Assumptions about Communication
bill_mann at SIL.ORG
Sat Feb 17 21:21:37 UTC 2001
What is Communication? -- a summary
In November I posted an inquiry about the literature on the nature of
communication, in particular: human communication using language. I want to
identify sets of assumptions that are explicitly stated and are used in
building theories. Several of you sent interesting replies, and I have
begun to sort out the ideas, mostly represented in references. I really have
appreciated the thoughtful replies from responders. Special appreciation
goes to Herbert Clark, Ad Foolen, Paul Hopper, George Lakoff, Brian
MacWhinney, Tom Payne and Olga Yokoyama.
The overview that resulted has two kinds of parts. The first kind involves
various alternative sets of assumptions found in the literature of
linguistics, broadly conceived. The various positions within this set are
comparable as alternatives, or in the terms of (Kuhn 1970), “commensurable.”
They form a single collection. There is a more encompassing view,
introduced at the end of the paper, in which this collection of positions
can be viewed as a single member of a larger collection of incommensurable
views of communication. The larger collection is sometimes discussed under
an umbrella term - “Communication Theory.” This memo touches on both levels.
All who responded to my inquiry (including some rather notable responders),
sent references and ideas that are found in some part of the literature of
linguistics or closely related fields, including psychology and sociology.
I read the references and noted the ideas.
The first outcome, a genuine surprise, was the impression that the explicit
identification of the nature of communication in the literature
(linguistics, psychology, sociology, other related fields) is very rare.
The literature just seemed to have very few things to say on this particular
To come to this conclusion I had to sort through various concepts.
Communicating is seen as a process that predictably has certain kinds of
effects. A major reason that people communicate is the aim of producing
such effects. For cases in which the process of communication succeeds
(i.e. produces the desired effects), the central issue concerning the
nature of communication is to identify the nature of these effects, rather
than how the effects were produced. We might ask: Are these effects in
essence propositions in mind, acts, a shared body of knowledge, or something
This sparse characterization of the nature of communication effects stands
in contrast to the abundant literature concerning the process of how
communication is accomplished. The use of symbols, inference, lexical
processes and resources, the formation and interpretation of sound patterns,
discourse creation and comprehension, people affecting each other in
interpersonal interaction, reading, writing, translation, grammar and a host
of other topics each have an abundant literature that covers numerous
alternative approaches. The distinction between What is Language and What
is A Language is also elaborately discussed, and each one (in different
places) is taken as logically prior to the other.
There is a widespread tendency to take the notion of communication for
granted, in no need of identification. Similarly, the loaded terms
“meaning” and “message” are often used without explanation. It is assumed
that communication is easy and the concept of communication is
unproblematic. Reddy, in The Conduit Metaphor, shows ways that these
assumptions may fail (Reddy 1979). He discusses the common tacit
assumptions that arise from the metaphor, including the notion that
communication is typically simple and effortless. This assumption is seen
as the source of destructive misunderstandings in ordinary interaction. It
may be the source of misunderstandings in more technical studies as well.
Recognizing Reddy’s substantial contribution, it is still important to
recognize a difference between two questions:
What metaphors are commonly used as starting points in thinking about
What explicit or implicit assumptions are used in forming technical accounts
of the nature of communication?
Reddy’s paper is principally about the metaphors, while the question under
discussion is principally about theoretical assumptions.
There is a widespread tendency to see communication as exchange or
transmission of ideas. Generally, the assumption is implicit. In
non-technical contexts it has an established and often unquestioned place,
at least in Western culture. In linguistics and other communication
sciences the view of communication as exchange is also used, but there is
also widespread dissatisfaction with this view.
The roots of the assumption can be traced back through Saussure and Locke,
stopping (perhaps for convenience) at Plato. In the light of the narrowness
of this assumption, and the flood of reactions against it, one wonders how
it could have become so dominant. In this regard it has been genuinely
helpful to consider the history of the assumptions. They are shaped not
only by the technical issues, such as compatibility of assumptions or the
derivation of one set of assumptions from another, but also by social and
political factors, such as the conditions that led to the names of nations
becoming names of languages.
Another aspect of this dominant view is that technical views of
communication using language overwhelmingly focus on the middle regions of
interactions, where the “meaning” and the “message” are. Examples include
the part of a letter that occurs after the greeting and before the
salutation, the part of a dialogue that occurs after the mutual greetings
and before the leave taking, or even the part of an email message found
after the subject line and before the signature block. In a letter “Dear
John: I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. Love, Alice,” focus is on “I
The assumptions that are most often used are commonly called “The Code
Model”. In my initial inquiry, I identified The Code Model as follows:
“Communication is exchange of ideas, and those ideas can be represented as
propositions. Further, exchange of an idea from one person to another takes
place by encoding the proposition(s) in language, transmitting that encoded
linguistic product to another person, and that person decoding the given
language and thus recovering (a copy of) the proposition(s).”
