Vagueness in size of linguistic communities

Warning – this might be somewhat half-baked.

I got to wondering about the vagueness of the term ‘our linguistic community’ and its consequences for epistemicism. On a natural Williamson-style view, the exact meaning of a term is determined by the global pattern of use of that term amongst our linguistic community. But what about the term ‘our linguistic community’? Presumably this term itself is vague – there can be borderline cases of entities which may or may not be people, or may or may not be speaking Old English as opposed to modern English, and it can be unclear whether they are part of our linguistic community. But how is an epistemicist to cash out the vagueness in the size of our own linguistic community?

If the meaning of the term ‘our linguistic community’ has its meaning fixed in the same sort of way as other terms, then it seems like what we’re saying is that the meaning of the term ‘our linguistic community’ gets fixed by its global pattern of use among our linguistic community. Is there a threat of circularity here?

Consider various precise linguistic communities which are candidates to be the referent of the term ‘our linguistic community’ as in fact used by us. For consistency, on the assumption that community A is the best candidate, the meaning of ‘our linguistic community’ must be determined by the use of that term by community A. If this is true of all candidate linguistic communities, everything is hunky-dory for Williamson. But can we be sure that things will always work out this nicely? If there is an argument that they will, I’d love to see it.

Could there be, for example, a linguistic community P whose use of the term  ‘our linguistic community’ is such that in their mouths it always refers to some distinct linguistic community Q? In this case, the reference of P’s terms is fixed by the global usage of community P, even though no term actually used by any of the members of P in fact refers to P. There is still no inconsistency: we can simply think of this setup as involving a linguistic community who have no term within their own language for their own linguistic community, and hence no way of delineating the supervenience base for the meaning of their own terms. Of course, members of community P can refer to the supervenience base for their terms descriptively: ‘the supervenience base for the meanings of our terms’. But they may have no other way of referring to that supervenience base: in which case it would be true for a member of P to assert ‘the meaning of our terms is not fixed by the global pattern of their use amongst our linguistic community’.

The question that interests me is – how do we know that we’re not in the situation of community P? If a community like P is a close possibility, then we can’t know that we’re not in that situation – in which case we can’t know that Williamson’s view about how meanings are determined by global use is correct. But perhaps it can be argued that P is not a close possibility, or even a possibility at all.

But even if communities like P are not possibilities, or not close possibilities, we don’t seem to be out of the woods yet. Another way to worry about the potential circularity is to worry whether there might be various (overlapping) candidate linguistic communities within the actual world all of which include you, all of which are consistent in the sense that members of them refer to their own community by the term ‘our linguistic community’. Since the communities are different sizes, they have different global patterns of use, so the meanings they determine for other terms may systematically differ; we only require that each community self-refer by the term ‘our linguistic community’.

Now: what could possibly determine which of these various candidate linguistic communities is in fact our own? Presumably it would be the degree of knowledge each community has about non-linguistic matters. A speculation; perhaps this knowledge is maximized by selecting the largest possible linguistic community which still has the required consistency property of correctly referring to itself by the term ‘our linguistic community’.

Vagueness in size of linguistic communities