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Meaning and Thinking

Relevance Theory and/or Gricean pragmatics; Chomsky on language and mind; and related parts of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, formal semantics and logic.

Last Build Date: Mon, 05 Mar 2018 19:00:28 PST


Poetry isn’t just a pretty way of saying plain things

Wed, 04 Jun 2014 06:17:32 PDT

So says George Szirtes, and he’s right. Compare Sperber and Wilson (1990):The most scathing criticism addressed by the Romantics to classical rhetoric concerned the treatment of metaphor, irony, and other figures of speech. In classical rhetoric, figures were seen as ornaments added onto a text, which made it more pleasant and hence more convincing, without however altering its content. Tropes in particular, it was said, achieve this ornamental effect by replacing a dull literal expression of the author’s thought by a more attractive figurative expression, that is, by an expression the literal meaning of which is set aside and replaced by a figurative meaning. …Against the notion of a figure as a mere ornament, the Romantics maintained that a felicitous trope cannot be paraphrased. Thus Coleridge argues that the “infallible test of a blameless style” is:“its untranslateableness in words of the same language without injury to the meaning. Be it observed, however, that I include in the meaning of a word not only its correspondent object but likewise all the associations which it recalls.”It’s not just poetry. Ordinary speech recruits associations of words, and often more effectively than someone straining for effect. Sperber and Wilson discuss ‘You’re a piglet,’ (1990) and ‘Keep your paws off me!’ (2006).Szirtes seems to me also to be right in the following two claims (and ‘baggage’ is a useful term to cover connotations, colouring, register, etymology – essentially anything that’s not literal meaning):Words are not stable entities you can slam down like dominoes. They carry a baggage of music, context, allusion, attachment and history.Something that really interests me lately is whether the second claim – about baggage – is necessary for the first. Does the possibility of using words to convey different senses on different occasions depend on the baggage?The grab bag view of word meaning, essentially, is that words only have baggage. To know the meaning of a word is just to have a collection of baggage associated with it.I’m pretty sure that is wrong. I’m less sure – but increasingly think – that words without baggage would still not be ‘stable entities you can slam down like dominoes’, and that the versatility of word meaning for words that do have baggage (which may be all of them) is not only due to baggage.I’d also say that this is wrong, since literal meanings are surely very important for almost all poetry:It is the baggage that produces the poetry.It is partly the baggage that produces the poetry. Well, it’s obviously the poet who produces the poetry, but, what I mean is that she does it using words in ways that exploit both their baggage and their literal meanings.ReferencesSperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1990). Rhetoric and relevance. In The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice (pp. 140-156). Stanford University Press.Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (2006). A deflationary account of metaphor. UCL Working Papers in Linguistics, 18, 171-203.[...]

If and even if

Mon, 26 May 2014 02:45:50 PDT

A biscuit conditional with parenthetical even-if clause from the Guardian’s coverage of European elections in the UK:
if you didn't stay up late into the night to follow the results of voting for the European parliament (and even if you did), here are the highlights and key results.

Uncooked lobsters are red: they just don't look that way

Mon, 16 Dec 2013 06:24:20 PST

Just a bit of data for contextualists and perhaps response-dependence theorists. In last week’s New Scientist the question is asked “Why do shellfish turn red when cooked?”
The answer begins:
“Certain shellfish, such as lobsters, turn red when cooked because they are red to begin with – we just can't see it.” (New Scientist, 7th Dec 2013: 69)
Apparently the red colour is due to a compound called astaxanthin, which is there all along. Its effect is masked in live crustaceans by various other compounds. When the creature is boiled many of these denature, but astaxanthin is stable at high temperatures, so does not break down, and the lobster turns red – or its natural red colour is revealed.

Compare with Travis on brown leaves painted green: pp. 171 ff. of Travis, Charles. 1994. On constraints of generality. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94:165–188.

What literature knows about your brain...

