Reimagining language - Towards a better understanding of language by including our interactions with non-humans

In this essay, Azeb Amha and colleagues explore how human-animal interaction and human-computer interaction contract and extend language, shedding light on the interplay between language, perception, and action. In interacting with animals, people rely on the interactive core of their linguistic abilities, that is, the sequential organisation of turns (Bangerter et al. 2022; Mondémé 2022). In today’s large language models, the transformation is almost the reverse, with a surplus of passable prose obscuring a lack of true interactivity (Bender & Koller 2020; Sejnowski 2023). Both invite us to push the boundaries of linguistic inquiry. They touch on fundamental topics including meaning, understanding, agency, and theory of mind, and raise new questions, such as: what do animals and computers communicate to us, and what does it mean to listen to them (Birhane & van Dijk 2020; Meijer 2019)? How do we adjust our language towards beings with different perception-action systems, whether animals or robots? What do we do when a semblance of fluid language is not a reliable cue to the presence of a social agent? Ultimately, these questions all point back to a bigger question: what is language, and who or what can be said to have it?

With this essay the authors won the 2nd and 3rd prize (ex aequo) of the Grotevragenprijs competition of the Landelijke Onderzoekschool Taalwetenschap (National Research School of Linguistics, LOT) in May 2023. As part of the prize the essay has been published in Linguistics in the Netherlands, Volume 40, Issue 1 (2023).

Read the essay.

Author(s) / editor(s)

Rasenberg, Amha, Coler, van Koppen, van Miltenburg e.a.

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