A sketch of pragmatics
The fact is that human … languages do not encode the kind of information that humans are interested in communicating.
What is clear from context?
Lemizh provides far-reaching possibilities not to express irrelevant information. We need not inflect words for person, number, or tense, there are no complements (required objects), and we can even omit certain case endings by compounding. This begs the question: what can really be omitted; what is ‘clear from context’? The linguistic field studying context is pragmatics.
A significant portion of pragmatics seems to be universal or near-universal. So, our method will be to give sketches of the most important pragmatic concepts, mostly followed by remarks on its implications for the Lemizh language.
Currently covered topics are relevance, explicatures, the time factor in understanding, and implicatures. Literature is given at the bottom of the page.
Among the existing pragmatic frameworks, Sperber’s and Wilson’s relevance theory seems to be best suited for our purpose. It attempts to explain the wide range of pragmatic phenomena with a minimum of rules, making it attractive from a Lemizh viewpoint.
Let’s start with the definition of relevance, in the sense that relevance theory uses the word (Some clarifications will follow immediately):
An utterance – or any other observed phenomenon – is relevant to an individual to the extent that its positive cognitive effects on the individual are large and the mental processing effort to achieve these effects is small.
Cognitive effects are effects on an individual’s ‘mental world’ or cognitive environment, i.e. the set of facts that are probably true from the individual’s viewpoint (everything the individual can perceive, infer or remember, including facts that he is not currently aware of). Typically, there are more cognitive effects if the utterance contains new information that is somehow related to the addressee’s current cognitive environment, so that he can draw conclusions from the combined old and new data. A cognitive effect can also be an increase or decrease of the confidence in existing beliefs. Positive cognitive effects are cognitive effects that are helpful rather than hindering for the individual (e.g. providing true information as opposed to wrong information). More technically: they contribute positively to the fulfilment of the individual’s cognitive funtions and goals.
Relevance is a comparative property: the more positive cognitive effects and the less processing effort, the more relevant the utterance.
Here are some examples to illustrate the concept of relevance. If we’re planning to go on a trip next weekend and I tell you Next weekend the weather will be really awful. this is highly relevant to you, as you can draw a host of conclusions, such as: I want us to rethink our plans and want to inform you of this wish; you agree – or you don’t agree and just want to bring oilskins; I want to know your opinion on that matter; etc. By contrast, saying The weather was really awful on 19 October 1974 in Cumbria. gives you just one piece of new information and is thus hardly relevant; and The weather is really awful right now. doesn’t tell you anything new, as you can see for yourself. Finally, the sentence On the weekend 2304 weeks after 19 October 1974 the weather will be really awful. contains exactly the same information as (1) but requires more effort to process, and is thus less relevant under our definition.
The principle of relevance
Now the (communicative) principle of relevance says that every utterance conveys the information that it is
- relevant enough for it to be worth the addressee’s effort to process it. (If the utterance contained too few positive cognitive effects for the addressee in relation to the processing effort needed to achieve these effects, he wouldn’t bother processing it, and the communicator needn’t have taken the trouble to utter it.)
- the most relevant one compatible with the communicator’s abilities and preferences. (Otherwise the communicator would have chosen a more relevant utterance – e.g. one that needs less processing effort and/or achieves more positive cognitive effects on part of the addressee – to convey her meaning. After all, she wants to be understood as easily and reliably as possible.)
We say that every utterance conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance. If I tell you something – anything –, you are entitled to expect that I wanted my utterance to be consistent with the principle of relevance. Consequently, if I tell you something that does not seem to be worth your processing effort, such as sentences (2) or (3) above, or something that seems to be less relevant than I could have put it, such as (4), you will automatically search for alternative or additional interpretations. The most easily accessible interpretation that is consistent with the principle of relevance is the one you accept as the right one (because any further interpretations would cost you more processing effort and would thus violate condition b). Your conclusion for utterance (4) might be that I want to test your math skills, or (more likely in these circumstances) that I want to illustrate a point about relevance theory.
