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Language and the Flow of Information

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Teresa Parodi.

Language, by near-universal consensus, is a computational system that combines sound and meaning.This is the ‘Double Interface Property’ (DIP) of the language faculty (Chomsky, 1995:2). Since at least Saussure, and strictly adhered to by Hjelmslev, this basic axiom has had a pervasive methodological consequence, expressed succinctly by Chomsky (2000:175) ‘It’s a useful heuristic, I think, to pursue analogies between the sound and the meaning sides as far as they plausibly go’. This is the Railway Doctrine. Whatever the language faculty does, it does on parallel tracks.

I don’t intend to query the idea behind the DIP – that the language faculty somehow ‘combines’ sound and meaning – but I want to question the Railway Doctrine. In fact, I’ll claim that it has been a hindrance to the understanding of the function of the language faculty, in particular with respect to language use. I’m basing my argument on the Extended Representational Thesis, which has three clauses:

The Extended Representational Thesis (ERT)

  1. All linguistic facts are mental facts
  2. All mental facts are representational facts
  3. All representational facts are facts about informational functions

The ERT is an extension of Fred Dretske’s (1995:xiii) Representational Thesis, which contains only clauses 2 and 3. This, in turn, is a codification of Dretske’s main work, Knowledge and the Flow of Information (1981), which my title replicates, perhaps to the point of plagiarism.

I consider the language faculty to be a representational system in Dretske’s sense – i.e. a system which has as its dedicated functionality, by design or evolution, to carry information about something distinct from itself.

I therefore propose to replace the Railway Doctrine with the notion of Flow of Information as the guiding heuristic for the exploration of the function of the language faculty. The basic consequence of this replacement is the adoption of a process-oriented rather than derivational approach – in particular an approach by which language understanding is taken to be a matter of information processing, where ‘information processing’ is taken more seriously than it usually is.

Although this shift in viewpoint has pervasive consequences for the study of all aspects of language and language structure, I’ll delimit my talk to the consequences it has for our understanding of the role of the lexicon in comprehension. Among other things, it has led to the discovery of a ‘design feature’ of language so far unrecognized, I believe – the Design Feature of Double Digitalization.


Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2000. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge: CUP .

Dretske, Fred I. 1981. Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dretske, Fred I. 1995. Naturalizing the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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