Skip to main content

Article Category


Article available in the folowing languages:

Decrypting the many purposes of language

Sometimes language can tell us more about the intentions and mood of the person speaking than the type of society we live in. The Language Use project builds upon this observation to provide a new metasemantic proposal.


In its quest to study the foundations of meaning, metasemantics (a branch of the philosophy of linguistics and metaphysics) essentially defines language as a means of cooperation. But is that really all there is to it? Surely, language largely contributed to the ascent of humankind and played a fundamental role in the organisation of our incredibly complex societies. But as her interest was piqued by work from her predecessors, Jessica Keiser from the University of Leeds couldn’t help but notice how the many other functions of language have been ignored for too long. With the Language Use (Languages and Language Use) project, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions fellow aims to depart from existing approaches to metasemantics by studying the relationship between language and the actions and mental state of its users. A few months from project completion, Keiser agreed to discuss her work and findings.

Your project questions the idea that language is based on a convention of cooperative information exchange. Why? What problems did this pose?

Jessica Keiser: This idea is problematic as it ignores many uses of language that are ubiquitous. For instance, language use is not always cooperative. We often resort to it strategically for conflicting purposes, be it in political debates or even with our children and intimate partners. Even when language is indeed cooperative, it’s not necessarily used for information exchange. We can use it to tell stories, make jokes, socially bond, perform rituals, etc.

How did you come to identify these problems?

It was in graduate school when I was first exposed to standard literature on linguistic conventions. The orthodox story is that we use language to exchange information in a joint project to learn about the world. The idea is that everyone is going around asserting truths and expecting others to do the same. This immediately struck me as contrary to my experience of the world. I would not characterise the bulk of my linguistic exchanges as aimed at exchanging information, and I certainly do not take it for granted that its default function is to assert only truths and expect the same from others. This made me want to understand what led traditional theorists and philosophers to think about language in this way, and where exactly they went wrong.

How did you proceed to study the link between language and actions/mental state and what makes your approach particularly innovative?

I looked at what was common to all uses of language. My approach is different in that it does not feed from a particular conception of the function of language. Where traditional theorists went wrong, I think, was when they began their inquiry from the assumption that language is used for cooperative information exchange and then built their theory around that assumption. In reality, this is a rather dry and scientistic conception of language that ignores facts about language in the real world. I rather try to look at language use as it is, and then develop a conception of its function.

What are the project’s most important findings so far?

My hypothesis is that a common and core feature of language use is attention-direction. The principal goal of linguistic communication is to direct the attention of others to specific content. But we may do this with a myriad of different end results in mind. We may, as traditional theorists assumed, direct the audience’s attention for the purpose of exchanging information. However, we may also want to direct their attention to something with a view to amuse them, for instance, or even to deceive or manipulate them.

What do you still need to achieve before the project’s end?

I still need to do more research on the nature of attention. In particular, I’m interested in the question of whether attention is always conscious. I don’t think that, when we communicate linguistically, we always want to draw our audience’s attention to something in a conscious way. Sometimes we just want to make them aware of it on some sort of subconscious level. A concrete example is when politicians use xenophobic dog whistles and propaganda. If I end up finding that attention must necessarily be conscious, then I’ll need to appeal to a weaker attention-like mental state that’s not conscious, at least in some cases.

If you manage to provide a novel metasemantic proposal, what do you hope will be its long-term impact on our understanding of language?

I hope to provide a framework for thinking about the nature and function of language that extends beyond cooperative information exchange. If successful, I hope this will enable us to expand the scope of our inquiry and understanding to a broader and more diverse range of linguistic phenomena. Ultimately, I hope that this can serve ameliorative projects. For instance, the more we understand the mechanisms behind oppressive uses of language, the better we will be positioned to mitigate them.


Language Use, metasemantics, philosophy, communication