see research on (Im)Politeness Theory) so that some cultures might be more direct. In Japanese (this is probably an oversimplification) a rejected invitation tends to be phrased as "maybe", which is understood as "no". That's a violation of a maxim (of quality), but it's a convention.

So when you find someone within your own speech community who violates the conventions for applying the maxims you expect, then you might find them to be outliers, or even insane, certainly difficult to talk to sometimes. (Note that "outlier" and "insane", etc., are all relative-- it could just as easily be you or I as the weird one.)

So to work on the phrasing here:
We can call the "maxims" principles.
We can refer to Pragmatics as "conversational interaction".
And we can use the terms "norms" or "conventions".

Talking to someone is a lot like signing a contract: we agree to certain conventions of interaction in order to communicate effectively.

Someone who does not meet those conventions either isn't playing by the rules or lacks some sort of competence the others have, which we could call "following conversational interaction conventions" (or throw the word "principles" in there if you want).

One very interesting area of research is studies of how Autism Spectrum Disorder relates to pragmatic competence, or maybe better just to say pragmatic behavior. It's important to navigate the terminology carefully-- saying someone with autism is incomptent doesn't quite sound right, although certainly that phrasing has been used. The main point everyone can agree one is that there is variation in pragmatic styles.

To quote Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, some things are just "obligatory social conventions" and you have to do them, so he begrudgingly goes to his friend's birthday party or whatever. The same applies for conversations.

To directly answer the question: No, I don't know of a specific/official term that has been used to describe this as a "competence" per se, but the various phrasings above would be fine. This isn't specially my area of research (I do more with Semantics, and especially Syntax), but I'm familiar at least with what an introductory textbook would say and at least I don't think there's a widely used term outside of specialist circles. But there is a huge amount of research on pragmatics in interaction that I'm sure would be relevant to your questions.

More importantly, from the perspective of Pragmatics in general, the important part isn't whether you violate the maxims, but why you violate them. If you violate them, it leads to a conversational implicature which also has communicative effect. We violate the maxims every day (maybe one could argue every sentence)! But understanding why and the inferences made when we do, that's what Pragmatics is all about. When in interaction the "why" is lost on the hearer, that's when the hearer would find the speaker to be potentially "incompetent". In other words, communication has failed because the conversational partners failed to understand each other's motivations. Think of it as this "why" question, and I think it will make more sense, and also be easier to explain. If you know why they did it, you understand their more general intent. If not, they just seem confusing. If there really is no "why" at all, then they might be insane. But if they have their own reason, just not clear to you, then you just have different perspectives-- from something as simple as not sharing background knowledge (maybe your friend thought it was obvious he'd use the WiFi at the train station, because he does that all the time, so it wasn't worth mentioning) to having very different perspectives about communication (such as whether or not it is important to be gentle and indirect in giving a rejection).

I would recommend looking at various examples of annotated Conversational Implicatures in context, along the lines of:

"It's cold in here."
Maxim of Relevance: why did he say that?
Interpretation: he must want me to close the window.

A very simple example, but you can see many more in an introductory textbook or on various websites.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicature#Conversational_implicature

And that's conveniently easy to explain, setting aside some of the terminology, to a more general audience. That can be your starting point.
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Offline Old Nick

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #4 on: June 25, 2017, 06:54:20 AM »
Thanks for your very interesting post Daniel.

The assumption is that normal speakers adhere to the maxims (or principle of Relevance, or whatever iteration of pragmatic theory you choose).
Well… in a perfect world, right? ;)

I once heard the argument that if someone does not follow at least the Cooperative Principle, they could be considered insane. That is, if one's goal of speaking is not to be understood and to understand others, then they are clearly outliers in society.
I wouldn't say my neighbor is insane but he is clearly extremely immature. IMHO he is mentally and emotionally 8 year old. According to my experience I think this way a communicating is a signature of immaturity. It's linked to a faulty, underdeveloped empathy. I know someone else among my relatives who is also constantly presupposing her listener has the same viewpoint and the same information as her and she consistently omits to tell the minimum info to make herself understood. She has also a twist I never saw with anyone else: she systematically misuses the assertive, injunctive and interrogative modes. She says: “Is your arm long enough?” instead of “Please, pass me the salt.” Sometimes I tease her: “Yes, for most purposes.” I also have fun inciting her to express exactly what she means and I consistently fail. She will never be able to go straight to the point and she thinks people who don't understand what she means are idiots. As a precaution, when she says something, I often ask her: “Is it a question you are asking me?”
Like my neighbor, her communication often fails but she has no awareness about it. It's clearly a disability but is it 'insane'? Psychologically, she has practically no empathy.
Yet I am sure she would agree with the Maxims and probably thinks she abides with them.

