Interactional Foundations of Language


Linguistic science seeks to discover the foundations of language. When we look at language in its primary niche—sustained social interaction—we find two surprises for mainstream linguistics. First, the structure of language has an entire hidden dimension, one that is not taught or understood in linguistics; this includes the structures essential to conversation such as those for turn-taking, repair, and recipiency. Second, what language teaches us about uniquely human cognition has little to do with any narrow faculty for processing information, and a lot to do with human sociality, a suite of elite human capacities for cooperation, prosociality and naïve psychology. It is these things that constitute a social-interactional infrastructure for language to emerge, evolve, be learnt and be used. The workshop explores the following themes:

  • What are the crucial ingredients for our special interactive ability—e.g. tracking common ground, attributing communicative intentions, assessing joint attention and mutual understanding, established a shared pace of interchange, integrating multimodal signals, handling social relationships, etc.?
  • What are the online requirements of the interactive systems, for e.g. prediction and correction, deciding on what kind of a speech act is to be responded to within tight timing constraints, etc.?
  • How do these interactive systems interlock with the language system, indeed to what extent are the two kinds of system distinct? How are languages tailored to their interactive uses?
  • Growing cross-linguistic and cross-cultural evidence suggests the interactive systems are strongly universal, while the language systems—which nevertheless serve interactional goals—show considerable typological diversity. How are the demands of these two types of system reconciled?

*Note: This is an open workshop: all LSA participants are warmly welcome!


Program for the workshop can be downloaded here


  • Nick Enfield, nick DOT enfield AT mpi DOT nl
  • Stephen C. Levinson Steven DOT Levinson AT mpi DOT nl