The constraint that utterances are compatible with the communicator’s abilities and preferences accounts for suboptimal communication, such as when the communicator is unable to think of a better phrasing at the moment, as well as for stylistic and cultural preferences (e.g. politeness considerations), withholding information and lying.
The cognitive principle of relevance says that human cognition tends to be geared to the maximisation of relevance, but we don’t really need it for our purposes.
We will now look at how the principle of relevance guides us in finding out which information the communicator wanted to convey.
When I utter a sentence, say Susan told me that her kiwis were too sour. you first decode it, but this only gives you incomplete information and does not even yield a full proposition (something that is unambiguously either true or false). Your job in interpreting it is far more complex: you need to infer a lot of additional material. The inference process is basically a search for the most relevant interpretation. It makes use of contextual information such as preceding communication, your environment and your real-world knowledge, and involves
- assignment of referents:
- Which Susan does this sentence refer to? This depends on the context: for the sentence to be relevant to you, it is most likely a Susan we both know.
- Whom does the pronoun ‘her’ refer to? In the absence of other females that might be relevant in the context, this can only be Susan.
- disambiguation of words:
- What does ‘kiwis’ mean here? Possible interpretations involving sour fruit are far more accessible than ones involving sour birds; and even if the sentence were about birds it would not provide enough context to satisfy condition a. So you assume I’m talking about kiwifruit.
- enrichment of words and grammatical structures that are semantically incomplete:
- Does the possessive ‘her kiwis’ refer to kiwis she ate, kiwis she bought (and ate together with her siblings), kiwis she grew herself, …? Again, you need contextual information to decide. I could provide this information by continuing (5) with ‘So she didn’t win the fruit grower’s contest’.
- The kiwis are too sour for whom? For the judges, given the above information.
Assignment of referents notably includes deixis. Deixis refers to words, phrases and grammatical constructions whose meaning depends on the circumstances of the utterance, such as speaker, addressee, time, place, and accompanying gestures such as pointing. Examples are demonstrative pronouns, first and second person pronouns, tense, ‘here/there, now/then, yesterday/today/tomorrow, come/leave, Mum/Dad’, etc. Deictic words often take precedence over non-deictic ones, as they are easier to parse: the present day is always referred to as ‘today’ and the next as ‘tomorrow’, sparing the addressee the effort to access the current date. As a consequence, saying ‘See you Wednesday’ on a Tuesday or Wednesday must refer to a later Wednesday, usually the following one.
Enrichment incudes a wide variety of words and structures: ‘enough’ (for whom?), comparative (more sour than what?) and superlative (the most sour of what?), ‘Repairing the ship will take time’ (how much?), ‘Dinner will get cold’ (how soon?), ‘I have had breakfast’ (how long ago?), … As always, the answers to these questions are guided by the search for relevance: the time it takes to repair something is only worth mentioning if it takes more time than the addressee might expect; having had breakfast is only worth mentioning if I’m still full; etc. More on enrichment will follow below.
So the next piece of information you get out of my utterance (after the presumption of optimal relevance) is ↣ I have said that Susan Pevensie told me that the kiwifruit she, Susan, grew were too sour for the judges at the fruit grower’s contest. If you believe in my honesty, you might also conclude that ↣ I believe that Susan Pevensie told me that the kiwifruit she grew were too sour for the judges. Further, if you trust my judgement, you arrive at ↣ Susan Pevensie told me that the kiwifruit she grew were too sour for the judges.
Such conclusions, which are developed from the utterance by various completions and supplementations, are called explicatures; we will symbolise them with ↣. Note that a proposition like (8), which we could call the ‘literal meaning’ of the utterance, is not necessarily an explicature. It isn’t if you believe in my dishonesty or mistrust my judgement, but also for metaphors and other figures of speech, on which more below, and for irony.
