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Making Words


There is a view implicit in of much of the recent work in philosophy of language according to which public words provide a reliable mechanism for communication. It is often assumed that two linguistic agents can come to understand one another to the extent that (i) they both use the same public words with the same meanings, and (ii) they can recognize which of those words are being used. But despite this central role in communication, serious investigations into the nature of words are lacking. How should we understand these objects and how are they related to their utterances? In virtue of what are two utterances utterances of the same word?

Making Words, I propose a novel account of public words that is responsive both to their communicative role and the facts of pronunciation variation. I argue that the relation between a public word and its articulations is grounded in a particular kind of social relation that holds between the speaker and those spoken to. On the model offered here, using the same word requires not that agents make the same sounds, but rather that agents coordinate their internal linguistic representations. This coordination, I'll argue, is achieved by the existence of communicative policies that agents establish with one another in service to their joint goal of communication.

This dissertation asks that we abandon the orthodox idea that public words are stagnant objects with fixed pronunciations in favor of a new idea: that public words are dynamic objects, made by the speakers and receivers who use them and related to their articulations via the social relations that hold in a linguistic community. Indeed, it argues that where there are no social networks of communicative policies, there can be no notion of a public word as a vehicle of communication.

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