Mon, 11 Nov 2013 13:29:34 PST

…is the name of a new blog about cognitive science and literature. The author, Raphael Lyne, says he “will be tempted to see literary works as experiments into cognition, as they set up scenarios in which certain qualities can be explored.”There are already interesting posts on social cognition (posing the question “When we think together, do we think differently?”) and on spatial understanding of time.The latter suggests that the Spenserian stanza, which has “more lines than other common forms, and an extra couple of syllables in the last line […] often seems to distend duration.” That made me think of a perhaps related phenomenon – how the rhythm of cuts in films affects time perception. For example, Donald Ritchie and David Bordwell both point out that Ozu’s cuts rarely interrupt dialogue, and Ritchie says that:The tempo of the Ozu film […] is extremely subtle. […] in film the idea of tempo is complicated by the content of the shot: an empty shot seems to move more slowly than a shot filled with action, even if it is the same length. […] Ozu’s time is not clock time, though many of his sequences would have taken the same amount of time they take on the screen. His conversations […] are composed of a number of shots all about the same length (the length depending entirely upon the length of the spoken line), but the effect (perhaps because of the “empty” waits before and after dialogue) is not that of clock time at all. […] the effect becomes that of psychological time. As the characters experience film time, so do we.[…] the tempo is created by what is in the shot. (pp. 181–2 of Richie, D. (1974). Ozu. Berkeley: University of California Press.)I wonder if Bordwell’s cognitive science collaborators have done work on time perception.Lyne suggests the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream do not experience time as a straight line: “forward progression [is] a mortal way of thinking about time” and:Fairies like to dance in rings, and they like to circle the earth. Puck promises to put a girdle round it in forty minutes, and Oberon says that he and Titania ‘the globe can compass soon’. When Titania lies down with Bottom, she imagines herself capturing the moment, and also the period of sleep, in natural circlesBut, he says, “I don’t think it’s as simple as saying ‘for immortals, time is cyclical’. It might be helical.” Which of course reminds me of Delaney’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones. But also, perhaps more relevantly, of Diane Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, which is about mortals caught up with the immortal fairy queen and her court, and is considerably indebted to Spenser. Jones wrote that in order to organise the shifts of the action between the mundane and the supernatural (which she says she learned from Spenser’s shifts between overt allegory and subtle correspondences):I found that the narrative moved in a sort of spiral, with each stage echoing and being supported by the ones that went before. I had to work very hard […] to make sure the echoes were not repetitions (p. 137 of Jones, D. W. (1989). The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey. The Lion and the Unicorn, 13(1), 129-140.)Somewhere else, she explains that this is so that the narrative can build up in waves, each of which partly recapitulates what has come before, but some of which go on beyond and push the story forward.[...]

T-Rex on the poverty of the stimulus

Fri, 08 Nov 2013 02:09:10 PST

I was a bit slow to blog this one, which came out in August.

In the meantime, someone I pointed it out to says that it’s great apart from “They will stone-cold deduce rules of grammar FROM OBSERVATION ALONE”, and suggests that the author didn't finish reading the chapter on the poverty of the stimulus. The problem, of course, with what T-Rex says is that the whole point of the poverty of the stimulus argument is to establish that infants do not work out grammar from observation alone: rather, there is some innate knowledge of language.

But I’m inclined to give T-Rex (or at least his creator Ryan North, who has a master’s in computational linguistics and a dog called ‘Chompsky’) the benefit of the doubt. I think either North or T-Rex is being somewhat ironic. He (whichever one of them it is) doesn't really think that babies independently invent the idea of language or deduce the rules of grammar from observation alone, just that it might seem as though they do – to T-Rex, or to someone he is satirising.

Utahraptor is wrong, though, in saying that babies crawl off cliffs given half a chance. In fact we have an innate drop-detector which is available very early in infancy. Babies may fail to distinguish between small and large drops (pdf) though.

Structural ambiguity and the law

Fri, 01 Nov 2013 03:29:45 PDT

Mark Liberman at Language Log covers a US Supreme Court case that may hinge on the interpretation of this part of a statute:
Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.
They have a good short summary, and the discussion in the comments is worth a look too.