In this paper we are focusing on the idea exchange part and the possible
role of propositions, rather than the role of any code in enabling exchange.
Many approaches to language would say that any sort of decoding is in
general insufficient for interpreting or coming to understand an interval of
language use that a person has received. Instead, inference of various
sorts, including use of context, is seen as a necessary part of this
We should notice that addition of inference does not change the character of
the expected result, although it may greatly expand the quantity and import
of it. (Inference proceeds from propositions to propositions.) Rather,
inference seems simply to change the means by which the result is found.
Thus the posited nature of communication, exchange of ideas as represented
by propositions, is unchanged.
Along with the focus on middle regions and on the role of propositions,
there is a third aspect. This is a focus on language that is declarative or
generally expository, along with a focus on how to determine what uses of
language are warranted to be called true or false. In various approaches
there is also recognition of propositional attitudes, which are stances
taken by the language producers toward propositions.
Not mentioned directly by those who responded to me, but clearly an open
issue, is the use of any non-propositional construct that promises to do
things comparable to the suggested roles of propositions. Use of prototypes
rather than mathematical set theory is a starting point for one group of
such approaches. Conceptually distinct, there are approaches to
representation that make extensive use of the word “image.” I don’t know whe
ther the nature of communication has been identified explicitly in this
There is another fundamentally different conception coming into more
prominence. It involves shared conceptions, in contrast to exchange. It is
easiest to explain using an example of dialogue. Suppose someone (A), who
is engaged in dialogue with (B), attempts to communicate something (X) to B.
They do so by bringing X from the status of being known by A into the status
of being mutually known by both A and B. The activity of doing so is a
joint activity, including not only the expression of X but also questions,
clarifications, expressions of confirmation of understanding and more.
Creating mutual knowledge is sometimes called grounding. There are
(controversially) distinctive logical operations involved, such as a rule
that that if (X is expressed by A, and B does not indicate any difficulty),
then (X is grounded), i.e. mutually known by A and B. The participants
each maintain an estimate of what is grounded relative to the other
participants, and conversation typically operates in a way that makes these
In approaches with this sort of grounding, communication is creation of
mutual knowledge, and what is communicated is simply what becomes grounded.
There is much more to the subject than I am mentioning.
Another orientation to communication is based on speech acts. Speech act
theory and various similar approaches expand the conception of the
elementary units of communication so that communication is based on acts
rather than propositions. Searle, for example, has said “The unit of
linguistic communication is not ... the symbol, word or sentence, but
rather the production ... of the symbol, word or sentence in the
performance of a speech act.” ((Searle 1969), p. 16, quoted in (Clark
1996), p. 137.) Searle’s view has been amended and revised in many ways,
but the distinctive notion that the fundamental units of communication
consist of acts has generally been retained. One kind of amendment, for
dialogue, is to replace the speech act by an act that has two active
participants, a “dialogue act.”
Treatment of acts as fundamental may lead to a very different understanding
of the nature of communication than those cited earlier. This orientation
can be reconciled to either a mutual knowledge view or an exchange of ideas
view. For example, (Clark 1996) uses both mutual knowledge and speech acts
as basic. It is also possible to blend all three, using formal,
propositional, truth-valued notations to deal simultaneously with grounding
and speech acts. A surprisingly powerful scheme of this sort was presented
in (Kamp 1999).
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this search is that it did not
encounter, except implicitly, the notion of that which is communicated. In
common understanding, after a dialogue is concluded or after a text has been
read, the persons involved are affected. The use of language has
communicated something. We can readily produce summary statements about
what particular things have been communicated (i.e. that John will sell me
his car for $3000 or that Gore advocates a selective tax cut.) Promises,
beliefs, doubts, accusations or other effects are commonly recognized as
representing, in summary form, results of interaction. Yet there seems to
be little reflection in the literature of this notion, nor of how
participants have been affected, nor of the connection between the words
used and the effect produced. Surely this recognition is not really absent
in the literature, but my expectation that I would find discussions of it
All of this study suggests to me that there might be a substantial gain from
being explicit about these assumptions in our theories. Explicitly
identifying such assumptions would help to clarify how they differ from the
naive conceptions commonly used. It would also facilitate improvement of
the sets of assumptions we use. Making assumptions explicit would
illuminate in a new way how various frameworks differ, and it would
strengthen the study of how communication happens.
