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Auteur: Erica COSENTINO

The dialectics between knowledge of language and use of language: a psycholinguistic investigation on discourse

Abstract/Résumé: The bulk of the talk will be devoted to arguing in favor of the role of the text and discourse as an instrument which reveals relevant features of the system of language and the intertwining between language knowledge and usage. I’ll follow the classical Saussurean position with respect to the relationship between knowledge of language and use of language, providing evidence in support of the idea that language knowledge (the mental grammar) contributes to language use, but it is only one of many systems that drive usage. On the other hand, I don’t follow Saussure in his implied conclusion that linguistics is a theory of langue (knowledge) rather than parole (use). I’ll point out that this conclusion has a particularly relevant repercussion because, as Halliday (1994: xxii) has remarked, Saussure’s “understanding of the relationship between the system of language and its instantiation in acts of speaking” implied that “the text can be dispensed with” and “linguistics, for much of the twentieth century”, has accordingly been “obsessed with the system at the expense of text” and discourse. Chomsky (1965) asserted in similar vein that the observed use of language surely cannot constitute the subject-matter of linguistics. As a result, in the field proposed by linguists from Saussure up through Chomsky, discourse and text would seem to merit no home at all. For linguists influenced by Chomsky’s view, the straightforward strategy for getting the text inside a linguistics designed for the sentence has been to define the text and discourse as a sequence of sentences. The problem with such a strategy is that it does not express a criterion according to which it becomes possible to distinguish between a coherent discourse and a casual set of sentences: a plausible explanation of discourse processes has to clarify how speakers assess coherence. With reference to this, I’ll introduce an experimental investigation showing that since we speak in context, the judgment of coherence given to certain combinations varies with that context. In particular, I’ll analyze the combination between objects and potential actions (affordances) and I’ll argue that these combinations are context sensitive. Since these results are evidence for the role of top-down processes, they challenge the idea that the discourse is a secondary dimension compared to the analysis of the sentence and reveal that discourse is supported by the dialectics between knowledge of language and processes related to the use of language. References Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. The M.I.T. PRESS, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Halliday, M.A.K. (1994). Introduction to functional grammar. 2nd ed., Edward Arnold, London.