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Empirical Semantics

As far as I am concerned, the most intriguing questions about language are how we actually use it to exchange information about the real world we live in, about what is in sight and what is out of sight, and how we use it to create our fictional worlds, which we seem to share as if they existed out there.

The Answers are in the Head of the Hearer
These are empirical questions that can be guaranteed to have an answer in the reality of verbal communication. To find the answer we have to trace exactly what happens in the head of the hearer. To get hold of these processes we need to be clear about their nature.

Setting the Stage
All these processes take place within our narrow brain-made window of awareness; real things, imaginary things as well as forms of language exist to us only and precisely as long as our brain puts them ‘on stage’ in our awareness.

Reality on Stage
It is conscious experience (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling) that early on shaped our first notion of a reality separate from ourselves; it is our brain’s machinery that turns the signals picked up from around by our senses into awareness of what is there around us, precisely as long as it keeps up some special coordinated activity in correlated networks of neurons.

When something fades from awareness, this special activity subsiding in those correlated networks, it ceases to exist to us but our brain preserves the ability immediately to call it to awareness again by keeping those networks strengthened together, ready to flash into action again together.

Reconstructed Worlds on Stage
Forming mental images is our first and basic way to conceive of what is beyond the reach of our senses. That is, we take internal control over the neural machinery evolved to make the world take shape around us, flashing the previously strengthened correlated networks into action again in the absence of external input.

In the Head of the Hearer
Given a speaker’s sequence of sounds, the hearer recognises forms of language, which call up a mental image of what they are talking about, form by form, fragment by fragment. That is, with their sequence of sounds, speakers take remote control over the hearer’s brain’s machinery evolved to make the world take shape around them. Forms of language are arbitrary but the mental images they call up can fuse with the real thing when it comes in sight.

The Linguist’s Task
Tracing what happens on stage in the hearer’s awareness, the linguist’s task is to isolate the informative forms actually recognised in the speaker’s sequence of sounds and pinpoint what fragment exactly they each contribute to the image under construction. The resulting theory should be introspectively satisfactory and it should be empirically adequate; it should predict what reality hearers would recognise as fitting the information; its hypotheses about what shows up in awareness should be consistent with what is known about the brain.

The Image under Construction
In the speaker’s sequence of sounds, the hearer recognises a complex of forms of language: basic symbolic words and function words bound together in syntactic constructions, supplied with prosodic forms. The symbolic words call up the building stones of the image, the other forms construct larger but still fragmentary images. The hearer tentatively fills in the gaps. The building stones are very flexible, their construction is completely systematic. Both kinds of contributions are highly efficient in their own way and together they are amazingly effective.

The Building Stones
The speaker’s basic symbolic words access the hearer’s brain’s ability to call to awareness again whatever has previously been placed under their heading, as and insofar as preserved in their brain. For these parts of the image under construction, it is at these access points that the speaker’s control comes to an end; from there, within its limits, it is up to the hearer. What actually comes to their mind can be anything ranging from a tiny fragment of an earlier (passive or active) experience, a dim outline, a distant sound, a vague smell, a fleeting emotion, etc., to some completely relived memory, in detail constructed fantasy or virtual action. And as long as the hearer keeps the word in mind any of these can be erased to be replaced by some other image within the range accessed by it, better fitting context or situation.

The Construction
In contrast, with their other forms speakers completely control the build-up of complex images. Precisely located prosodic forms of intonation, pitch accent, rhythm and emphasis systematically contribute their own fragment directly to the image under construction; they enable the speaker to efficiently use the same simple syntactic construction to get a multiplication of subtly or considerably (‘truth-conditionally’) different messages across, without either speaker or hearer even noticing an ambiguity. Addition of a negative element reinforces the effect of this range of options. The choice of subject noun phrase (indefinite, definite, uncountable noun phrase, proper name etc.) determines one element in otherwise the same range.

The Theory so Far
For a fragment of English and Dutch, the theory so far explains so-called ‘scope of negation’ and ‘focus of negation’, the ‘specific versus non-specific’ uses of the indefinite noun phrase, the ‘generic’ use of the noun phrase (predicting two clearly different ‘generic’ uses), the use of proper names  without existential claim, ‘mass terms’ in their different uses, along with a range of subtle nuances; all these phenomena naturally fitting within language’s efficient system where a speaker’s forms (including prosodic ones) build up the hearer’s mental image of what they are talking about, small fragment by small fragment.

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