Conceptual alternatives: Competition in language and beyond

Brian Buccola · Manuel Križ · Emmanuel Chemla

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Abstract. Things we can say, and the ways in which we can say them, compete with one another. And this has consequences: words we decide not to pronounce have critical effects on the messages we end up conveying. For instance, in saying Chris is a good teacher, we may convey that Chris is not an amazing teacher. How this happens is an unsolvable problem, unless a theory of alternatives indicates what counts, among all the things that have not been pronounced. It is sometimes assumed, explicitly or implicitly, that any word counts, as long as that word could have replaced one that was actually pronounced. We review arguments against this powerful idea. In doing so, we argue that the level of words is not the right level of analysis for alternatives. Instead, we capitalize on recent conceptual and associated methodological advances within the study of the so-called "language of thought" to reopen the problem from a new perspective. Specifically, we provide theoretical and experimental arguments that the relation between alternatives and words may be indirect, and that alternatives are not linguistic objects in the traditional sense. Rather, we propose that competition in language is better seen as primarily determined by general reasoning preferences, or thought preferences (preferences which may have forged the lexicons of modern languages in the first place, as argued elsewhere). We propose that such non-linguistic preferences can be measured and that these measures can be used to explain linguistic competition, non-linguistically, and more in depth.