Nobody points out the obvious starting point, though (the comment from 'ohwilleke' comes closest): the text is structurally ambiguous, the scope relations are underdetermined by what is written, so the court will have to make a decision. Or rather, they will have to make at least two connected decisions: first, what criteria to apply (intent of executive or legislature; or the most accessible or salient or relevant disambiguation, now or when the law was promulgated; or something else) and second, what their chosen criterion or criteria imply.

As likely as any other theory…

Sun, 17 Mar 2013 12:25:35 PDT


From Bizarro comics via Language Log.

“I have no idea why you’re talking”

Thu, 07 Mar 2013 04:59:36 PST


A Dilbert strip from last week.

Ad hoc concepts paper with Mark Textor

Tue, 11 Dec 2012 04:33:01 PST

It has become a staple of truth-conditional pragmatics to assume that the meaning contributed by the use of a word to the proposition expressed by a speaker in making an utterance need not be the fixed lexical meaning of that word. For example, in saying:John’s a saint.I might be talking about my neighbour, John, who has not been canonised, and be expressing a thought that might be partially glossed thus: John is extremely kind – to the point of self-sacrifice. According to truth-conditional pragmatic theories, when I do this I am predicating of John an ad hoc concept SAINT*, different from the lexicalised concept.Evidence that this ad hoc concept gets into the proposition expressed comes from negation. Consider replying like this:No, he’s not a saint. He just does what he would prefer and makes it look like a big sacrifice.The speaker of the reply seems to be denying that John is a helpful etc. individual, not that he is a literal saint. It looks, in other words, as though the negation takes scope over  the proposition that John is a SAINT*, and this suggests that the proposition that was expressed by the original claim was that John is a SAINT*.In the new paper we take all of this for granted and look in some detail at what kind of thing such an ‘ad hoc concept’ is (or would be).We argue that ad hoc concepts are not really concepts; rather they are clusters of information ready to be used in inference. By cluster, we mean a collection which, in addition to having definite members and non-members, may have some borderline member/non-members, like a cluster of points on a graph. See below for the abstract: the paper is here.Allott, N. & Textor, M. (2012). Lexical pragmatic adjustment and ad hoc concepts. International Review of Pragmatics, 4(2), 185–208It’s in a special issue of the International Review of Pragmatics edited by Anton Benz, Katja Jasinskaja and Uli Sauerland. Many thanks to them for putting this together – also for organising the conference that most of the papers were from.Thanks are also due to CSMN and the Norwegian Research Council for funding my research, and for making possible an extended visit by Mark Textor to Oslo last year for us to write the paper.--Lexical pragmatic adjustment and ad hoc conceptsNicholas Allott and Mark TextorAbstractAccording to truth-conditional pragmatics, a word may contribute an ad hoc concept to the proposition expressed, that is, something that differs from the concept the word encodes (the lexicalized concept). In relevance-theoretic lexical pragmatics, ad hoc concepts are treated like a species of concepts proper. Concepts as well as ad hoc concepts are taken to be atomic. Lexical pragmatic adjustment is conceived as the formation of an ad hoc concept that is narrower or broader in extension (or both) than the lexicalized concept involved. We argue that difference in extension should not be taken as the crucial feature of lexical pragmatics, since ad hoc concepts can have the same extension as the lexicalized concept. In contrast, we propose a positive view of ad hoc concepts as clusters of information poised to be used in inference. (Surprisingly, ad hoc concepts turn out not to be concepts at all.) The cluster account drops the assumption that ad hoc concepts are atomic and can therefore provide a satisfactory explanation of lexical pragmatic adjustment.[...]

Earliest sighting of contrastive reduplication?

