Distributed Language: An overview with plenty of further reading


Distributed Language

The term ‘language’ applies to a heterogeneous bundle of events, activities and material artefacts. To take a distributed perspective is to focus on how people do things (often, together) as they create and construe what are perceived as linguistic signs. In other words, language contrasts with an artificial code. Far from depending on systematic knowledge, language is based in know-how. We link cognitive dynamics whose origins span many different time-scales. By sensitising to both actional and verbal aspects of language we learn to orchestrate our bodies while constrained by cultural and biomechanical structures with very different spatial and temporal origins.

Emphasis on the embodied dynamics of language challenges the post-Saussurian focus on linguistic form and/or function. Leaving behind speculation about how forms might be represented (or processed) by a single mind/brain, we turn to (public) language-activity. In learning to talk infants discover verbal patterns as a result of acting, engaging with others, and participating in local practices. This interaction incorporates both talk and other aspects of language that constitute a multi-scalar or meshwork organization. Language – and brains –are dialogical, implicated in behaviour (gossip, song, religious rituals, science, using information technology etc.), and also products of a history of human expression. Language origins draw on human capacities for developing vocal and other skills which, as Merlin Donald argues, include mimetic abilities.


Our own prehistory included a conference in Durban on ‘Distributed cognition and integrational linguistics’ in March 2003. In an Editorial to the Special Issue of Language Sciences that resulted from this, David Spurrett set up a choice between examining language and communication as an integrational process or pursuing a naturalized view of language. Taking the latter track, the DLG was born in 2005 at a conference at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. People from Durban (Ross, Love, Cowley, Wheeler and Menary) linked up with others seeking to naturalise language by rejecting ‘code views’ (Hodges, Linell, Cangelosi, Carr, Kravchenko, Thibault). This put us on a road where, while in line with integrational critique of linguistics, the DLG also draws on ecological psychology, Maturanian bio-cognitive linguistics and dialogical traditions.

Since 2004, the perspective has become increasingly influential. It has given rise to many conferences, symposia and workshops. What follows is a brief guide to publications generated by the group.


Special Issues

As of writing (Jan 2012), we have produced 8 Special Issues. While these vary in the emphasis given to the distributed perspective, they are listed below.

Symbol Grounding, 2007 Interaction Studies, (Ed. Tony Belpaeme, Stephen Cowley and Karl MacDorman)
Cognitive dynamics in language, 2007, Language Sciences, (Ed. Stephen Cowley).
Language and Robots, 2008, Connection Science, (Edited by Luís Seabra Lopes, Tony Belpaeme & Stephen Cowley
Distributed Language, 2009, Pragmatics & Cognition (Ed. Stephen Cowley)
Thinking in Action, AI & Society, 2010 (Eds. Stephen Cowley & Fred Vallee-Tourangeau)
Distributed, Dynamical, and Dialogical: New Coordinations for Language, 2010 Ecological Psychology (Eds. Bert Hodges & Carol Fowler)
Distributed, Ecological, and Dynamical Approaches to Languaging and Language, 2011 Ecological Psychology (Eds. Carol Fowler & Bert Hodges).
Language as Social Coordination: An Evolutionary Perspective, 2012 Interaction Studies (Eds. Joanna Raczaszek-Leonardi & Stephen Cowley)



We have produced three books:

  1. Distributed language, 2011 (Ed. Stephen Cowley)
  2. Symbol grounding, 2010 (Ed. Tony Belpaeme, Stephen Cowley and Karl MacDorman) Amsterdam: Benjamins (a revised version of the Interaction Studies special issue).
  3. Signifying bodies: biosemiosis, interaction and health, 2010 (Ed. Stephen Cowley; Joao Carlos Major; Sune Steffensen, and Alfredo Dinis). Braga: Portuguese Catholic University Press.


Key Papers

The following paper spells out why we are against code views of language:

This offers a perspective on what it is to see language as a distributed meshwork:

  • Thibault, P.J. (2011). First order languaging dynamics and second-order language: the distributed language view. Ecological Psychology. 23:1-36 pdf iconFirst order languaging dynamics

The following papers present the state of the art: