Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Lexical competence: a few issues

Diego Marconi argues that there are two aspects to lexical competence, the inferential aspect and the referential aspect. The inferential aspect is the part of meaning that lets us draw inferences that, while not logically valid, are what he calls semantically valid. Brandom might call these inferences materially good. An example is the inference from `x is a cat' to `x is an animal'. This is one aspect of lexical competence, the intralinguistic part. There is another part that is needed, the connections between the words and the world. This is the referential part. This consists in being able to identify, in the case of `cat', that something is a cat. I'm not sure, but I think these two aspects exhaust lexical competence. Of course, different agents might have different degrees of each of these. The trained scientist might have a highly developed inferential knowledge about goats while a shepherd might have a particularly good referential knowledge of them.

This picture is good as far as it goes, but there are some problem with it that worry me. How do these two aspects work with function words like `of' or `in'? I'm not sure how to refer to `in'-ness. Maybe the individual function words don't have these aspects but the clauses they form when combined with other words do. How does it work with `I' and `that'? Clearly getting the reference wrong for `I' woud indicate that one does not understand the word. How does one recognize that someone else is using it correctly? Once I understand it, wouldn't I expect other people to use `I' to refer to me? The most straightforward answer is that something like Perry's roles are involved. It isn't the reference of `I' that matters for understanding so much as the role. Another problem is with expressive words like `ouch' and `oops'. These don't, by my lights, have any referential content. They have some inferential content. I guess that Marconi would say that competence for these words is constituted by the inferential content since there is no referential content, a kind of limiting case on one end of the spectrum. What falls at the other end of the specturm? Names?

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