23.11.2021 Michael Tomasello

Communication without Conventions


For obvious and very good reasons the study of human communication is dominated by the study of language. But from a psychological point of view, the basic structure of human communication – how it works pragmatically in terms of the intentions and inferences involved - is totally independent of language. The most important data here are acts of human communication that do not employ conventions. In situations in which language is for some reason not an option, people often produce spontaneous, non-conventionalized gestures, including most prominently pointing (deictic gestures) and pantomiming (iconic gestures). These gestures are universal among humans and unique to the species, and in human evolution they almost certainly preceded conventional communication, either signed or vocal. For prelinguistic infants to communicate effectively via pointing and pantomiming, they must already possess species-unique and very powerful skills and motivations for shared intentionality as pragmatic infrastructure. Conventional communication is then built on top of this infrastructure - or so I will argue.