A sketch of pragmatics I
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 theory, explicatures, real-time interpretation, and implicatures on this page, and scalar inferences on page II. Literature is given at the bottom of page II.
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, remember or infer, 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 functions 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, unrelated 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 2327 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 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 what 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 normally 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
- referent assignment:
- Which Susan does this sentence refer to? This depends on context: for the sentence to be relevant to you, it is most likely has to be 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. In a different context, as when (5) is preceded by ‘Lucy didn’t like the food at the banquet’, you could reach a different inference.
- 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:
- 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 at the contest, given the above context.
So, after the presumption of optimal relevance, the second piece of information you get out of my utterance 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 referent assignment, disambiguation and enrichment, 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 tell you to …’, and ‘It is ridiculous to say that …’, respectively.
All inferences that rely on context are defeasible: they can be ‘defeated’ (cancelled) by explicit information or context 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 for my taste.
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 Thursday’ on a Wednesday or Thursday must refer to the next relevant Thursday, which usually is the following one.
We can (arguably) distinguish two kinds of enrichment:
- the completion of a semantically incomplete utterance to a proposition, as with the possessive ‘her kiwis’ and the degree indicator ‘too sour’ in the above example, as well as ‘sour enough’ (for whom?), the comparative ‘more sour’ (than what?), the superlative ‘the most sour’ (of what?), etc.,
- and the further expansion of an utterance that has been completed to, or already is, a proposition. In other words, an expansion turns a weaker proposition into a stronger (more specific) one, as in the following examples.
This flag is yellow. ↣ This 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).
Note the effect of different background information: I broke a finger. ↣ I broke one of my fingers. I found a finger. ↣ I found someone else’s finger.
Here are two kinds of explicature from 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.
Some further examples show that the literal meaning of an utterance can be quite uninformative, with only enrichment turning it into a useful piece of communication: ‘Repairing the ship will take time’ (how much?), ‘Dinner will get cold’ (how soon?), ‘I have had breakfast’ (how long ago?), etc. 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; and so on.
There are also cases where a stronger proposition is ‘enriched’ to a weaker one: France is a hexagon. ↣ France is approximately a hexagon.
And here is a defeated enrichment: The Lemizh flag is yellow. It contains a green ellipse with an egret.
The described process of explicature 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. A demonstrative pronoun usually refers to something that cannot be targeted by a relative pronoun, because the latter are unambiguous and thus easier to parse.
We can broadly distinguish five types of enrichment. Of course the ‘strong’ phrasings can also be expressed explicitly if necessary, with the exception of type N.
O. Enrichment with objects
- weak (literal): a word with no or some objects
- strong (enriched): the same word with one or more additional objects (including negated objects, as in ‘a finger, not mine’)
Filling in omitted pronouns is a typical case of O-enrichment. Another example is the ‘and’ construction, which literally says that the mentioned referents, among others, constitute the object in question, but suggests that there are no other relevant referents.
M. Enrichment with a compound modifier
- weak (literal): an uncompounded word
- strong (enriched): a compound from a bracket, such as a weighted adjective, having above word as the head
N. Noninstantiability enrichment
- weak (literal): a word that has to be used with an outer partitive because it has no instantiable action, such as a tool noun
- strong (enriched): not literally expressible for want of an instantiable action
R. Enrichment by rephrasing
- weak (literal): a broadly interpretable phrase, such as a genitive construction with a benefactive case
- strong (enriched): a more specific phrase, such as certain brackets for expressing genitives
S. Semantic enrichment
- weak (literal): a verb in the semantic tree
- strong (enriched): any of its sub-category verbs, or a negation thereof (strictly speaking, a bracket/coordination with the negation of a sub-category verb)
The verb dnà. ‘walk’ is understood as ‘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’ is normally understood as ‘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. Either can be suggested by context or made explicit by using more specific verbs such as <z>à. ‘turn into a z shape’ versus skràp. ‘split, turn into parts’.
Metalinguistic negations of the kind ‘He doesn’t like her, he loves her’, where ‘love’ is a sub-category verb of ‘like’, become ‘He likes her and even (tmÌ.) loves her’ in Lemizh.
How many types of enrichment?
Formally, M-enrichment is a kind of O-enrichment with a bracket that is subsequently turned into a compound (after bracket inversion). S-enrichment with a sub-category verb is equivalent to O-enrichment with this verb, which is then absorbed by its predicate. Furthermore, N-enrichment can be described as S-enrichment with a concept for which there is no word in the Lemizh lexicon, such as ‘sail’ and other tool nouns. So R-enrichment of genitive constructions seems to be the only type that cannot be naturally subsumed under O-enrichment.
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 yourself 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 indirect object. 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 how O-enrichment works.
While there is no universally valid order of cases, 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 you do not succeed in enriching the explicatures of an utterance such as (5) to the point where they meet your expectations of optimal relevance, you will activate more background knowledge that might be useful, such as: ⇷ Susan is ambitious. If she loses at something, she’s pretty downcast. From (8) and (17) together you conclude ⇸ Susan surely is downcast right now. and, with further background knowledge, ⇸ Susan needs to be cheered up. ⇸ I want you to ring Susan and cheer her up. If I intended you to activate (17) 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 (18–20) for the same reason, they are called implicated conclusions of this utterance, which we will symbolise with ⇸. Together these are the utterance’s implicatures.
The distinction between explicatures and implicatures is not always clear-cut. Possible criteria are that implicatures are supposed to be linguistically and/or logically independent of explicatures, that negation of a sentence negates the explicatures but loses the implicatures, and that embedding the sentence in an ‘if’-clause preserves the explicatures but not the implicatures. None of these criteria is foolproof, however.
There is a smooth transition to further ‘implicatures’ 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. We say such conclusions are only weakly implicated by (5), as I, the speaker, 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 humorous or cynical attitude towards her abilities.
Implicatures rely on context and are therefore 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 (23): But I’m not being cynical. which only adds to the cynicism.
The following classical example further illustrates the context sensitivity of implicatures. 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 (30). This is enough for (32) to actually be an implicature of (30). Powerful metaphors (‘She is my anchor in the storm’) have many weak implicatures, something we cannot achieve when speaking literally.
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’.
Certain other figures of speech work similarly, for example 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 nonverbal communication of feelings, intentions and wishes developed well before verbal communication, so that the mental apparatus for inferring information from relatively weak evidence was already available, and a completely (or just largely) explicit way of verbal communication would have been redundant.
Lemizh vs. English
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 understood as ‘and therefore’ is translated as a consecutive subordinating clause.
- ‘not as wise as’ is translated as ‘less wise’ (see positive comparisons, last sentence)
A sketch of pragmatics II