2.6 Summary – The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy

Ruhl (1989) also relates stereotype to the concept prototype, arguing that the latter is a specific kind of stereotype. Thus, the prototype is the best examplar of a given category. The prototype is selected from the set of denotata an expression picks out, where the element that is selected is, in some way, seen as being superior to the others. This is not so for stereotypes which are taken to be typical denotata. So, to make use of Cruse’s (1990) example: arguably, the prototypical mushroom is well-formed, whereas the stereotypical mushroom is not. In relating prototypes to stereotypes, one should, however, remember that there is an important distinction to be made between the two concepts in terms of their general nature; whereas stereotypes are generally seen as sociolinguistic concepts (cf. Putnam’s view on the nature of meanings), prototype is applied in psycholinguistic approaches to the mental organisation of meaning. Thus, more needs to be said on how stereotypical meaning comes about and exactly how it can be defined.

Putting such questions to the side for the moment, however, from Ruhl’s point of view, then, prototypes as well as stereotypes are pragmatic, not semantic. An expression’s linguistic meaning, in contrast, is very abstract and probably does not involve any fullfledged reading at all. This view goes well together with the general criticism against prototype theory as being a theory of word meaning. Prototype theory assumes that concepts have an internal structure which consists of a set of properties that are typical for members of the category picked out by the concept. The objects one encounters in the world are categorised by recognising the similarities between them and the concept that underlies a particular category in terms of typical properties. However, assuming that complex expressions are composed from simple expressions, it is questionable whether the linguistic meanings of expressions are structured in the way prototype theory seems to predict. Consider, for example, the fact that the meaning of a complex expression is not necessarily the sum of the prototypical meanings of its constituent parts. Thus, Fodor (1998, p. 102) argues that the meaning of pet fish cannot be claimed to be the result of the combination of the prototype of pet and the prototype of fish. However, if word meanings were prototypically structured, we would expect the meaning of the complex expression to be a combination of the meanings of its parts and thus as having as its prototype a combination of the prototypes of its parts. But this is not necessarily the case. Thus, prototype theory as a theory of word meaning makes the wrong predictions. Therefore, it is neither stereotypes nor prototypes that form the linguistic meaning of expressions. The question then is, what status these types of meaning have: are they pragmatically derived or possibly stored as part of our encyclopaedic knowledge? I will take up this point below.

Turning back to the relation of (non-)literal meaning and context-(in-)dependence : there is the question of why it is that we generally assume of literal meaning that it is context-independent, whereas we usually think of non-literal meaning as being context-dependent. As already mentioned, our intuition that literal meaning is context-independent is misleading, because even literal meaning depends on some kind of context. However, the type of context minimally required for the interpretation of literal meaning is rather unusual in that it does not need to be any specific context, but rather something that Ruhl calls stereotypical and which we apply unconsciously in the interpretation of expressions seemingly produced ‘out of context’. In contrast, our ordinary understanding of non-literal meaning is such that this is a very special kind of meaning that deviates from some underlying basic meaning and has a secondary character. Best examples of this type of meaning are usually such that depend on a very specific context of utterance for their correct interpretation (e.g. cases of irony). However, as already indicated and as we will see in more detail below, just as it is a mistake to think of literal meaning as strictly context-independent, it is inaccurate not to allow for gradience of context-dependency in the case of non-literal meaning. That is, not all types of non-literal meaning depend on context for their interpretation, to the same extent. So, the reason for assuming that literal meaning generally is context-independent whereas non-literal meaning is generally context-dependent is an overgeneralisation, due to our inability to consciously recognise cases of non-literal meaning if they are not as clearly non-literal as e.g. cases of irony. On the other hand, there are examples of an expression having several possible readings within different sentences when those sentences are produced seemingly ‘out of context’.

