Additional Notes for Background Reading

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Meaning & communication
Magdalena Sztencel
Meaning is the “holy grail” not only of
linguistics, but also of philosophy,
psychology and neuroscience–not to
mention more distant domains such as
cultural and literary theory. Understanding
how we mean and how we think is a vital
issue for our intuitive sense of ourselves
as human beings.
Jackendoff (2000)
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It looks like a mess
People do not always say what they mean
1. It’s hot in here.
Sometimes people mean the opposite of what they say
2. It was nice of you to look after my cat so well.
Even when people mean what they say, it’s not so simple
3. I study language and literature
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‘The name of those fabulous animals (pagan, I regret
to say) who used to sing on the water, has quite
escaped me.’
Mr George Chuzzlewit suggested ‘Swans’.
‘No,’ said Mr Pecksniff, ‘Not swans. Very like swans,
too. Thank you.’
The nephew … propounded ‘Oysters’.
‘No,’ said Mr Pecksniff … ‘nor oysters. But by no
means unlike oysters; a very excellent idea, thank you
my dear sir, very much.
Wait!
Sirens, of course.’
From Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit
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The problem
▪ If sometimes people mean what they say
▪ But if what people say is sometimes different from
what they mean
▪ Indeed, if sometimes people mean the opposite of
what they say
▪ And if the word-associations are an individualistic
matter
How do we ever communicate successfully?
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Plan for today
Positing the distinction between
SEMANTICS and PRAGMATICS
as a way of solving this problem
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SEMANTICS:
the ‘common core’ of meaning
▪ One way to approach the issue of meaning and
successful communication is to postulate a distinction
between SEMANTICS and PRAGMATICS
▪ On this view, the SEMANTICS of a linguistic
expression (word, phrase or sentence) is the meaning
an expression has regardless of the context of its use
– it is context-independent
 LINGUISTIC SEMANTICS
▪ PRAGMATICS deals with context-dependent, i.e.
variable, aspects of meaning; it is concerned with the
use of linguistic expressions by particular speakers in
particular contexts
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4. I’m tired.
a. uttered by a waiter after 2 hours of work at a restaurant
b. uttered by a coalminer after a night shift at a pit
c. uttered by a student after 2 hours of reading the 1st
year syntax textbook
d. uttered by a party-goer on a Saturday morning after an
all-night fun at the Quayside
▪ Linguistic semantics is insensitive to all the contextual
subtleties in a-d
▪ Linguistic semantics of ‘tired’ =
what the kinds of tiredness in a-d have in common
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▪ Linguistic semantics deals with vague (i.e. not specific,
abstract, schematic, underdetermined) concepts
a.
b.
c.
d.
e.
f.
Tired
Student
Cat
Good
A good dog
I have a good dog
▪ It’s linguistic vagueness (underdeterminacy) all the way
up from the word level, through the phrase level, to the
sentence level
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Linguistic semantics (LS) & successful
communication
1. LS is shared across contexts (i.e. it is context-invariant)
2. LS is (widely) shared among speakers of the same
language
▪ From 1, it follows that words have LS as a (relatively)
stable, invariant, ‘reliable’ property; i.e. words encode
linguistic semantics
 LS vs. encyclopaedic (world) knowledge
▪ From 1 and 2, it follows that linguistic semantics can be
accessed by default (always, invariably) in language
interpretation; i.e. it can be decoded
▪ Level of meaning which is the same in all contexts and
vague enough to be (at least widely) shared among
speakers
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MEANING
(IN COMMUNICATION)
LINGUISTIC SEMANTICS/
SPEAKER/UTTERANCE
MEANING
MEANING
I am tired
waiter, coalminer, student,
party-goer
It’s hot in here
open the window, you’re
wasting electricity, my toes
will defrost
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SEMANTICS
• deals with contextindependent aspects of
meaning
PRAGMATICS
• deals with contextdependent aspects of
meaning
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SEMANTICS
PRAGMATICS
• deals with contextindependent aspects of
meaning
• deals with contextdependent aspects of
meaning
• meaning of linguistic
expressions
• speaker/utterance meaning
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SEMANTICS
PRAGMATICS
• deals with contextindependent aspects of
meaning
• deals with contextdependent aspects of
meaning
• meaning of linguistic
expressions
• speaker/utterance meaning
• deals with meaning which is
en-/decoded
• deals with meaning which is
inferred on the basis of what
is encoded and the context
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SEMANTICS
PRAGMATICS
• deals with contextindependent aspects of
meaning
• deals with contextdependent aspects of
meaning
• meaning of linguistic
expressions
• speaker/utterance meaning
• deals with meaning which is
en-/decoded
• deals with meaning which is
inferred on the basis of what
is encoded and the context
• linguistic (contribution made by
• not strictly linguistic (everything
linguistic expressions)
else, apart from language, that
contributes to what is communicated)
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▪ With LS in place, we can now begin to
explain why it is possible to communicate
successfully
▪ The en-/decoded LS constrains the
pragmatic search for speaker-intended
meaning (i.e. tired ≠ happy ≠ safe ≠ curious)
▪ But then, even with LS constraining the
set of plausible inferences, aren’t we
entitled to infer (almost) anything we
want?
