Managing the task of understanding language – sentences – combinations of words we have never heard before, is an enormous computational task, if we were to program a computer to decipher natural language. Much of what we understand of the spoken word comes from context. In fact, it is often true, that when people misspeak, use the wrong word or say something that would ordinarily be unintelligible, the partner in conversation understands the meaning with complete clarity. How is this so? Nonverbal cues are part of it (right M?), but so is context.

I know what you are going to say

Alva Noë states, “…[A] good part of what enables me to understand what you say is that I already know what you are going to say before you say it!” [1] Statements like this drive me crazy. I find that many people who say this to me are not listening, but rather projecting themselves onto me, ignoring what I am actually saying and overlaying their own mindset onto me. If Noë had said, “Based on my knowledge of you, the setting, the situation and the context, I can predict with high reliability what you will say,” I would acknowledge that possibility.

Listen first

Listening to what a person actually says does not always foster good communication either. It annoys some people quite a bit, for example, if I take what they say literally, even though it may clear they meant something other than what they said. I think, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” which strive to do myself.

On the other hand, I quite enjoy wordplay. Double meanings and puns delight me. Frequently, those who know me are spot on when they suspect I am telling a ‘shaggy dog story’. But I suppose this is a style of social interaction instead of an intentional conveyance of my state of mind.

My brother

I am sure that my tendency to speak and listen without relying on context derives from the fact that two-way communication with my older brother is virtually impossible. Mike (my older brother) is autistic, low functioning and nonverbal. He has all the vocal equipment to speak, and he vocalizes without a problem. He just doesn’t use language. Does this mean he doesn’t have the capability of composing a thought? If he does, his thoughts might be visual or aural, but there is no way for him to communicate them to others. He doesn’t seem to have that desire, at least no external indications of such a desire. The question of the relationship between language and thought is very complex, which I would like to address in other posts.

I think part of my reluctance to accept context, and insist that people tell me precisely what they mean ultimately arose from my style of interaction with Mike: intently listening for clues about whether he is trying to tell me something. There is no context for me to understand Mike and his state of mind, if he has one, other than what he displays when he has physical needs, i.e., food, bathroom, et cetera. I kept hoping to discover an underlying theme, in my interactions with him. It so happens that I’ve had more success in connecting the dots of my photographs of him and constructing an after-the-fact narrative of his moods than I have had in real time. So much for Mike and context.

Brother Mike with his slinky

[1] Noë, A. Out of Our Heads New York: Hill & Wang 2009

6 thoughts on “Context

  1. The relationship between language and thought is a rich topic – I look forward to your posts on that in the future. I think Labov is great on this…

  2. Currently studying snippets of Labov as part of my sociolinguistics course. The non-verbal cues form the context incidentally, all those things that add to your understanding of the verbal, everything from direct environment to inferred sociocultural influences. Although of course as you know I believe there are other facets of non-verbal communication at play that help to give a fuller picture of the person you are interacting with.

    You’d be surprised at how much of your state of mind you convey through the narratives that you tell, even if it is unspoken. The inferences are there by how you choose your words and metaphors. I’m hoping to write a piece about it and post it. Communication as narrative makes total sense when you really begin to examine it. This is what Labov discovered, except that his approach is more of a guideline than a statement of how we actually communicate. I firmly believe though that there are patterns inherent in our neurology that manifest as linguistic tendencies. What seems to be a pervasive theme in academic circles with regard to the study of language, and something I keep coming back to myself is that communication is not really about conveying information per se, but rather it is a tool for expressing creativity and in that way inspiring new ideas free from the rigours of definitive life. It’s a very convincing argument I find, and very much worth posting about.

    • Hi M,
      In light of the book I just read Out of Our Heads, by Alva Noe, I am in the mode of thinking of things as interactive – a give and take, or collaboration between the environment and the person. So I agree. Communication is not only a narrative, it depends on the reception. A stand up comic who had a bad night can probably tell you that s/he wasn’t getting the right ‘vibe’ from the audience.

      Do you have any readings that you would recommend on linguistics?

      Warm regards,


      • I shall see what I can find and recommend to you. But any books by David Crystal, Labov, Guy Cook are very insightful. David Crystal has written extensively on the subject and has I think a very readable style. There are a number of factors involved in any narrative and it is a very precise interplay between individual and environment/context. It’s fascinating the conclusions you can arrive at when you really begin to examine linguistic patterns and understand what the motivations seems to be based on extensive years of study. It throws the notion of any kind of truth or fact out of the window, particularly as the conveyance of such is predominantly through linguistic means.

        Warm Regards

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