After working through responders’ suggestions and others that came up in the
process, I was nearly ready to accept that the state of the literature is as
described above. But I was then led to a much broader view, in which
definitions of communication are abundant. R. T. Craig’s paper,
Communication Theory as a Field (Craig 1999), encompasses a much broader
range of approaches, which Craig presents in distinct groups. These groups
of approaches (in Kuhn’s terms again) are incommensurable. They function in
isolation from each other. Craig characterizes various approaches under six
collective terms: rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological,
sociopsychological, sociocultural and critical. He cites (Littlejohn 1992)
as giving a schematic overview. (He also includes a seventh term
“cybernetic,” but that group, under his identification, does not deal
substantively with the human source.)
Craig does not treat linguistics as one of the collections of approaches.
The collection which is most similar to linguistics is called semiotics.
However, semiotics is unrepresentative of linguistics today. He notes (p.
125) that most of these groups tend to define themselves partly by reaction
and contrast with the dialectical opposite, the Code Model (which he calls
the “transmission model”).
In gathering these groups, Craig cites the literature richly. For example,
he notes that (Dance 1970) analyzes ninety five definitions of communication
from the 1950s and 1960s, and that (Anderson 1996) reviewed seven textbooks
of communication theory and found 249 distinct theories mentioned, most only
once. So, in this view, definitions of communication are abundant. Of
course, it is unlikely that many of these definitions would be applicable as
part of any sort of linguistic framework.
Many attempts at various sorts of reconciliation between theories or groups
have been made, with discouraging results. Eclectic approaches (of building
a theory by selecting parts from various sets) have also generally failed.
Craig suggests (p. 135) that the various theoretical groupings are
incommensurable because there are conflicts between their epistemologies. A
finding in one cannot be seen as a finding in another.
So in Craig’s view, as seems quite credible, definitions of communication
are abundant outside of the linguistic neighborhood. I commend his works to
your attention; my representation of his paper has necessarily been
Since this is an email topic summary, perhaps some personal reactions may be
Imagine a situation in which the object of study is chess games rather than
language, in which the rules are not provided but must be identified by
study of game transcripts, and the study addresses not only the rules but
why particular sorts of moves tend to be chosen. The rules might be fairly
easy to discover, but the reasons for choices of moves, and the constraints
on choices, might not.
Then imagine the effect of replacing the notion “Here is where they stopped”
with clear notions of “Checkmate” and “This player wins” and “Each player
wants to win.” These are stronger notions of the outcomes of chess games,
and of the basis on which players select moves. Making such information
available would revolutionize the study.
There are analogies from this fictional exercise to the present. Study of
language use is frequently without clear and satisfactory notions either of
the outcomes or the status of language use as communication. The
disciplines that are labeled as “linguistics” are collectively perhaps the
only ones of the “communication sciences” that have the wide array of
conceptual power tools necessary to take on creation of a detailed
scientific account of human communication. If linguistics does not produce
a strong and credible account, perhaps no other discipline will.
The references given by those who responded to my message were (in author
Clark, H. H. (1999). On the origins of conversation. Verbum, 21,
Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Harris, Roy (1980) The Language Makers. Cornell University Press, Ithaca,
(Unavailable:) Harris, Roy, ed. -- a new book series 'Communication and
Linguistic Theory" , including the first book, also by Harris, entitled "The
Language Myth in Western Culture", forthcoming in 2001 from Curzon Press.
http://psyling.psy.cmu.edu/Brian/papers/index.html (a paper by Brian
MacWhinney on shared mental spaces (in contrast to exchanged things.)
Reddy, Michael J. (1979). The Conduit Metaphor: A case of frame conflict
in our language about language In A. Ortony (eds,). Metaphor and Thought,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 41.
Yokoyama, Olga, The Transactional Discourse Model in Discourse and Word
Order, Benjamins, 1987.
Anderson, J. A. (1996). Communication Theory: epistemological
foundations. New York: Guilford Press.
Craig, Robert T. (1999). Communication Theory as a Field. Communication
Theory 9(2): 119-161.
Dance, F. E. X. (1970). The "concept" of communication. Journal of
Communication 20: 201-210.
Harris, Roy, (1996), Signs, Language and Communication, Routledge, New York.
Kamp, Hans, (1999) oral presentation on advances in truth-valued
representation of dialogues, Amstelogue: Workshop on the Semantics and
Pragmatics of Dialogue, Amsterdam.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Littlejohn, S. W. (1992). Theories of Human Communication. Belmont, CA:
Searle, John R. (1969). Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Searle, John R., (1992), Conversation Reconsidered, in (On) Searle on
Conversation, Searle, John R., ed., Pragmatics and Beyond, New Series: vol.
21, John Benjamins.
William C. Mann
SIL in USA
6739 Cross Creek Estates Road
Lancaster, SC 29720
bill_mann at sil.org G o e
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