Tue, 20 Nov 2012 06:57:45 PST

Afflicted by the recency illusion, I had thought that contrastive reduplication (e.g. ‘TEA tea’ – see this post) was recent, a phenomenon of the last two decades or so. Surprising, then, to find it in a novel published in 1967 (and apparently written in 1965 and 1966), Samuel Delaney’s Einstein Intersection aka A Fabulous, Formless Darkness.
“You know,” Batt grunted, watching his food go, “You got dessert coming.” 
“Where?” Knife answered, finishing his second helping and reaching out of the darkness for the bread. 
“You have some more food-food first,” Batt said, “’cause I‘m damned if you’re going to eat up my dessert that fast.” (pp. 82–3 of my 1992 Grafton edition)

BBC: what syllable do 'shed', 'she', 'fishes' and 'masher' have in common?

Tue, 20 Nov 2012 07:02:16 PST

Linguistics is almost invisible in the media and ordinary discourse. Popular discussion of language treats it as a collection of words (made out of letters) which are used to make sentences (a process which apparently should be governed by rules but often isn’t).Even when there’s a good article, false folk notions tend to surface. For example, this fairly good discussion of how to pronounce Chinese politicians’ names (which gives mostly decent pronunciation advice*, and explains tones succinctly and accurately) fails badly at the end:Hanyu Pinyin's relationship between spelling and pronunciation is not as random as it seems because it is actually syllable-based; the syllable xi is always pronounced shee (-sh as in ship, -ee as in meet), whether in Xí Jìnpíng or móxī (the Chinese name for Moses). OK so far, but…Compared with the wide variation one finds for the English syllable she in the words shed, she, fishes and masher, pronouncing Pinyin can suddenly seem much more pleasingly systematic and straightforward. Do I need to point out that the string of letters ‘she’ is not a syllable, and that the examples chosen, ironically, make that point? I suppose the problem here is collision of the folk notion that words are made from letters with the linguistic notion that they can be decomposed into syllables.-----* But the vowel in the Mandarin rendition of ‘London’, glossed reasonably enough as ‘luun duun’, is not the one from ‘book’. It’s closer to the one from ‘her’ (in non-rhotic accents of English) with an approximant at the beginning. Something like: Lwerndwern[...]

‘I will not vote (although I will)’

Fri, 19 Oct 2012 08:15:42 PDT

It’s a bit like finding a butterfly...

I spent quite a bit of the afternoon discussing attributive use (in some sentences about reasons – a subject for a future blog post) and then relaxed with a cup of tea and Nate Silver's psephology blog. And in the comments, a beautiful attested example of attributive use.

The bit in question is the second part of the second sentence (after the colon). What is especially nice is that  in the added material in parentheses he gives his own opinion, which given that it is the exact opposite of the one before the brackets, makes it quite clear that in the bit before the brackets he is expressing a view that he attributes to Gallup’s model.

It seems incredible how Gallup manages to consider unlikely voters people who will in effect vote. I took Gallup's likely voter model and tested it upon myself: I will not vote (although I will)
1. Thought given to election (quite a lot, some) some 0
2. Know where people in neighborhood go to vote not all 0
3. Voted in election precinct before (yes) yes 1
4. How often vote (always, nearly always) nearly 0
5. Plan to vote in 2012 election (yes) yes 1
6.Likelihood of voting on a 10-point scale (7-10) 9 1
6. Voted in last presidential election (yes) yes 1
total =4; < 5; unlikely voter.
(From a comment by ‘Pete58’ on this post on a blog about polls in the US election at The New York Times. I’ve corrected a typo: motelmodel.)

This is either a kind of free indirect quotation, or at least an instance of a larger category that includes free indirect quotation. That is, it’s like the way that the second sentence is used in the last example below:

a. Mary said to me, “You are neglecting your job.”
b. Mary told me I was not working hard enough.
c. According to Mary, I am “neglecting” my work.
d. Mary was pretty rude to me. I am neglecting my job!
(From p. 413 of Wilson, D. (2000). Metarepresentations in linguistic communication. In D. Sperber (Ed.), Metarepresentations: a multidisciplinary perspective. (pp. 411–448). Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

