UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Primacy of linguistic units Aklujkar, Vidyullekha


Philosophers of language engaged in an analysis of the notions of meaning, synonymy and the like regard different linguistic units as basic units of language, and they believe that their views contradict each other. Thus, for example, Russell and Ziff regard words as the primary meaningful units of language, Alston and Searle hold speech acts to be the fundamental units of linguistic behavior and Frege and Quine believe that sentence is the basic meaningful unit of language. In this thesis I examine different theories of linguistic primacy, discuss different relevant senses of primacy and try to find a viable criterion of linguistic primacy that is important in philosophical discussions. I point out that philosophers treat the question of primacy of linguistic units either learning-theoretically as Russell does, or meaning-theoretically as Alston does; and that sometimes, as in Quine's work, these two approaches coincide. The criterion of linguistic primacy important in philosophical discussions is shown to be a 'functional' criterion, namely, the essential function of the so-called primary unit of language in the analysis of meaningfulness and/ or synonymy of other linguistic units. After discussing each primacy theory individually, I show, negatively, why neither words, nor speech acts nor propositions can be regarded as the basic units of language in any of the senses proposed, and positively, why sentences can be so regarded. With regard to words it is argued that they are not learning-theoretically basic to language because the first learned units of an individual's language are not words but sentences. Meaning-theoretically words are shown to have meaning always and only in sentential context. With regard to speech acts, I point out that they cannot be meaning-theoretically basic, i.e., cannot be helpful in analyzing the notions of sentence-meaning or sentence-synonymy, because, the full description of a speech act necessarily includes a specification of the meaning of the sentence uttered in the speech act. In refuting Searle's version of the speech act primacy theory I discuss the notions of speech and language and point out that language is not exhausted in speech, that language encompasses boith speech and thought, and that speaking a language has a facility aspect as well as an activity aspect. I argue that the common element shared by the speech acts and by the propositional attitudes is the meaningful sentence, and that therefore, sentence rather than speech act can be regarded as basic to both the domains of speech and thought, i.e., to language. Propositions are shown to be dependent on meaningful sentences for their own individuation, and therefore are ruled out as unnecessary in the theory of language. An attempt to regard propositions basic to language by believing that they are 'objects' of both illocutionary acts (the domain of speech) and the propositional attitudes (the domain of thought) is argued to be misguided by showing that it hinges on a wrong analogy of the cloth and the clothed or the carried and the carrier. Finally, on the strength of the above considerations I conclude that sentences are learning-theoretically primary since they are the first learned units of an individual's language, and that they are also meaning-theoretically primary in that they supply foundations to the meaningfulness of other linguistic units.

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