Abstract: What does it signify that a language “has a word for” such-and-such a notion? For the general public, it sheds light on the way its speakers think, often with political or ideological consequences. For linguists and psychologists, lexicalization chiefly bears on individual perception or cognition. For historians and other students of culture, it means a society has come into the possession of a new concept. It turns out that these perspectives rest on very different understandings of “concept” and “language”—and for that matter “have.” I’ll spell some of these out and show how there are certain misconceptions inherent in each. I want to focus in particular on the way the individualism of modern linguistics can obscure the social consequences of lexicalization, some of which have played an important role in recent philosophy of language. In general, having a word is a bigger deal than linguists generally suppose, and for reasons that linguists don’t often pay much attention to.
This talk is sponsored by the Franke Institute for the Humanities and the Department of Linguistics.