The primary explicatures of interrogatives, imperatives and ironic statements, i.e. their analogues of (6), are ‘I have asked whether …’, ‘I have told you to …’, and ‘It is ridiculous to say that …’, respectively, but we won’t go into that.
Inferences that aren’t logically compelling are defeasible: they can be ‘defeated’ (cancelled) by explicit information without sounding self-contradictory. Thus I could cancel most of your conclusions from (5) by continuing I’m not talking about Susan Pevensie but about Susan Sarandon. She made the birds Chinese style, sweet-sour, but used way too much lime juice.
The described process holds true for Lemizh as (probably) for all human languages. We have already touched upon the fact that the literal meaning isn’t necessarily an explicature when we talked about the reality of the parole in unit 9 of the tutorial.
Deixis is carried by demonstrative and relative pronouns (the latter only when pointing to the parole). The deictic function of tense, kinship terms, ‘come’, etc., also relies exclusively on pronouns, overtly or not. Referent assignment for relative pronouns is of course done purely by decoding.
Enrichment will keep playing an important role in the sections to come.
The time factor
The whole interpretation process runs simultaneously with hearing the sentence: when you hear the first constituent (‘Susan’), you immediately decode it and form hypotheses about the correct referent. You activate your knowledge about that referent, which may turn out to be useful background information for understanding the sentence. Then you ask a question about how the sentence might continue: in this case ‘What did Susan do?’. Equivalently, we can say that you form the hypothesis that the next constituent will be a verb.
On hearing the next constituent (‘told’), you check your hypotheses and, if necessary, correct them. Again, you activate knowledge (frames, assumption schemas) associated with what you know about the sentence up till now. You form a new question: ‘Whom did Susan tell something?’, equivalent to the hypothesis that the next constituent will be an object containing information about whom she told something. And so on. So each constituent can act as a background to later constituents by prompting the right questions and thus preparing the ground for them, and/or as a foreground that answers questions raised by previous ones, adding relevance to the sentence.
In Lemizh: word order and omitting objects
On hearing and decoding the main predicate of a sentence (say, dà. ‘give’), you immediately form questions about its objects. Given the Lemizh plot, the most prominent question often is ‘Who is the sender?’ (nom). If enough context is available, you form a hypothesis: for example, if we are talking about your birthday, the sender might be me. This hypothesis can be confirmed or disconfirmed if the next word is actually a nominative, or it can be tentatively accepted if some other object follows. The next likely question is ‘What is the content?’ (acc); this can only be guessed at if we know each other quite well. Next, ‘Who is the addressee?’ (dat) practically answers itself: it is you. Thus, missing objects in the sense of Rule Six of sentence grammar are tentatively assigned meaning. This is one type of enrichment in Lemizh.
There is no universally valid order of cases, but questions for plot cases are typically followed by questions for causal, temporal and spatial cases, in that order; agent-centered cases follow action-centered cases; and qualitative cases follow their corresponding primary cases. A word with an unclear referent can prompt a question for a bracket, i.e. for its inner case. A predicate with an agentive accent of course triggers the question ‘Who is the agent?’, which overrides all others.
A different order of cases normally makes the sentence more costly to process, as some questions are only answered at a later point, and tentatively accepted hypotheses might be disconfirmed late in the sentence. The additional effort can be offset by other effects (see Rule Two of sentence grammar):
- Placing an object with a deep structure of sub-objects in final position results in a sentence structure that is easier to parse.
- Objects that aid in assigning the right referents, in applying the right disambiguations and enrichments, and in activating the right background knowledge should be placed early on.
- So should objects that prompt the right questions about other objects and prepare the ground for them.
- Objects and words belonging together semantically (such as coordinations) should normally be placed together.
- An inverse order of plot cases (dat–acc–nom) focuses on the receptive viewpoint.
As hinted in unit 5, brackets have an advantage over coordinations: their predicate’s accent indicates that a lower-level word, i.e. a characterisation of their predicate, is about to follow. By contrast, the first word of a coordination indicates that another object of the coordination’s common predicate will follow, and only after hearing the second word can the addressee recognise the construction as a coordination.