  • (54)
    1. Peter opened his eyes.
    2. The girl opened the book.
    3. Jane opened the file.
    4. The boy opened the window.
  • (55)
    1. The shop assistant took the jewels.
    2. The thief took the jewels.
    3. He took the job.

As already said, it is questionable whether interpretation ‘out of any context’ ever actually occurs. Moreover, what is underestimated in such cases is the contribution made by the immediate sentential context to selecting a particular reading for an expression.

2.6 Summary

In this chapter, I argued against the standard notions of literal meaning and nonliteral meaning. More specifically, I argued against viewing literal meaning as essentially context-independent and non-literal meaning as always non-conventional. Subsequently, I discussed the consequences of these assumptions for the nature of lexical meaning by reviewing different approaches to meaning in the lexicon and the problems they face. More specifically, I argued for assuming underspecification of lexical meaning and a general distinction to be made between semantic and pragmatic processes. Empirical evidence supporting such a view was reviewed. Generally, I hope to have shown that the standard notions are not sufficiently precise enough to allow the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning to be used as basic concepts in definitions of semantic vs. pragmatic aspects of meaning. I will summarise the arguments below.

Thus, arguments were given against the view according to which sentence meaning is at the same time fully propositional, context-independent and thus literal. Rather, either one takes the defining characteristic of sentence meaning to be that it is context-independent, then it cannot (always) be fully propositional, or one takes the defining characteristic to be that of full propositionality, then sentence meaning cannot (always) be context-independent. Whichever alternative one chooses, the question then arises, what it is that we can apply the term literal meaning to: a sentence’s context-independent, subpropositional meaning or the proposition expressed by a sentence when uttered? There are a few arguments in favour of the latter characterisation, according to which literal meaning is not equivalent to context-independent meaning, but rather associated with utterances . The crucial argument is that what we intuitively take to be the literal meaning of some sentence, is actually determined with respect to the context in which that sentence gets uttered. This holds true even for sentences seemingly uttered ‘out-of-context’, where it is our background knowledge and assumptions about potential situations in which an utterance of the sentence at hand would be most appropriate that determine what we take to be that sentence’s literal meaning . Thus, actually, one should not speak of ‘a sentence’s literal meaning’ at all, as it is rather utterances that may be used literally or non-literally. Thus, literal meaning, it was argued, in fact is not context-independent, contrary to traditional assumptions.

A related issue is the question of what types of information we take the so-called context in which an utterance is made to involve. Thus, in this chapter, several types of context have been vaguely differentiated: the concrete context of utterance, the context build up during forgoing discourse between participants, background assumptions and aspects of world knowledge and finally the immediate sentential context of the elements in an utterance. However, sofar it has not been made clear what kinds of information or knowledge these types of contexts involve. With respect to the assumption that literal meaning actually is context-dependent, the question is what kinds of information have to be available for a hearer to be able to interpret a particular utterance as having literal (or, for that matter, non-literal) meaning.55

Having argued for a view according to which literal meaning is actually context-dependent, it does not come as much of a surprise that in empirical studies the assumption that literal meaning always and necessarily has to be processed first could not be confirmed. On the contrary, the results of some experiments even show that a potential non-literal meaning of an expression may be activated as early as, if not earlier than, that expression’s supposed literal meaning. Thus, it seems that differences in the difficulty of interpreting some expression are not correlated to whether that expression was intended in a literal or non-literal meaning . Note that under the assumption that literal meaning and non-literal meaning both are context-dependent, one would actually expect results where there is no necessary difference in the interpretation of literal meaning as compared to nonliteral meaning. In addition, some of the experimental results suggest that another feature traditionally used to differentiate literal meaning from non-literal meaning in fact does not differentiate the two types of meaning: conventionality. Thus, the experimental results generally call into question the standard notion of non-literal meaning as non-conventional, speaker-intended meaning that results from a reinterpretation process. If one assumes that conventionality is reflected in relative ease of interpretation, then one has to allow for quite a number of conventional non-literal meanings. Also, since there are cases in which the so-called non-literal meaning of an expression is activated as early as, if not earlier than, that expression’s literal meaning, the assumption that non-literal meaning is always the result of some reinterpretation process cannot be appropriate. Moreover, since there are cases in which non-literal meanings cannot be suppressed even though it is clear that they are not speaker intended, the assumption that non-literal meaning generally is a type of meaning that only arises when speaker meant cannot be sustained. In addition to empirical evidence, we saw that there are also theoretical reasons for assuming that conventionality is a gradual property. Thus, such an assumption makes the description of semantic change much more straightforward, since such changes do not take place abruptly, but rather over a period of time.