Looks like I might be one of those LINGUIST linguists after all

Tue, 11 Dec 2012 03:42:05 PST

... because I may have come up with a property of contrastive reduplication that isn't already in the literature.Here's an example of contrastive reduplication:I don't drink that herbal stuff. Haven't you got some TEA tea?(where the caps on TEA indicate stress.)There are several labels for this in the literature: contrastive reduplication (Ghomeshi et al. 2004), lexical cloning (Horn 2006) and identical constituent compounding (Hohenhaus 2004).I noticed the phenomenon in my own speech a few years ago (I found myself saying 'TEA tea') – but hadn't thought about it much until I saw an excellent talk by Ewa Waƚaszewska last week at the relevance theory conference in Poland. (The references to the literature are from her handout.)The conveyed meaning is a stereotypical or prototypical category based on the lexical category: e.g. 'tea' covers many different types of infusion, but 'TEA tea' (as used above) only covers infusions made with material from the tea plant (camellia sinensis). More about meaning in a minute.Contrastive reduplication (CR) is not just repetition of a word. As Ewa pointed out, the prosody is different (more equal stress, and a pause before the repetition of the word) in e.g.:Give me something to drink, but not coffee. I want tea, tea!Also what is conveyed is quite different. There is no necessary narrowing of the category here, just emphasis, and this is typical for repetition.It occurred to me that another test is what happens with plurals. My intuition is that this is good:Those people wondering around Warsaw are actually academics here for a conference. They aren't TOURIST tourists.And this is bad:Those people wondering around Warsaw are actually academics here for a conference. They aren't *TOURISTS tourists.Whereas for the first word in repetition the plural is correct and the singular is impossible:Warsaw is so busy these days. The centre is crawling with tourists, tourists!Warsaw is so busy these days. The centre is crawling with *tourist, tourists! I assumed that this would be old hat, but Ewa and Diane Blakemore (who has a student currently working on CR) both said that they didn't think it was in the literature. So perhaps I am a LINGUIST linguist. (Despite working almost exclusively on stuff outside the language faculty, I mean.)On the meaning of CR: I said above that it induces prototypical 'narrowing'*. If I understood (and remember) Ewa's talk properly, though, she was presenting (not necessarily endorsing) an argument that this is not right because the narrowings can be to different, sometimes largely disjoint, categories. e.g. LINGUIST linguist might on one occasion be narrowed to linguist concerned with language proper (rather than, say pragmatics), on another to linguist in the generativist school, and on another, perhaps to person who knows and can use many languages (i.e. polyglot).I'm not sure if Ewa endorses this argument, but it seems to miss the mark. We know that prototypes are context-sensitive (since the work of the psychologist Laurence Barsalou). But then the fact that CR can narrow to different categories is to be expected, just as long as the result is always communicated to be prototypical. And as far as I can see, it is. TEA tea can be used as above, or it can be used as I found myself using it, to mean (roughly) British-style blended 'breakfast' tea, crucially served with milk (i.e. prototypical tea for the average Brit).CR means something like this: starting from the lexical category, find a more specific category, which the speaker is presenting as prototypical.Anyway, I'm not claiming that this analysis of the (procedural) meaning of CR is novel. It may be that something along these lines is what Ewa had in mind.---*The sca[...]

Clegg's unusual speech act (follow-up)

Fri, 21 Sep 2012 01:37:37 PDT

Several people have pointed out that Clegg's apology is not for breaking his promise, but for making it in the first place. Rather an unusual speech act. Julia Hartley-Brewer's comparison seems apt:
Nick Clegg's apology for breaking tuition fees pledge is like a husband saying "sorry for my affair, next time I won't vow to be faithful"
And.. no more UK politics here for some time, I promise.

‘My PR people have been drafting ways to say this’

Fri, 21 Sep 2012 01:38:12 PDT

Nick Clegg's apology video with honest subtitles (via The Guardian).

(object) (embed)

Why? Well, I think it's funny, but also it's interesting to consider what the criterion is for the substituted phrases. Sometimes the subtitles seem to represent Clegg's thoughts, and sometimes just the truth which the phrase uttered is supposed to obscure.