In a different area, some scientists have a talent for popular science and are able to be just as clear in a TV show for the layman as in a conference for their peers. Conversely with some I know, the more they try to be accessible, the more they become confusing. To me it's the same competence I am talking about and I don't think it can be learned. What do you think?
In yet another area, some people are very 'competent' liars, i.e. they are very good at making people believe that what they say is true and sincere, whereas others just show they are lying.

To directly answer the question: No, I don't know of a specific/official term that has been used to describe this as a "competence" per se, but the various phrasings above would be fine. This isn't specially my area of research (I do more with Semantics, and especially Syntax), but I'm familiar at least with what an introductory textbook would say and at least I don't think there's a widely used term outside of specialist circles. But there is a huge amount of research on pragmatics in interaction that I'm sure would be relevant to your questions.
I've read some of them already. The competence I mention would certainly pertain to pragmatics, right?

Regards

Nick
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Offline Daniel

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #5 on: June 25, 2017, 05:09:32 PM »
Correct, this is part of pragmatics. Roughly "conversational norms" should cover what you need.

I don't have any comments about the people you mention specifically, but if these are adults who in general seem to be communicating very differently, maybe they're on the autism spectrum. You seem to be describing something along those lines.* Even if that's not exactly it, I think that research would be very relevant to you. Just searching for "pragmatics autism" should bring up a lot of results. Remember, though, this ends up just being one example of a more general situation: where two speakers have different expectations. And not unlike the scientists you describe who can't explain their work to an outsider. Different background, different assumptions, different expectations. And different goals. Imagine if you could ask any of them during the conversation "What did you hope to accomplish with that sentence?" -- that's what the study of implicatures is about.


[*To be clear, I am not attempting to diagnose these people in particular, just running with your description from a linguistic/pragmatic perspective. Nor am I equating my comment earlier about insanity. That would be a much more extreme case. Note that these individuals you describe are clearly still trying to communicate with you, albeit with different expectations and methods. The idea of insanity I mentioned was someone who does not adhere to the Cooperative Principle at all and does not use language as a means of communication-- no desire to convey meaning from one person to another. That's different from having a different interpretation of the CP or the maxims, or politeness, or whatever else.]
« Last Edit: June 25, 2017, 05:12:18 PM by Daniel »
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Offline Old Nick

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #6 on: June 26, 2017, 01:29:49 AM »
Autism is much too severe a disorder to apply to these people. They have a more or less normal social life, they communicate. The issue is that beyond inconsequential small talks they don't really relate with others, or only superficially, which they certainly don't realize.

I am no more a psychologist than I am a linguist so my views may be disputable but I see empathy as a three-tier capacity:
  • To reckon with the fact others have their own psyche (states of mind, emotions, wills, desires, etc.). Infants acquire this perception gradually over the years whereas autistic persons don't really. Relating with someone is based on the principle of alterity.
  • To perceive a more or less accurately other's states of mind. According to my experience empathy is not the most widely shared capacity in the world. OTOH believing in one's empathy is ;). The relative of mine I was talking about, after a travel in Japan, was telling her experience and she said: “And what's very pleasant in Japan is that the Japanese are very merry.” Around the table two people just fell off from their chair: one is a graduate in Japanese language and civilization who spends several months a year in Japan, and me who worked professionally with scores of Japanese. What on earth could make her say that? She said: “Yes, they are constantly smiling.” She possesses the first tier empathy, hence she knows others have their own state of mind (they can be sad or happy), but what she thinks she perceives is based on irrelevant, superficial criteria. Like my neighbor, her misconception about her listener' psyche makes it impossible for her to adjust her speech to the latter's state of mind.
  • To be genuinely curious about others' psyche by observing their behavior, by relating with them, by asking questions, etc.
Of course it's rather a continuum from a zero to a maximum than separate tiers. Hence each one has one's cursor somewhere on a scale.

The reason why I needed to know more about this competence is that I am currently writing an essay on a novel whose author was obviously suffering from a major depression disorder and was deeply immature. The thematics of the book is made of highly subjective and personal conceptions about general facts life and she never gives any clue about them. In her mind what's obvious for her must be obvious for her reader. One wonders very often what the characters are talking about, what their intents are, what the scenes are about, and so on. When examining in detail the characters' relations one realizes they seemingly have a 100% accurate empathy: they read into each others' minds like in an open book, they all agree on every single topic, and, even though they have dialogues, they don't really communicate. They don't need to because they all share the same psyche, namely there is in fact one character with several avatars. There is no alterity.
The reason why this novel has so many strange aspects is that the author, because of her lack of second-tier empathy, suffers from the lack of this linguistic competence: adjusting her utterance to her reader's state of mind.
Hence, in my analysis of this feature in my essay, I was feeling the need to put a name on it. Well, it has none. ;)