The revised characterisations of literal meaning and non-literal meaning have consequences for the assumptions made about the nature of lexical meaning. Thus, the meaning(s) stored in the lexical entry of some expression can no longer be viewed as literal, since literal meaning is taken to be context-dependent, whereas lexical meaning is not. Several reasons were given that actually make this a desirable outcome. First, if one wants to assume that all an expression’s literal readings, i.e., those which seem to be basic, are coded in that expression’s lexical entry, one has to also necessarily assume that the lexicon as such is characterised by a high degree of polysemy and (if one tends to extremes) as almost indefinite in size. If one wants to assume of the lexicon that it is highly economic and minimal, this is an unsatisfactory result. Second, listing all possible literal meanings an expression may have in its lexical entry might be problematic, on the one hand due to the sheer number of potential literal readings (cf. readings for the verb to open), and on the other hand, since one misses generalisations (such as the similarities between possible literal readings for expressions like newspaper, university, book etc.) by treating certain meaning aspects as idionsyncratic when they are not. Third, if only literal meanings are coded in the lexicon and if the disambiguation process first has to go through all potential literal sentence meanings, rejecting them as not fitting the context, one would not expect to get evidence of an early activation of non-literal meaning, as this would be the result of some process that follows the unsuccessful and protracted disambiguation process.

From the various approaches to meaning in the lexicon reviewed, it seems that the revised characterisations are best reflected by an approach that assumes a high degree of underspecification for lexical meaning. Generally, one important aspect that makes such an approach superior to the maximalist and intermediate approaches is the fact that the minimally specified semantic form allows for both literal as well as non-literal ‘specification’. Thus, such an approach, generally, is compatible with the empirical results according to which under particular circumstances non-literal meaning may be interpreted as fast as – if not faster than –the literal meaning of the utterance in question. Another important advantage of an underspecification approach is that it can explain the differences in processing of homonymous vs. polysemous expressions. More specifically, an underspecification approach can explain the pecularities found for the processing of polysemous expressions. Moreover, it is also compatible with the assumption of some type of default readings for an expression, since these, as noted above, seem to be part of a level distinct from the purely semantic, that is, context-independent level. Thus, literalness neither is a property of lexical, nor of sentence meaning. Rather, these latter two types of meaning are characterised by being very abstract and heavily underspecified, generally allowing for a literal or non-literal interpretation /usage.

As a conclusion to this chapter, the following points can be made. Both the concepts of literal meaning and non-literal meaning in their traditional characterisation are not precisely defined. Moreover, the properties captured by the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning are problematic at the least. The evidence gathered so far suggests that literal meaning and nonliteral meaning should not be characterised in terms of dichotomies, as they do not seem to be so very different from one another as traditionally assumed. Still the question remains: what IS literal meaning and what IS non-literal meaning? Put differently, how are the processes characterised that lead to what we intuitively call literal meaning or non-literal meaning? Recall the fact mentioned in chapter 1 that the term literal meaning traditionally has not only been employed for the level of sentence meaning or lexical meaning, but also to describe a particular type of context-dependent meaning, namely the level of what is said. Thus, in the next chapter, we will take a closer look at the characterisation of this particular level of meaning and where literal (and other types of) meaning aspects might be found at it.