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This month we’re joined by Nicholas Asher, research director at the CNRS and the IRIT in Toulouse, and former longtime Professor of Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin.  Click here to listen to our conversation with him.

Remember Spanish class?  You had to learn all those rules about where to put the verb, where to put the subject, which nouns have which genders, which prepositions to use when, etc.  What a pain.  Now try to imagine what it would be like to try to explain all of the rules of English to someone from a different country.  It’s actually pretty difficult.  If you did try to do this, you’d find that you were following all kinds of subtle grammatical conventions without even realizing it.  You’d be pronouncing everything a certain way without realizing it.  Although the rules we follow when we speak English are incredibly complicated, we native speakers do it effortlessly, as if by reflex.  And that’s part of the difficulty: our knowledge of how to speak English is tacit.

Philosophers of language and linguists are working together on the project of translating this tacit knowledge we all have into something that’s spelled out explicitly, like the rules on the back of a Scrabble box.  But spelling out the rules that all English speakers implicitly observe leads to all sorts of challenges.  For instance, if I say that Bob is parked out back, I’m talking about his car, not him!  Is there a general rule that you have to know in order to be able to say you know English, which tells you that that sentence is talking about a car?  Or do you just figure this stuff out on a case-by-case basis?

In this episode, Nicholas Asher talks about how philosophers of language have tried to overcome some of these challenges, and how their attempts to do so have forced them to rethink what linguistic meaning really is.  Maybe the meaning of a statement isn’t just the situation the statement is describing.  Perhaps, instead, it’s a sort of instruction to the listener to change the information she is taking for granted.  Tune in to find out!

Matt Teichman