Saturday, January 26, 2008

Language and Institutions

In the edition of January 22 of PNAS Steven Pinker and colleagues discuss the "logic of indirect speech". "When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition." This is interesting from an institutional perspective. When people interact in open societies how do they know the intent of others? Using indirect speech might be a way to test the waters. "Gee, officer, is there some way we could take care of the ticker here?" is an indirect way to figure out the kind of officer the person has to deal with, but a honost officer cannot make a case of it. In open societies the ability to recognize whom to trust in social interactions is key, and indirect speech is an interesting way to use this.
Being from the Netherlands, I often get the comment in the USA to be very direct in my conversations. Is indirect speech a cultural adaptation in the large open society of the USA.
In New Scientist of January 19, an interview is reported with linguist Daniel Everett who argues that the development of language and cultural conditions are deeply connected. Language is not a consequence of a built in universal grammar a la Chomsky but evolved within a cultural and ecological niche. Everett studies the Piraha indigenous people in Brazil who have for example no words for numbers, which seem to be in contrast to the universal grammar argument. This discussion may relate to the fit between institutions and ecological conditions. In which way is their a universal grammar of institutions compared to diverse adaptations of institutional structures to ecological and cultural local conditions?