TWU/CanIL Linguistics Colloquium: What is Language? Seven Critical Distinctions (November 10)

Tuesday, November 10, 2020
11:00-11:50 AM (PST)

The most basic concepts in a field of inquiry are often the most difficult to define. In spite of their importance researchers and practitioners tend to put them on hold. But these questions won't go away; so it is good to continuously revisit them to refine our understanding. Finding better answers to such questions is important for developing a given field in terms of theory, methodology, and praxis. In folk belief, just as much as in linguistics and the other cognitive sciences, there is widespread confusion and disagreement on the basic nature of language due to unexamined assumptions and ideological biases. Two of the most common mistakes are the mere conflation of language with social performance (e.g., speech/sign + social function = behaviorism) or mental algorithms (e.g., rules + recursion = rationalism); this results in impoverished and misguided questions and answers about language ontology, origins, and linguistic abilities. To shed light on these problems, I identify five further critical distinctions (seven total) related to the concept of language. These distinctions are based on insights from theories of linguistics and semiotics. Insights from Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles S. Peirce, biosemiotics, and cognitive semiotics, in particular are combined to suggest that language is a meaning-oriented capacity for unlimited modeling of possible worlds by creative analogy. Although this capacity is grounded in biological communication processes and 5E cognition (enactive, extended, embedded, ecological, and embodied), it breaks from biological communication processes by also being based on a pre-linguistic reflexive awakening to signs as signs. Nonetheless, this capacity can only be realized and studied in actual, culturally situated varieties. These varieties and their many sub-variations can be justifiably conceived of as both complex systems and as constant systematizations.  


Jamin Pelkey is Associate Professor of Languages, Literatures & Cultures at Ryerson University, Toronto, where he also serves as a core faculty member of the Ryerson-York joint graduate program in Communication & Culture and as director of the Ryerson University Meaning Lab. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from La Trobe University, Melbourne (2009), and his research is focused on semiotic inquiry into the nature of language and meaning through mixed-methods explorations using anthropological, historical, and cognitive linguistics. His early specialization in the Ngwi varieties (Tibeto-Burman) of China led to the identification of more than two dozen previously unidentified languages. Dr. Pelkey's first two books define the Phula varieties of China and Vietnam. His third book, Semiotics of X (Bloomsbury, 2017), develops ongoing inquiry into language evolution and embodied cognition. He has edited and co-edited ten collections and is currently editing Bloomsbury Semiotics: a major reference work in four volumes. In addition to other service roles, he is Managing Associate Editor of the American Journal of Semiotics and an executive member of the International Cognitive Linguistics Association, the Semiotic Society of America, and the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics. Dr. Pelkey's recent awards include the Mouton d’Or Award for best article in Semiotica (2017) and the Ryerson University Early Research Career Excellence Award (2018).

Zoom link:

For questions about this colloquium, contact Bruce Wiebe (CanIL Research Officer) at

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