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Pragmatics: Communication and Comprehension in Context

Dept. of English Hong Kong Institute of Education 17 July 2009 Robyn Carston Linguistics, UCL, London CSMN, University of Oslo

Utterance meaning and linguistic encoding: 1. Bob: Janes just completed her first year at university, hasnt she? How did she do? Sue: She didnt get enough units and cant continue.

What has Sue communicated? a. An answer to Bobs question (indirectly communicated, implicated): JANE DID NOT DO WELL AT UNIVERSITY. b. Directly asserted proposition: [JANE DID NOT PASS ENOUGH UNIVERSITY COURSE UNITS TO QUALIFY FOR ADMISSION TO SECOND YEAR STUDY]P & AS A RESULT OF P JANE CANNOT CONTINUE WITH

Compare (b) with what is linguistically encoded by the sentence that Sue uttered. 2. Ann: Big house! Pat: Four kids. P&Q=Q&P a. She left him and he became an alcoholic. b. He became an alcoholic and she left him. c. Pay and display! d. Display and pay! 4. [Standard notice in English car parks that require payment.] [More recent notice in English car parks]


dog shelter vs. bus shelter headache pills vs. fertility pills TV newsreader [discussing a new drink-driving law]: In future you will be breathalyzed after every accident. After the new law is passed (in the next few days) a person will be breathalyzed if he/she is the driver of a motor vehicle which has been involved in a road traffic accident in England that has been dealt with by the police.



Some famous legal examples: a. Let him have it, Chris i. LET THE POLICEMAN HAVE THE GUN, CHRIS. ii. SHOOT THE POLICEMAN, CHRIS. 1

b. US statute that sets out the extra penalty incurred for offences where a defendant in a drug trafficking crime uses a firearm, during and in relation to that crime. i. uses a firearm by firing it or threatening to fire it ii. uses a firearm in any way during the crime (e.g. as payment for drugs) 7. Kato (testifying at the trial of O.J. Simpson): He was upset but he wasnt upset. [P but not P contradiction] More 4 (TV channel): Making the unmissable unmissable [The F is F tautology, redundant] a. Roger Federer is the next Pete Sampras. (uttered at Wimbledon 2003) [Roger Federer is the next CHAMPION MALE TENNIS-PLAYER] b. Tim Henman was no Pete Sampras. c. Iraq is this generations Vietnam. [Iraq is this generations DISASTROUS MILITARY INTERVENTION.] d. Brown is the new black. (statement in a fashion magazine) [Brown is the new COLOUR IN FASHION FOR SPECIAL OCCASION WEAR.] Max to Bill [after a difficult departmental meeting in which Max tried hard to convince his colleagues while Bill said nothing]: Thanks for your support. Youre the kind of friend everyone hopes for.




General conclusion: The meaning linguistically encoded in an utterance underdetermines the meaning that the speaker/writer communicates (and the hearer/reader comprehends). This point applies not only to non-literal utterances (metaphorical, ironical) but also to perfectly literal utterances (examples (1)-(8) above) and it applies not only at the level of indirectly communicated meaning (implicatures) but also at the level of the meaning directly communicated by an utterance (explicatures). Pragmatic tasks: disambiguation, reference assignment, completion (so as to derive a complete thought), enrichment, adjustment of lexical meanings, speaker attitude recognition, implicature derivation

Questions (which a pragmatic theory aims to answer): A. How does the hearer/reader of these utterances arrive at the correct interpretation? [Context clearly plays an important role, but what is context exactly and how does the hearer/reader know which elements of the utterance situation and which, if any, of the assumptions he shares with the speaker have a bearing on the interpretation?] B. On what basis does the speaker/writer choose a particular linguistic expression in order to communicate the meaning/thoughts she has in mind? [Again, context clearly plays an important role, but how does the speaker know which aspects of the utterance situation and which bits of shared general knowledge the hearer will use in interpreting her utterance?]

Cognitively-based pragmatics The kind of answers we are looking for must take account of the cognitive resources speakers and hearers have, how much processing effort each of them is willing to expend, the way in which information is mentally stored (at any given moment, some is much more accessible than other), what motivates us to give attention to some phenomena and not to others, etc. Speakers choice of utterance. Evidence from some experiments on telling the time: (van der Henst et al. 2002) Based on the general phenomenon of rounding to the nearest multiple of five: e.g. asked What time is it? a person whose watch shows 7: 08 will quite often answer it is 7: 10. Experiment 1: Experimenter: Hello! Do you have the time, please? Two participant groups: (a) 52 people with analogue watches (rounding is easier) (b) 52 people with digital watches (rounding takes more effort) Results: (a) Analogue group: 97% rounded (b) Digital group: 57% rounded More than half of the speakers with digital watches were disposed to make an extra effort to round their answer (rather than just reading aloud the unrounded time showing on their watch), so they deliberately departed from accuracy (literal truthfulness). Why? Experiment 2: Experimenter: Hello! Do you have the time, please? I need to set my watch. All participants had analogue watches. Results: The percentage of rounding fell from 97% to 49%. Why? Explanation of these results: Speakers generally try to make their utterances relevant to their addressees/hearers. Relevance is more important than literal truthfulness. Speakers provide literally true answers only when they judge them to be relevant. Hearers assume speakers are being relevant rather than being literally truthful. But why might it be more relevant to give a (literally false) rounded-up answer than the literally true answer which the speaker can see on his digital watch (in experiment 1)? Because, in many contexts, there are no important consequences that hang on a two or three minute time difference and, crucially, the rounded time is easier for the hearer to process than the unrounded time (we find multiples of five easier to mentally manipulate than other numbers). Relevance, according to Relevance Theory (Sperber & Wilson) The relevance of an utterance depends on two factors: the cognitive implications it provides for the hearer and the cognitive effort required to derive these implications. The greater the number of implications and the smaller the effort required the greater the relevance. 3