Regards
Nick
« Last Edit: June 26, 2017, 04:42:42 AM by Old Nick »
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Offline Daniel

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #7 on: June 26, 2017, 07:18:56 AM »
Quote
Autism is much too severe a disorder to apply to these people.
Again, my intent isn't to diagnose or discuss these individuals in particular. I'm just suggesting that body of research could interest you. The Autism spectrum is not always extreme (e.g., Asperger syndrome). And my point isn't about that specifically at all, but that the 'competence' (I'd call it 'variance') you describe seems similar to what I've seen there.

As for the rest, the term "mind reading" has been used to describe the acts of communication studied in Pragmatics, and especially how we interpret implicatures in the speech of others.

Quote
...I was feeling the need to put a name on it. Well, it has none.
Much more important than the label is the description for that label. Hopefully this has helped you get started with that.
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Offline Old Nick

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #8 on: June 26, 2017, 09:01:14 AM »
As for the rest, the term "mind reading" has been used to describe the acts of communication studied in Pragmatics, and especially how we interpret implicatures in the speech of others.
I guess it's a very vast field of research.

Much more important than the label is the description for that label.
Right but it's always convenient to put a name on the concepts we use.
It's just waiting for me to give it a name. ;)

Well, Daniel, thanks for your kind help. I'll certainly come back with more questions. :)

Regards
Nick
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Offline lp

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #9 on: August 11, 2017, 01:51:40 AM »
Hello Nick and Daniel,

I think Nick that in the case of your neighbour they might be on the Autistic Spectrum yet highly functioning, it seems like an issue with Theory of Mind. But I have come across this page that might help you name what you mean... http://www.thelingspace.com/episode-31

Offline Old Nick

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #10 on: August 11, 2017, 04:48:33 AM »
Hi Ip

As I said in my previous in response to Daniel I don't see any symptom of autism in these people but an extreme immaturity. It's my understanding it's a consequence of a primitive theory of mind, what I call a first tier, that acknowledges that others do have a mindset (which is not the case with autistics) but supposes it's the same for every one.
Compared to the competence I am talking about it's a meta-competence, its prerequisite.

I found a French expression that translates into “shared enunciative knowledge“ but it doesn't seem mainstream. In normal conversation about given stuff, we spontaneously don't talk the same way with people we know well as we do with strangers because we more or less know what the former know and ignore, especially about ourselves, whereas we suppose the latter know practically nothing. We have a shared enunciative knowledge with the former and none with the latter.
The issue with the people I am talking about is that they suppose by default that the shared enunciative knowledge is universal.

Nick
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Offline lp

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #11 on: August 13, 2017, 02:49:43 AM »
Hi Nick,

This immaturity of Theory of Mind you talk about is indeed attributed to the Autistic Spectrum. Which again, it is a spectrum and as such quite varied and complex. There's a lot of people on the AS that you would never know they are on the AS, especially women.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally–Anne_test

the test above measures social cognitive ability -- hope that helps.

Offline FlatAssembler

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #12 on: August 13, 2017, 04:16:31 AM »
A lot of people wouldn't say such things (as if they didn't have a theory of mind), yet they write such stuff. Once a 15-year-old student asked me to help me with his homework. I told him: "Write that he was there." I expected him to write: "Mark was in the house." However, he wrote: "That he was there." I asked him: "What's your native language?" And he was obviously confused why I asked him that.
« Last Edit: August 13, 2017, 04:59:38 AM by FlatAssembler »

Offline lp

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Re: A question about the name of a linguistic competence
« Reply #13 on: August 14, 2017, 04:16:37 PM »
hehe, FlatAssembler, I have been that student as a 15 year old. The fact that they wrote to the letter 'that he was there' to your command after the commanding word 'Write', brings me back to memories of being completely spaced out from context, in a similar situation, and snapping back to a command (such as the imperative 'Write') and right then following through just as told to pretend I was on board. Nothing to do with Theory of Mind, or empathy, or understanding each other's knowledge and its limitations. (In my case at least...)

I think here the context is quite different, in which a neighbour encounter requires one to focus on certain coordinates of the particular context that both individuals share, yet adding or being given the addition of new information to what was there. It is an encounter, so it is short in time and sudden, maybe unexpected, often one to one; all this requires a lot of attention (that a long and tedious homework situation, sorry to put it this way, does not, quite). It actually requires a lot of mental effort we take for granted.

They say a social cognition is the most demanding, loads memory in multiple dimensional ways, and anthropologically speaking is considered one of the pillars of language itself...