4.3 Summary – The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy

  • (173)
    • A: Du, da vorne ist grün.

      ‘Listen, it’s green ahead.’

    • B: Fährst Du oder fahre ich?!

      ‘Are you driving or am I?!’

The four sides to A’s utterance, as B interprets them, might be (crudely) paraphrased as follows:

  • (174)

    Level of content: the traffic lights are green

    Aspect of relation: You need my help.

    Aspect of self-revelation: I’m in a hurry.

    Aspect of appeal: Drive faster!

Schulz von Thun (1982) points out that it is the interpreter’s free choice to react to any of the four sides of the message. In the example in (173), the side that B is apparently verbally reacting to is the aspect of relation. However, in the situation stated, she might also react to the aspect of appeal of A’s message non-verbally at the same time by actually driving faster. Her verbal reaction and the way it is shaped might only turn against the aspect of relation that in her opinion is conveyed by A’s message. In the case where A actually did not intend his utterance to be interpreted on the aspect-of-relation side as ‘You need my help’, the question is if we would like to say that the communication between A and B was unsuccessful, although B actually did react as intended to one side of the message by driving faster. That is, assuming that successful interpretation of a speaker’s meaning involves determining the speaker’s intention in making an utterance, does not capture the complexity of such a task, as we have to assume that there are various sides to verbal interaction, highlighting different aspects of the overall intention of the speaker. More specifically, we might want to say that in making an utterance, the speaker does not necessarily have only one intention, but rather several, possibly on different levels and with different prominence.

Be that as it may, the important point to note here, once again, is that the type of information apparently necessary for determining what a speaker might have intended with his utterance seems to be distinctly different from the knowledge neccessary to determine what the speaker’s utterance as such means. This hypothesis is also corroborated by findings concerning autistic childrens’ understanding of the speaker’s intention in making a particular utterance in contrast to their understanding of what the utterance as such means. Thus, MacKay and Shaw (2004) tested autistic children’s understanding of various types of figurative language as well as the likely intentions with which they were employed by the speakers. Although the autistic children did understand what the utterances meant more or less well, they had considerably more problems in determining why a speaker should use a particular type of figurative language in the first place. A similar finding is reported by Melogno et al. (2012) who did a case study with two high-functioning autistic children investigating their ability to understand metaphors prior to and following a three-month intervention which aimed at enhancing social skills and also included figurative language competencies. The authors note that ‘[a]lthough the two children improved in their ability to analyse metaphorical language, they were still resistant to accept why speakers should use such strange forms, and in some cases clearly asserted that these were “errors”... ’ (Melogno et al. 2012, p. 185).

In this connection, recall RT’s assumption that the determination of explicatures and implicatures actually is subject to mutual parallel adjustment, where assumptions about what the speaker meant by his utterance seem to influence how that utterance is interpreted in the first place. Although viewing the evolving of the interpretation process in these terms is not unproblematic – as it is not clear on which basis, then, to differentiate explicatures from implicatures and why to assume a richer level of utterance meaning than originally proposed by Grice in the first place – what it does capture is the fact that people do seem to understand utterances differently if they have a grasp on what the speaker might possibly have intended in making that utterance, than when they do not have a definite grasp on those intentions. For instance, autistic language users tend to interpret language literally and a possible reason for that might be that they do not understand why a speaker said what he said. In other words, it might be that autistic language users have problems considering a speaker’s possible intentions and the fact that the speaker actually pursued a particular goal in making a particular utterance.

However, while there may be differences between autistic and typically developed language users in determining what is meant by a speaker of an utterance, this fact alone does not tell us whether there really is a difference in what the two groups take to be the utterance meaning of that utterance. As we saw, one cannot rely on intuitions when it comes to spelling out what the speaker said vs. what he meant by his utterance. In MacKay and Shaw (2004)’s study, subjects were asked both for aspects of the background against which a particular utterance took place, as well as the reason the speaker might have had to make this particular utterance. For example, in the hyperbole condition, subjects where asked what they thought how many CDs the speaker of ‘I’ve got thousands of CDs’ actually has. In other words, they were asked to infer from the utterance the situation it was supposed to describe. Since the subjects did not take into account the possibility that the speaker might want to boast in making such an utterance, most of them assumed that the speaker does have a very large number of CDs. This is different for the control group of typically developed children, who judge the situation differently.173 However, that does not tell us how the two groups in fact interpreted the utterance as such. It might be that that interpretation does not differ, but that the difference in judgements simply is due to how these children differ in their evaluation of the situation in which such an utterance is made and which purpose it has.