How does this explain the different results in the two experiments? Many of the participants in the second experiment judged that it will be more relevant to the hearer to give him the exact time rather than the rounded-up time, that is, the potential effects or consequences for him of being given the precise time [making it possible for him to set his watch correctly, which will enable him to be on time for appointments, for catching trains/buses, etc] outweigh the extra effort for him to process the non-rounded figure. Experiment 3: Experimenter: Hello! Do you have the time please? I have an appointment at 3.30pm. Two participant groups (all with analogue watches): (a) 120 people asked relatively early (e.g. asked at 3:08pm) (b) 120 people asked later (e.g. asked at 3:28pm) Results: ?? What do you predict about the answers (rounded or not) ??

A little more Relevance Theory: Speakers aim at optimal relevance (that is, at producing utterances that have a satisfactory range of implications for the hearer and that do not put him to any unnecessary processing effort). [Why optimal rather than maximal relevance?] Reconsideration of some earlier examples: Sues utterance in (1) above: She didnt get enough units and cant continue Directly asserted proposition: [JANE DID NOT PASS ENOUGH UNIVERSITY COURSE UNITS TO QUALIFY FOR ADMISSION TO


Why didnt Sue encode more of this in her utterance? e.g. Jane didnt pass enough course units and so she cant continue at university She judged that her hearer (Bob)s pragmatic capacity could easily supply the unencoded bits of meaning (e.g. AS A RESULT, WITH UNIVERSITY STUDY) and adjust the lexical meanings (e.g. interpret get as PASS and units as UNIVERSITY COURSE UNITS), and that this would, in fact, require less processing effort from him than would presenting him with more linguistic expressions to decode. Katos utterance in (7) above: He was upset but he wasnt upset Implications of his utterance: O.J. was not as upset as the prosecution are claiming, O.J. was not so upset as to behave violently, O.J. was not in a murderous state of mind, O.J. did not kill his ex-wife, etc. .. Proposition directly expressed: O.J. WAS UPSET-1 BUT O.J. WAS NOT UPSET-2 [the concept UPSET-2 denotes a much more extreme state of upsetness than UPSET-1] 4

Communicative Principle of Relevance: Every utterance conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance. Hearers can, therefore, legitimately expect any utterance directed at them to meet this standard of relevance and, on this basis, process utterances in the following way: Comprehension Strategy: a. Follow a path of least effort in interpreting an utterance (resolving ambiguities and referential indeterminacies, adjusting lexical meaning, supplying contextual assumptions, deriving implicatures, etc.) b. Stop when your expectations of relevance are satisfied.

Some consequences of this approach to utterance understanding: 1. All the pragmatic tasks listed above (and the selection of contextual assumptions) are guided by this relevance-based comprehension strategy. 2. There are no special rules or codes involved in the process of working out what the speaker meant on the basis of her linguistically encoded meaning. This is an inferential process (a kind of guesswork based on the evidence provided by the linguistic meaning, the presumption of optimal relevance and accessible contextual assumptions). 3. This account accommodates the fact that miscommunication and misinterpretation happen (e.g. the wrong referent is assigned to a pronoun or a name, or an ironical utterance is taken literally, etc) and sometimes the correct (intended) interpretation cannot be established, as with example (6a) above. 4. The communicative principle of relevance is a universal principle. Whatever pragmatic differences there may be across cultures or social groups they interact with this general (probably innate) principle. 5. The presumption of optimal relevance applies only to utterances (and other acts of ostensive communication, e.g. pointing, gesturing). We do not and cannot expect each and every phenomenon in the world that we notice to be optimally relevant to us (e.g. looking out the window and seeing some people passing by on the street). Sperber & Wilson (2002) make a strong case for there being a special module in our minds which is dedicated to the processing of communicative stimuli (utterances, pointing, demonstrating, nods, winks and other communicative facial/bodily gestures).


New areas of study in cognitively-based pragmatics: 1. Childrens communicative and pragmatic development: pointing so as to direct attention, iconic communicative gestures and one-word utterances emerge at 11-13 months old (see Tomasello 2008). Its not yet clear at what stage children can produce and understand the full range of pragmatic phenomena (implicatures, metaphor, irony, etc.) 2. People with impaired pragmatic competence, e.g. autism, schizophrenia. (Double dissociations between linguistic competence and pragmatic competence). 5

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