Demodalizing our terminology

Thu Feb 25, 2021

The systems we study in our field are manifested not just in spoken language but in other modalities as well, most importantly in sign languages. Other modalities as well (though often secondary in some sense) exist: written language, of course, whistled language, etc.

So, it’s unfortunate that much of our terminology is not really modality-neutral but presupposes the spoken modality:

Some terminology is arguably already neutral: utterance can be understood as anything that constitute the production of a perceptible signal, participant as a term for those who are part of an exchange of utterances is also neutral.

Some terminology at least somewhat obscures its provenance: in fact language/linguistic trace back to the tongue but maybe we can live with that. (My cursory investigation suggests that words like dialogue, interlocutor come from roots that don’t have to do with the tongue or spoken language more generally.)

The most problematic term is perhaps hearer and it’s also the one that’s fairly easy to replace: addressee seems perfectly good.

So, in my quest to demodalize my own technical discourse, I asked for suggestions on twitter. There was some lively feedback and also some pointers to relevant previous conversations (or threads, as they say there).

Here is a fairly complete list of the ideas I gathered (skipping some more facetious suggestions):

There are pros and cons with all of these and if this was a thorough essay, I would go into that, but on brief reflection, my conclusion for now is that I will try to use

A corollary is that work that posits a “Speech Act Phrase” (SAP) should consider switching to “Language Act Phrase” (LAP).

If you’d like to comment, please reply on twitter.