Now we can put our appeal to ‘clarity from context’ more precisely: if the communicator judges that the relevance principle will lead the addressee to the correct hypothesis about an object, based on what the communicator knows about the addressee’s cognitive environment, this object should be omitted. If mentioning this object does not produce any additional positive cognitive effects for the addresse, it must be omitted to reduce the addressee’s effort. Conversely, including such an object will prompt the addresse to search for additional cognitive effects the communicator might have intended.
Typical hypotheses for persons include the speaker, the addressee, and other people that are present physically or in the conversation. Likely hypotheses for things also are those that are present physically or in the conversation, including ones associated with activated background knowledge – such as birthday presents in the context of birthdays.
If the explicatures of an utterance such as (5) do not meet your expectations of optimal relevance, you will activate background knowledge that might be useful: ⇷ Susan is ambitious. If she loses at something, she’s pretty downcast. From (8) and (10) together you conclude ⇸ Susan surely is downcast right now. and, with additional background knowledge, ⇸ Susan needs to be cheered up. ⇸ I want you to ring Susan up and cheer her up. If I intended you to activate (10) in order to give optimal relevance to (5), it is called an implicated premise of (5) and symbolised with ⇷. If I intended you to infer (11–13) for the same reason, they are called implicated conclusions of this utterance, which we will symbolise with ⇸. Together these are the utterance’s implicatures. However, there is a smooth transition to further conclusions that might or might not have been intended by me: ?⇸ You should buy Susan some chocolate to cheer her up. ??⇸ You should introduce Susan to the Snark to cheer her up. These are only weakly implicated by (5), and I can hardly can be held responsible for their truth.
Another example: if I have been to the opera and tell you Miss Singer produced a series of sounds corresponding closely to the score of an aria from The Hunting of the Snark. this costs you more effort to process than if I had just said Miss Singer sang an aria from The Hunting of the Snark. Presuming that I used the most relevant phrasing, you conclude that I intended additional positive cognitive effects to offset the effort, such as that Miss Singer’s performance was so bad it couldn’t really be described as singing, and that I wanted to express a humouros or cynical attitude towards her abilities.
Implicatures are defeasible without self-contradiction: But don’t ring her up. She wants to be alone right now. provided this doesn’t ruin the relevance of the utterance. Contrast this continuation of (16): But I’m not being cynical. which only adds to the cynicism.
The following classical example shows that implicatures are sensitive to context. Planning their vaccation in France, Peter and Susan discuss visiting their old acquaintance Amélie.
Peter: Where does Amélie live?
Susan: Somewhere in the north of France. If it is clear that Susan wants to visit Amélie, this implicates ⇸ Susan doesn’t know where exactly Amélie lives. On the other hand, if Susan clearly knows her address, it implicates ⇸ Susan doesn’t want to say where exactly Amélie lives. ⇸ Susan doesn’t want to visit Amélie.
Metaphors and other figures of speech
Take the metaphorical utterance The witch exploded. As mentioned above, there are no explicatures beyond ↣ The speaker said that the witch had exploded. as the speaker obviously does not believe in the literal truth of the utterance. However, if it were literally true, it would implicate something like ⇸ The witch produced a sudden outburst of unpleasant noise. which would establish the relevance of (23). This is enough for (25) to actually be an implicature of (23).
By the way, even sentences that are literally true can implicate metaphorical meanings, as when a chess player tells his opponent ‘Your defence is an impregnable castle’.
Other figures of speech seem to work similarly, for example loose talk (‘France is a hexagon.’), hyperbole (‘You are the best of beavers!’), and metonymy, although the latter isn’t well covered in the literature.
We now see that the ‘literal meaning’ of an utterance can be quite irrelevant or even false and the utterance still meaningful by the explicatures and implicatures it yields. The utterance is just a piece of evidence from which, together with contextual information, the intended meaning has to be inferred.