Having said this, I do not want to deny that hearers come to the interpretation task with more or less specific assumptions about what the speaker might want to convey in a particular discourse situation. It is just that I am reluctant to call these assumptions implicatures, since it seems to me that these kinds of inferences are different in kind from what is usually understood by the term implicature. Thus, in contrast to ‘real’ PCIs, such assumptions are not (necessarily) intended by the speaker to be inferred by the hearer and they are not (necessarily) the product of an inferencing process that is based on the meaning of a prior utterance on the part of the speaker. In fact, it seems to me that generally what influence a hearer’s assumptions in a particular utterance situation is the final interpretation of what he takes the speaker to have meant by his utterance (cf. the differences in judgement of typically developed and autistic children above).

Recall once again Schulz von Thun (1982)’s idea that a message has several sides to it and the interpretation of one of them is based on the assumptions a hearer has as to the speaker’s opinion of him. For example, if B thinks that A thinks B is a looser, then it is possible that in a situation in which A, B and several others are planning a cycling tour they want to go on together and A says (175) to B about the potential tour they are just discussing, B might understand him to have meant something like ‘You won’t be able to make it’ or ‘This is too difficult for you’.

  • (175) This is a very difficult tour.

In other words, particular assumptions hearers bring to the interpretation process may influence how they understand why a speaker said what he said, but it is not going to change their understanding of what it in fact was the speaker said. Thus, if in this particular situation what A wanted to convey – apart from the fact that he considers the contextually relevant tour as difficult – was in fact the idea that he thinks doing this tour will involve very careful planning (and that he specifically addressed himself to B because he actually thinks B is good at organising things), one might argue that communication between A and B was only partly successful in that B did understand what A said but was wrong about his reasons for saying what he did.

Thus, as we saw above, assumptions the interlocutors have concerning other interlocutors’ opinions about one another may influence the interpretation of what a speaker meant by his utterance. Moreover, assumptions concerning the social setting in which a particular utterance takes place influence what the speaker will be taken to have meant with his utterance. Thus, Capone (2005) mentions the example of a teacher using (176) in addressing his favourite pupil Michelangelo who is prompting a classmate.

  • (176) I saw you.

Capone (2005) says of this example that even though the teacher might actually admire the fact that Michelangelo tries to help his fellow pupil, in the particular social setting in which his utterance occurs, it is clear that part of what the teacher means in saying (176) is that he wants Michelangelo to stop prompting. 174

Note that the assumptions the hearer forms in a particular discourse situation are also crucial in explaining irony. That is, on a first blush, in cases of irony, the utterance made by a speaker does not seem to fit with the situation in which it is made. This is not to say that the hearer has clear-cut expectations of what a speaker is going to say, however, whatever the speaker does in fact say, the hearer will try to integrate with his conception of the discourse situation. This can be seen especially well in such cases of irony in which what the speaker said might actually also be taken to be (part of what is) meant by her, but where the meaning expressed by her utterance nevertheless in some way contrasts with the situation it is used in.

  • (177) I love children who keep their rooms clean.

    [Said by a mother having just looked into the messy rooms of her kids.]

Thus, the speaker of (177) can be taken to use the sentence she does descriptively, but at the same time her utterance in the situation it occurs in will be interpreted as ironic, since she does not voice her negative attitude to the messiness of the rooms directly.

In sum, the important point to note is that interpreting a particular utterance as ironic, as used to carrying out a specific speech act or as giving rise to particular PCIs involves contextual information beyond that needed to determine the utterance meaning as such. Moreover, in the majority of utterance interpretation situations, the proposition taken to be expressed by the utterance of a speaker is involved in determining what the speaker meant in making that utterance. However, assumptions about the intentions behind or the reasons for making the utterance the speaker did, do not influence a hearer’s interpretation of the meaning of an utterance as such, it only influences her interpretation of what she takes the speaker to have meant.

4.3 Summary

One of the aims of the present chapter was to review the phenomena traditionally assumed to arise at the level of what is meant/communicative sense to see whether for their characterisation it is necessary to assume that they are based on a fully propositional utterance meaning. As we saw, for metaphor at least, this does not seem to be the case. Rather, arguments were given for assuming that metaphor actually belongs to the level of utterance meaning. Thus, on the one hand, metaphorical meaning usually is associated not with entire utterances, rather, it seems that it is simple expressions (or at least expressions below sentence level) that may receive a metaphorical interpretation. On the other hand, it was argued that metaphor can be treated along the same lines as metonymy (e.g., Dölling 2001) and other types of figurative language use assumed to arise at the level of utterance meaning (e.g., Sperber and Wilson 2008). Moreover, it seems that metaphor interpretation proceeds independently of the intentions the speaker had in making the utterance that includes the metaphor (e.g., Borg 2001). In addition, metaphor seems to differ in some important aspects from irony, which type of figurative language use was acknowledged as belonging to the level of what is meant/communicative sense.

Thus, in contrast to metaphor, the interpretation of an utterance as ironic does seem to require a prior determination of a kind of ‘basic’ utterance meaning (e.g. Giora et al. 2007). Furthermore, interpreting an ironic utterance is cognitively more exacting than interpreting an utterance involving metaphor (cf. Happé 1993, Colston and Gibbs 2002, MacKay and Shaw 2004). What is similar in non-familiar metaphor and irony interpretation is that the ‘basic’ meaning the respective figurative meaning is based on stays activated to some degree and for some time during interpretation.

