The relationship between language and thought is a fascinating field for investigation because, however effortlessly we seem to think and speak, a closer look reveals that the interaction between these is not as simple as we may take it to be. In a previous post I tried to show that, despite the fact that language and thought are tightly intertwined, they do not overlap; some evidence for this comes from considering ways in which we conceive and communicate thoughts without using words, just as dance partners communicate their next using body signals alone. In this post I talk about the relationship between language and thought from the point of view of my own research topic: how are we able to convey complete thoughts using sentences that are incomplete from a syntactic point of view? Since I don’t have a full answer to this problem (yet!), I will talk more generally about the mismatch between language and thought as far as the aspect of completeness/incompleteness of each is concerned; a mismatch which does not get in the way of efficient communication.
Roughly speaking, when we talk about syntactically complete sentences, we mean the ones that involve at least one predicate/verb, e.g. ‘I’m sitting in the sun’, ‘John is British’, ‘Anna was late last night’, etc. Such simple complete sentences have traditionally been the primary unit of analysis for linguistic theory. However, the main difference between such sentences and the ones we use in actual conversations is that the latter never occur in isolation, but rather in a context. They normally occur in sequences of sentences, and are placed in a certain context, consisting of a time, place, topic of conversation, a person we are addressing, etc (for more about the notion of context see Finkbeiner et al. 2012). This way, each sentence that occurs in a conversation can build on previous ones, as well as on information that is already given in the context. Thus, as speakers, we do not have to make explicit every single aspect of the meaning we want to communicate because we can trust that some information is already present in the context (and, as such, known to our interlocutors).
There are many ways in which the interaction of utterances with context (linguistic and extra-linguistic) can save us from having to be explicit about every single aspect of meaning we want to convey. For example, if I have already been talking to a friend about my housemate, I can then afford to say ‘She is going to Paris tomorrow’, without having to explicitly define the female ‘she’ refers to. Similarly, if I utter ‘I’m ready’, it must be clear from the context what it is I am ready for, otherwise my sentence would not be meaningful (see Bach 1994, 2001). In general, each sentence we use is, roughly speaking, supposed to express a thought that we want to share with our interlocutors. But due to the interaction of sentences with context it is possible for communication to be achieved, even if there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the sentences we use and the units of thought we want communicate.
Lets look at some examples of complete and incomplete language and thought. To do this, we’ll need to use a unit of measurement for each. For language this unit will be the sentence; for thought it will be the proposition (‘proposition’ is, roughly speaking, a term used by philosophers of language to talk about ‘units’ of thought. You can read more about it here). In our everyday conversations, we can see all possible combinations of completeness/incompleteness of units of language and units of thought: we use complete sentences to convey complete thoughts, incomplete sentences to convey complete thoughts, incomplete sentences to convey incomplete thoughts, and so on. These combinations are shown in the table below which evaluates the utterance in the 3rd column with regards to the [+/- complete] feature. By ‘language’ I refer to the sentence explicitly pronounced, and by ‘thought’ I refer to the message conveyed by that sentence alone.
- [+complete] [+complete]: ‘Germany won the 2014 world cup’.
- [+complete] [-complete]: ‘Everybody went to the beach yesterday’.
- [-complete] [+complete] [context: doorbell rings] ‘Probably the pizza guy’.
- [-complete] [-complete] ‘The essay was on a complicated topic, but I found it interesting so…’
Cases 1 and 2 are linguistically complete because they involve at least one verb each (won, went). Case 1 also conveys a complete and determinate thought. Case 2, however, does not convey a complete thought because some additional piece of information is required to make ‘everybody’ meaningful, i.e., ‘everybody’ needs to be restricted to the specific group of people the speaker is talking about, because the sentence cannot really mean that everybody in the world went to the beach yesterday. This additional piece of information, e.g. ‘Everybody [from our group of friends/[in my family etc]’, need not be explicitly uttered because it is normally recoverable when the utterance is placed in context. But it is, strictly speaking, not contained in the thought conveyed by the sentence alone, hence the [-complete] feature in the ‘thought’ column.
Moving on to case 3, it is syntactically incomplete given that it does not contain any verbs, we can say that it conveys a complete and determinate thought, because it can only mean something along the lines of ‘[The person at the door is] probably the pizza guy’. [The person at the door is] is recoverable on the basis of the contextual information that the doorbell is ringing, the world-knowledge that pizzas are often delivered at doors, etc.
Case 4 is also linguistically incomplete, despite containing two verbs, because it is explicitly left open-ended (i.e. in English sentences are not meant to end in a connective such as ‘so’). However, it seems less clear whether it conveys are complete thought or not. At first glance, it seems that case 4 does not convey a complete proposition, not like case 1 does, or like case 3 because it wouldn’t be as straightforward to add the completion in brackets. At the same time, deciding that case 4 does not convey a complete proposition at all might not be fair either, because there is an intuitive sense in which 4 is meaningful (and, if something has meaning, then it arguably conveys certain thoughts/propositions). Thus, an intermediate solution would be to say that 4 conveys the complete proposition ‘The essay was on a difficult topic, but I found it interesting’, i.e. the thought that is conveyed by the part that comes before the open-endedness, and that, in addition to this, the open-ended part conveys a much more vague (and arguably incomplete) aspect of meaning along the lines of ‘You can easily infer from what I said that there were pros and cons with regards to the essay topic’, ‘The fact that I found it interesting made the complicated topic easier for me’, or even ‘I leave the conclusion of what I said up to you, because I’m ambivalent with regards to the essay topic’ etc. In a way, open-endedness expresses not a proposition but an attitude towards a proposition (for more on this see here).
Abstracting away from the details, however, what we are left with is four cases which, if used in an appropriate context, would be perfectly interpretable by any average speaker of English; moreover, no average speaker of English would judge them as ungrammatical or infelicitous. The fact that these sentences will eventually lead to successful communication basically means that each of them will ultimately convey a complete thought, regardless of how complete or not the components of language or thought involved were initially. This is possible because language is in constant interaction with its context of use which is responsible for completing the incompleteness of either language or thought, and which allows for sentences and propositions to be meaningful, even if incomplete. Given how complex the interaction between language and thought is, isn’t it fascinating how effortlessly we perform the complicated task of communication?
- Bach, K. 1994. ‘Semantic slack: What is said and more’. In: S. L. Tsochatzidis (ed.). Foundations of speech act theory. Philosophical and Linguistic perspectives. London and New York: Routlege. 267-291.
- Bach, K. 2001. ‘You don’t say?’ Synthese 128. 15-44.
- Finkbeiner, Rita, Jörg Meibauer and Petra B. Schumacher. 2012. What is context? Linguistic approaches and challenges. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.