But why does language work that way; why doesn’t it just consist of logical propositions, as was traditionally thought? The probable explanation is that using as much contextual information and inferences as possible saves us a lot of effort in communication.
Enrichments / scalar implicatures
We will now turn to the large group of situations where a weaker statement is understood as a stronger (more specific) one. This includes the type of explicatures we have described as enrichments, but also the type of implicatures called ‘scalar’: The witch turned many Narnians into statues. While this is logically compatible with The witch turned all Narnians into statues. it usually implicates ⇸ The witch didn’t turn all Narnians into statues. This implicature arises because, had the witch actually turned all Narnians into statues, (27) would have been the more relevant utterance, as the addressee could have drawn additional conclusions from the complete absence of unharmed Narnians. Therefore, (26) wouldn’t meet condition b of the relevance principle.
Depending on the circumstances, the implicature could also be ⇸ I don’t know whether the witch turned all Narnians into statues.
Here are some further examples. We will not try to answer the tricky question which of these are scalar implicatures and which are enrichments, if indeed there is a sharp dividing line.
The witch turned some Narnians into statues. ⇸ The witch didn’t turn many Narnians into statues.
The Lemizh flag is yellow. → The flag is completely yellow. because, if the flag were only partially yellow, this sentence wouldn’t contain enough information for the addressee to picture the flag and would therefore violate condition a (as well as b).
He bought her flowers. → He didn’t buy her artichoke flowers. because that would be a pretty unusual choice and thus probably relevent for the addressee. On the other hand, (32) only implicates that he didn’t buy her roses if this information would increase the utterance’s relevance (e.g. because buying roses implies proposing to her). Alternatively, if he is well known for giving roses, it will implicate that he did buy her this kind of flower.
Here are two grammatical examples where the weaker statement implicates the negated stronger because the latter would be more relevant if true. In both cases, we can draw a further conclusion from what is said and what is implicated taken together.
We’ll be needing a Snark or a Boojum. → We won’t be needing both. ⇒ We’ll be needing either a Snark or a Boojum. If I find the password I’ll be able to read Jacopo’s texts. → If I don’t find the password I won’t be able to read Jacopo’s texts. ⇒ If and only if I find the password I’ll be able to read Jacopo’s texts.
And now for the conjunction ‘and’: The bellman served out some grog and bade them sit down. → The bellman served out some grog and then bade them sit down. The bellman told them about Boojums, and the baker fainted away. → The bellman told them about Boojums, and therefore the baker fainted away.
Conclusions of this kind are generally defeasible. The Lemizh flag is yellow. It contains a green ellipse with an egret. We’ll be needing a Snark or a Boojum, and if possible both. Did the witch turn many Narnians into statues? — Yes, even all of them. He bought her flowers. Guess what weird kind it was!
Numerals and other non-entailing scales
In contrast to the previous scales, where the stronger statements entail (logically require) the weaker ones, stand non-entailing scales, the prototype of which is the scale of natural numbers. Others are ‘calm / breeze / gale / storm / hurricane’ and, in the context of getting actors’ autographs, ‘Emma Croft / Bob Peck / Richard Harris / Julia Ormond’. Compare the following examples to the entailing scale in (39): Has Smilla got four chairs? — No, she’s even got six. Did you get Bob Peck’s autograph? — No, I even got Julia Ormond’s.
There are however some complications. You may borrow four books. → You may borrow fewer than four books. because you may or may not borrow each of the four books.
You must read four books. → You may read additional books, i.e. more than four.
because from ‘You must do A (= read four books)’ can’t possibly follow ‘You mustn’t do B (= read some more books)’. Analogously,
Peter: I need four more chairs for my party.
Susan: Smilla has got four chairs. → Smilla may have got additional chairs, i.e. more than four. but Peter: How many chairs has Smilla got?
Susan: Smilla has got four chairs. → Smilla has got exactly four chairs. because Peter’s question implies the exact number would be relevant to him.