What differentiates both metaphor and irony from conversational implicature is that in cases of the former the meaning understood differs from some ‘basic’ meaning, whereas in cases of the latter the inferred meaning aspects are added to what is understood. Thus, Grice assumed that conversational implicatures are based on some ‘basic’ utterance meaning and added to it. Generally, CIs originally were assumed to be both speaker intended and cancellable. However, as we saw, not all CIs exhibit these two features to the same degree. Thus, whereas PCIs only arise in contexts in which they are clearly speaker-intended, GCIs are initially computed regardless of whether they are speaker intended or not. As a consequence of this (in)dependence on speaker intentions, PCIs actually are not cancellable, whereas GCIs are. What is special about GCIs is that if they are not cancelled, they consequently are assumed to have been intended by the speaker after all. Thus, what makes CIs and irony similar and differentiates them from metaphor is that both are based on some full utterance meaning and both are (ultimately) speaker intended.175

Another phenomenon undisputably taken to arise at the level of what is meant are speech acts. Thus, determining the speech act intended by a speaker in making a particular utterance allows the hearer to interpret how what the speaker uttered is to be taken. Of particular interest for our purposes are indirect speech acts, since they are traditionally characterised as involving a basic, literal illocutionary force and a derived, non-literal one. Arguments were given for not treating indirect speech acts in terms of conversational implicatures, since their determination – contrary to what was traditionally assumed – does not seem to necessarily involve a prior determination of a potential but non-fitting direct speech act.

The second aim of this chapter was to find an answer to the question of what types of information have to be available to the interpretation process to determine phenomena taken to belong to the level of what is said and such taken to belong to the level of what is meant. To this end, we looked at some of the arguments given for and against assuming two distinct levels of context-dependent meaning. That is, even though particular phenomena were characterised as being based on some level of what is said/utterance meaning, there are arguments that there actually are no clear criteria which allow us to differentiate between meaning aspects that are part of what is said/utterance meaning and such as are part of what is meant/communicative sense. Thus, Borg (2004b) as well as Cappelen and Lepore (2005) argue against the accuracy of indirect speech reports as a tool to capture what is said or the utterance meaning of the reported utterance. However, while their reservations are absolutely warranted, the fact that indirect speech reports cannot capture the technical notion of what is said by an utterance is not sufficient to show that a differentiation between what is said and what is meant is not in principle possible. Incidentally, the same point holds true concerning the results of experiments aimed at testing whether people differentiate between the respective two levels of meaning. As already mentioned, what the experiments in question showed is that naive speaker-hearers understand the expression say differently from its technical characterisation. Moreover, they show that people do not necessarily consciously reflect on the supposed difference. However, again, these facts are not by themselves sufficient to show that there actually are no two levels of context-dependent meaning that can be differentiated from one another.

Recanati (2004) proposes a differentiation between two general types of pragmatic processes, which is supposed to capture the difference between the two levels of what is said and what is meant. Whereas the sub-personal and thus, unconsciously operating primary pragmatic processes result in what is said by an utterance, the personal and thus consciously operating secondary pragmatic processes lead to what is meant by an utterance. Recanati (2004)’s differentiation of pragmatic processes in terms of whether they are consciously available predicts that naive speaker-hearers should be aware of the difference between what is said and what is meant (e.g., his availability principle). However, the results of experiments aimed at verifying this prediction show that it is inaccurate. Thus, a differentation of what is said from what is meant cannot rely on speaker intuitions.

Bierwisch (1980) also assumes that a differentiation between what is said and what is meant is necessary and he makes reference to different knowledge systems that seem to be involved in determining the different levels of meaning. Thus, while the processes leading to utterance meaning make use of information provided by general background knowledge, the processes leading to communicative sense rely on information drawn from knowledge about social interaction. Generally, the two knowledge systems are independent of one another and so are, strictly speaking, the two meaning levels for the determination of which they are employed. However, more often than not the utterance meaning of what some speaker said plays a distinctive role in figuring out what the speaker meant in saying what he did, i.e., the communicative sense of his utterance. Nevertheless, there still is a difference between what an utterance means and what a speaker means or intends in making a particular utterance and experimental studies with autistic subjects corroborate the view that it is quite possible to understand the former without grasping the latter (cf. MacKay and Shaw 2004).

Thus, generally, and following Bierwisch, the argument can be made that (some of) the contextual information the processes leading to what is said draw on is taken from general background knowledge, whereas the (some of the) contextual information the processes leading to what is meant draw on is taken from a knowledge base about social interaction. However, this again raises the question as to the role of speaker intentions in interpretation, as reasoning about these is usually taken to draw on the latter type of knowledge system, i.e., that on social interaction. This issue will be taken up in chapter 5 (section 5.2).