The Problem of Lexical Innovation

Linguistics and Philosophy 39 (2):87-118 (2016)
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In a series of papers, Donald Davidson :3–17, 1984, The philosophical grounds of rationality, 1986, Midwest Stud Philos 16:1–12, 1991) developed a powerful argument against the claim that linguistic conventions provide any explanatory purchase on an account of linguistic meaning and communication. This argument, as I shall develop it, turns on cases of what I call lexical innovation: cases in which a speaker uses a sentence containing a novel expression-meaning pair, but nevertheless successfully communicates her intended meaning to her audience. I will argue that cases of lexical innovation motivate a dynamic conception of linguistic conventions according to which background linguistic conventions may be rapidly expanded to incorporate new word meanings or shifted to revise the meanings of words already in circulation. I argue that this dynamic account of conventions both resolves the problem raised by cases of lexical innovation and that it does so in a way that is preferable to those who—like Davidson—deny important explanatory roles for linguistic conventions.

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Josh Armstrong
University of California, Los Angeles

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