We can broadly distinguish five types of scales, four entailing and one non-entailing. The ‘strong’ phrasings below are pragmatically inferred meanings of the ‘weak’ phrasings; but of course they can also be expressed literally if necessary (with the exception of type N).
O. Object scales
- weak: a word with no or some objects
- strong: the same word with one or more additional objects (including negated objects)
We have already discussed this type of enrichment in the section on word order and omitting objects. Typical applications include omitted pronouns and un-weighted adjectives. Another example is the ‘and’ construction, which literally says that the mentioned referents, among others, constitute the object in question, but implicates that there are no other (relevant) referents.
N. Noninstantiability scales
- weak: a word that has to be used with an outer partitive because it has no instantiable action, such as a tool noun
- strong: not literally expressible for want of an instantiable action
R. Rephrasing scales
- weak: a broadly interpretable phrase, such as a genitive construction with a benefactive case, an inclusive ‘or’ construction, or a conditional clause expressing an implication
- strong: a more specific phrase, such as certain brackets for expressing genitives, an exclusive ‘or’ construction, or a conditional clause expressing equivalence
S. Semantic scales
- weak: a verb in the semantic tree
- strong: any of its sub-category verbs, or a negation thereof (strictly speaking, a bracket/coordination with the negation of a sub-category verb, as in ‘a flower, not an artichoke flower’)
This is the Lemizh equivalent of the artichoke flowers / roses example in (32). The verb dnà. ‘walk’ implicates ‘at walking pace’ unless speed is irrelevant and we are merely talking about the mode of movement (because otherwise the speaker would use nenà. ‘run’) and ‘with an aim’ unless aimedness is irrelevant (otherwise the speaker would use fràw. ‘amble, stroll’). Likewise, ràt. ‘drive, steer’ can implicate ‘without mounting up’ (because otherwise the speaker could use xàc. ‘ride’).
Verbs of force such as làjg. ‘bend; break’ have a ‘deforming’ and a ‘destroying’ meaning. Again, one of these can be implicated, or expressed explicitly by using more specific verbs such as ‘turn into a z shape’ versus ‘split, turn into parts’. A demonstrative pronoun usually implicates that the referent cannot be targeted by a relative pronoun, because the latter are unambiguous and thus easier to parse.
Metalinguistic negations of the kind ‘He doesn’t like her, he loves her’, where ‘love’ entails ‘like’, become ‘He likes her and even (tmÌ.) loves her’ in Lemizh.
Sn. Semantic non-entailing scales
This type includes definite and, in contrast to English, weighting numerals. So, (39) becomes ‘Did the witch turn many (dmÌ.) Narnians into statues? No, all of them.’ — contrast this with the indefinite numeral in ‘Did the witch turn several (mlÌ.) Narnians into statues? Yes, even all of them.’ And ‘many, perhaps all Narnians’ becomes naRniÌ dmynÌn jnÌnyn. ‘many or all Narnians’.
In Lemizh, we have to use pragmatic inference more often than in English, because its grammar provides far more possibilities for omitting information. But Lemizh also uses literal expressions in many situations where English relies on pragmatics, such as:
- Lemizh relative pronouns are unambiguous.
- ‘and’ when implicating ‘and therefore’ (36) is translated as a consecutive subordinating clause.
- ‘not as wise as’ is translated as ‘less wise’ (see positive comparisons, last sentence)
- Stephen Curtis Levinson (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press.
- Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (1986, 1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition (2nd edition). Wiley-Blackwell.
- Barbara Hall Partee (2009). Course materials on Formal Semantics and Formal Pragmatics.
- on implicatures
- Herbert Paul Grice (1975, 1991). Logic and Conversation in: Syntax and Semantics, 3: Speech Acts. Academic Press. Reprinted in Studies in the Way of Words. Harvard University Press.
- Robyn Anne Carston (1998). Informativeness, Relevance and Scalar Implicature in: Relevance Theory: Applications and Implications. John Benjamins.
- on metaphors
- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980, 2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.