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Meaning & communication. Magdalena Sztencel.

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meaning communication

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)

it looks like a mess
It looks like a mess

People do not always say what they mean

  • It’s hot in here.

Sometimes people mean the opposite of what they say

  • It was nice of you to look after my cat so well.

Even when people mean what they say, it’s not so simple

  • I study language and literature

‘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.


Sirens, of course.’

From Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit

the problem
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?

plan for today
Plan for today

Positing the distinction between SEMANTICS and PRAGMATICS as a way of solving this problem

semantics t he common core of meaning
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
  • 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

I’m tired.

    • uttered by a waiter after 2 hours of work at a restaurant
    • uttered by a coalminer after a night shift at a pit
    • uttered by a student after 2 hours of reading the 1st year syntax textbook
    • 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

Linguistic semantics deals with vague(i.e. not specific, abstract, schematic, underdetermined) concepts

      • 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

Linguistic semantics (LS) & successful communication

  • LS is shared across contexts (i.e. it is context-invariant)
  • 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

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
h p grice
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?
the co operative principle
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
the maxims
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
conversational implicature
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
maxim of relation
Maxim of Relation
  • 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’
  • A: Where’s your purse?

B: My purse is in the hall.

maxim of quantity
Maxim of Quantity
  • 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)
observing and flouting
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
  • A: Let’s get the kids something

B: OK, but I veto I-C-E C-R-E-A-M-S

  • This room is a pigsty.
  • The fridge is empty.
  • 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
some applications of studies in semantics and pragmatics
SOME APPLICATIONSof studies in semantics and pragmatics
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Cognitive science
  • Critical studies (social sciences)
  • Education studies
  • Forensic linguistics
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Clinical linguistics

Smith & Tsimply (1995)

  • 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’

Smith & Tsimply (1995)

  • 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

Smith & Tsimply (1995)

Although Christopher can cope with standardized (familiar?) metaphors:

  • 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’


‘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:
  • Mary: ‘I have to work all night tonight’

John: ‘Would you like some coffee?’

Mary: ‘Coffee would keep me awake’

(Implicature: ‘Yes’)

list of references
List of references

Aitchison, J. 1994. Words in the Mind: an Introduction to the Mental Lexicon. 2ndedn. 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. 2ndedn. 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.