The Linguistic Construction of Epistemological Difference
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How are beliefs about the nature of knowledge reflected and reproduced in language use? It is clear that some linguistic resources, e.g. the modal verbs may and must, indicate one’s epistemic stance with respect to a proposition, i.e. one’s judgement of how likely it is to be true. What is less clear is how the use of such resources relates to speakers’ beliefs about the nature of knowledge per se, i.e. their epistemic policies (Teller 2004). To investigate the putative relationship between epistemological variation and linguistic variation, I examine samples of written and spoken English from a community that is particularly epistemologically diverse: academia. I synthesize research on social epistemology, sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and Academic English (AE) to propose an explanatory model of variability in the expression of epistemic stance. Then, using AE as a case study, I evaluate the predictions of this model both quantitatively via corpus analysis of research articles and regression modelling of interview data, as well as qualitatively via analysis of discursive practices in terms of experience-organizing frames (Goffman 1974) and the semiotic notion of indexicality (e.g. Irvine 2001), whereby ideological differences produce, and are reproduced by, linguistic differences. This research makes contributions to a number of fields. It questions the analytic validity of disciplinarity, providing support for a unifying theory of variation in AE based instead on an epistemologically principled analysis of institutional language use. The indexical basis of sociolinguistic research on language and belief/identity is problematized by attending to epistemological context; the ramifications of this will be explored in future research. I develop a linguistic metric of epistemic belief, offering a means of developing a quantitative social epistemology to complement that field’s highly articulated theoretical work. Applications beyond academia are possible in areas concerned with knowledge management and transfer, such as public health.
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