Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at King’s College London
How to Escape the Encodingism Stranglehold: Dynamic Syntax, Process and Interaction
(Joint work with Ronnie Cann and Eleni Gregoromichelaki)
This talk responds to a challenge posed by Bickhard (2009, in prep) that if models of cognition are ever to receive a naturalistic explanation, they will have to be seen as emergent organisations of processes subject to ongoing context-dependent change and characterisable in terms of relations of interaction, hence broadly commensurate with a quantum theoretic perspective (Laudisa and Rovelli 2002). His attack in particular on language-related theorising is that frameworks deﬁning ﬁxed, static, context-independent string-representation mappings, “encodingism” as he dubs it, should be abandoned in favour of process-based theories. This talk will be a narrative of how the development of Dynamic Syntax (DS) can be seen as an evolving response to this challenge. Initially intended to model logical form construction to substantiate pragmatic theorising, the first DS model demonstrated striking parallels with Bickhard’s stated desiderata, in virtue of defining all generalisations as conditional anticipatory actions, constraints on progressive update. Since then, evidence has progressively accumulated indicating the potential of DS as a grammar formalism. This led to the subsequent extension of DS by a composite DS-TTR vocabulary, a DS implementation, and its demonstrable success in modelling the cross-party dynamics of conversational dialogue. The final step in the narrative of the escape from encodingism has been the nesting of the framework within an enactive cognition perspective (e.g., Bruineberg and Rietveld, 2019) with a proposed extension of DS-TTR to a cross-modal construal, this offering a general model of what underpins participants’ interaction in social exchange. Parallel work involves an exploration of applying distributional semantics methodology to the task of providing an explanatory account of the systemic ambiguity of natural language in terms of nondeterminism of content and its incremental resolution. The closing message we thus offer is that, far from the Bickhard challenge to linguists having to be one which linguists turn away from as being too radical a move, it is one which signals the urgency of developing grammar formalisms which directly reflect the nondeterminism, change and process at the heart of all languages.