Order-Based Salience Patterns in Language: What They Are and Why They Matter

Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)
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Whenever we communicate, we inevitably have to say one thing before another. This means introducing particularly subtle patterns of salience into our language. In this paper, I introduce ‘order-based salience patterns’, referring to the ordering of syntactic contents where that ordering, pretheoretically, does not appear to be of consequence. For instance, if one is to describe a colourful scarf, it wouldn’t seem to matter if one were to say it is ‘orange and blue’ or ‘blue and orange’. Despite their apparent triviality, I argue that order-based salience patterns tend to make the content positioned first more salient – in the sense of attention-grabbing – in a way that can have surprising normative implications. Giving relative salience to gender differences over similarities, for instance, can result in the activation of cognitively accessible beliefs about gender differences. Where those beliefs are epistemically and/or ethically flawed, we can critique the salience pattern that led to them, providing an instrumental way of evaluating those patterns. I suggest that order-based salience patterns can also be evaluated on constitutive grounds; talking about gender differences before similarities might constitute a subtle form of bias. Finally, I reflect on how the apparent triviality of order-based salience patterns in language gives them an insidious strength.

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Ella Whiteley
University of Sheffield


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