▪ Think about ‘It’s hot in here’ again
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H.P. Grice
▪ The first person to make a
systematic distinction between
semantics and pragmatics
▪ The goal of PRAGMATICS is to
explain and systematise
utterance/speaker meaning
▪ Does pragmatic inference follow
any set of rules?
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The Co-operative Principle
▪ Grice’s goal was to explain how a hearer gets
from the encoded linguistic meaning to intended
speaker meaning
▪ He argued that in addition to an understanding of
linguistic expressions, communication involves a
Co-operative Principle (CP)
▪ The idea is that in conversational interaction
speakers and hearers work on the assumption
that a certain set of rules is in operation, unless
they receive indications to the contrary
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The Maxims
QUALITY: Try to make your contribution one that is true
QUANTITY: Give as much information as is required
RELATION: Make your contributions relevant
MANNER: Be perspicuous (avoid ambiguity, avoid
obscurity, be brief, be orderly)
▪ Grice’s point is that (wherever possible) people will
interpret what we say as conforming to the maxims
▪ The assumption that the speaker is abiding by the
maxims in uttering a sentence gives rise to a
Conversational Implicature
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Conversational Implicature
▪ Conversational Implicatures are inferences which
it is reasonable to draw based on what is
semantically encoded and specific assumptions
about the co-operative nature of verbal interaction
(i.e. CP)
▪ Conversational Implicatures are not part of the
linguistic meaning of the expressions uttered –
they are implied – or rather IMPLICATED –
without being actually said
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Maxim of Relation
6. A: Can I borrow £5?
B: My purse is in the hall.
(Implicature: Yes)
▪ How does A know that B is implicating ‘Yes’?
▪ Semantically, B’s response doesn’t constitute an
answer to B’s question – B didn’t say ‘Yes’
7. A: Where’s your purse?
B: My purse is in the hall.
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Maxim of Quantity
8. A: Did you do the reading for this week’s seminar?
B: I intended to.
(Implicature: No)
▪ B’s answer would be true if B intended to do the reading and in
fact did. Semantically, ‘intend’ is vague with respect to ‘intend X &
do X’ and ‘intend X & not do X’
▪ But if B did the reading, why didn’t he simply say ‘Yes’? (This
would violate Quantity)
▪ Assuming that B is co-operative, A infers that B is not in position
to say anything more specific than ‘intend’ – i.e. that B makes his
contribution as informative as he can (Quantity) in consistence
with Quality (A assumes that B didn’t say ‘yes’ because that
would be a lie)
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Observing and flouting
Grice distinguished cases in which speakers are
implicating something by:
▪ observing Maxims (6 and 8)
▪ flouting Maxims – i.e. overtly breaking them for some
linguistic effect
9.
A: Let’s get the kids something
B: OK, but I veto I-C-E C-R-E-A-M-S
10. This room is a pigsty.
11. The fridge is empty.
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Summary
▪ En/decoded linguistic semantics
constrains the set of possible
inferences
▪ The set of possible inferences is
further constrained by the maxims of
Co-operative Principle
▪ Further developments in semantics
and pragmatics since Grice – e.g.
Relevance Theory
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SOME APPLICATIONS
of studies in semantics and pragmatics
▪ Philosophy of Mind
▪ Cognitive science
▪ Critical studies (social sciences)
▪ Education studies
▪ Forensic linguistics
▪ Artificial Intelligence
▪ Clinical linguistics
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Smith & Tsimply (1995)
12. Susan: ‘I read today in the newspaper that
someone killed a three-year-old child. I couldn’t
believe it. Who would kill a child?’
Maria: ‘I read it too. It’s incredible’
▪ When asked what he thought would be a suitable
response to the question in 12, Christopher
replied ‘A murderer’
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Smith & Tsimply (1995)
13. You’re a fine friend.
▪ When confronted with examples like 13, where
the context makes only the ironic interpretation
possible, Christopher simply rejects them as
unacceptable
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Smith & Tsimply (1995)
Although Christopher can cope with standardized
(familiar?) metaphors:
14. Why is Jesus called the Good Shepherd?
Christopher: He herded people.
He is baffled when asked to explain the meaning of
more creative metaphors like ‘No man is an island’
or ‘Standing on the shoulders of giant’
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‘In sum, it appears that Christopher's (linguistic) semantics
is intact and that here as elsewhere his abnormal
responses are attributable to the fact that his interpretation
process stops at a stage prior to enrichment to a full
propositional form.’ (Smith & Tsimply 1995)
▪ However, Smith & Tsimply (1995) observe that not all
pragmatic enrichment is beyond the range of
Christopher’s abilities. He performs normally on some
pragmatic tasks:
15. Mary: ‘I have to work all night tonight’
John: ‘Would you like some coffee?’
Mary: ‘Coffee would keep me awake’
(Implicature: ‘Yes’)
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List of references
Aitchison, J. 1994. Words in the Mind: an Introduction to the Mental
Lexicon. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
Bloom, R. et al. 1999. Psychometric aspects of verbal pragmatic ratings.
Brain and Language 86: 553-65.
Chapman, S. 2005. Paul Grice: Philosopher and Linguist. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan.
Grice, H.P. 1989. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass:
Harvard University Press.
Murphy, M.L. 2010. Lexical Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
Saed, J.I. 2003. Semantics. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
Smith, N. and I-M. Tsimpli. 1995. The Mind of a Savant: Language
Learning and Modularity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Thomas, J. 1995. Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics.
London: Longman.
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