Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Competent users of a language

Yesterday I pondered whether we can make sense of 'competent user' of a language, given that we can never fully master any language.  There about 170,000 words in current use in the English language, of which I probably know about 15,000.  New words are being added every year.  In addition to that, there are billions of proper names whose meaning no single person has knowledge of. I'm assuming that French, German, Indian and Japanese proper names count, given that they, or some Anglicised version of them can meaningfully be used as part of an English sentence.

Is there any sense to the notion of 'competent user'?  Perhaps we should distinguish between 'competent use' of a language and 'specialist use'.  A specialist user will understand all or most of the terms connected with the specialism.  The specialism might be in medical terms, engineering or scientific or legal terms, in place names, historical figures.  Of course, nearly everyone is a "Facebook" specialist in the sense they know the names of  their friends - names whose meaning they know but probably 99.99% of the people on the planet do not.  A generalist user, by contrast, will be equipped to communicate using terms that are in general use.  It might be difficult to set a boundary for such generalist terms, but it would probably include all the words in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, many proper names such as 'London', 'America', 'Caesar', 'Elizabeth II' and so on.

I will then define a discourse (i.e. a sentence or group of sentences) as 'semantically complete' when its meaning is clear to any generalist user of the language.

1 comment:

David Brightly said...

Hi Ed,
I'm finding your latest posts something of a departure from your previous stance on the semantics of proper names. You now seem to be suggesting that a sentence containing a proper name may not have a clear meaning to a user because he may be unfamiliar with the proper name. I can think of examples where knowing the kind of thing that a proper name refers to can resolve ambiguities of meaning: Fred caught Malaria might be a medical report or a cricket score line with the verb caught having an ambiguous meaning. But suppose we resolve the ambiguous meanings explicitly by attaching a sense number to a headword, as we find in dictionaries. Do we not then get back to your original position where a proper name merely identifies which individual in some class is being referred to---the disease Malaria or the batsman Malaria, say---and this is all we need fully to understand the sentence?