The best substitutions? Probably the ones that the Guardian article pointed out:

"There's no easy way to say this" -> "My PR people have been drafting ways to say this" 
"That was a mistake" -> "That was a lie".

Linguistic underdeterminacy gags

Tue, 18 Sep 2012 08:20:12 PDT

From the 'clippings' (i.e. attested examples) sent in to last week's News Quiz:

Heard on Radio Newcastle:

In the news at six: the queen visits the north-east as part of her jubilee tour and road deaths increase for the first time since 2009.

Seen on a poster:

Would customers please note that from Jan. 1st 2011 the following left-luggage charges will apply:
£5: large suitcase or rucksack
£4: medium case or holdall
£3: senior citizens

The humour obviously in both cases due to a kind of pragmatic garden-pathing which makes an absurd (unintended) interpretation come to mind before the right one.

There's quite a literature on the enrichment of 'and' to 'and as a result of that' (or in other cases 'and after that', or 'and during that time') much of it summarized and discussed in ch 3 of Robyn Carston's 2002 book Thoughts and Utterances. Clearly the meaning of the word 'and' falls well short of fixing (i.e. underdetermines) what it may be used to convey on a particular occasion. (The scholarly debate hasn't been about that, but about i) whether 'and' is linguistically ambiguous; and ii) whether the different readings affect the proposition expressed by the speaker or just what the speaker implies.)

I can't think of any discussion of cases like the second one, but it's clearly another example where the form of words used leaves the hearer with quite a lot of working out to do, and – more interesting to me: it's an example of another kind of working out that needs to be done.

Sun, 09 Sep 2012 06:29:54 PDT

An example of ironic use of a single word:

I married, let me see, about a month after you left France, and a few weeks before the gentle Germans roared into Paris. (from Nabokov's That in Aleppo Once...)

The writer obviously can't be the one who thinks the Germans are gentle, so the effect is that the word is used attributively and with a dissociative attitude – it conjures up the possibility of someone who would, absurdly, see the Germans as gentle - though neither of these facts is marked in the form of words used. Tacitly attributive, tacitly dissociative use is the analysis of verbal irony postulated in Sperber and Wilson's work on the subject.

That in Aleppo Once... deserves a thorough pragmatic analysis. Unusually, it's both not at all clear who the (fictional) writer is and clear that who the narrator is matters very much to one's understanding. At first it seems to be a letter written by the protagonist to a Russian emigré writer, 'V.', but there are indications that V. has taken the letter and turned it into the short story that one is reading. The title is one of them, since the letter-writer tells V. not to use it: "It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful. Spare me, V., you would load your dice with an unbearable implication if you took that for a title. "

So it's not just that the narrator is unreliable; it's not clear who he is, and whether anything in the story happened at all. And that's without going into the obvious similarities - and differences - between V. and the non-fictional author, Nabokov. (See here for some interesting comments on the story.)

“a parody parodying a parody”

Thu, 09 Aug 2012 02:52:39 PDT

... is an accurate summary of the following post by someone pretending to be Richie Benaud on Twitter: “These parody accounts are a nuisance and damaging the game I love. RB.”

The post title is a quotation from an article about the sporadically amusing, and now defunct, fake Kevin Pietersen Twitter account. There seems to be a lot of this sort of parody about, some of it really well-crafted.

Rhetorical questions to which the answer is 'No!' (#1)

Wed, 08 Aug 2012 07:41:17 PDT

Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?
Quoted in Adam Roberts' review of The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. His diagnosis of overwriting seems accurate to me. We know it when we see it; but what is it?

Pragmatics wins at High Court

Fri, 27 Jul 2012 06:01:19 PDT

Paul Chambers' conviction for sending a message "of a menacing character" has been overturned on appeal.

Rightly so – because it was always obvious (to everyone except, amazingly, the original judge in the case, and the judge at the first appeal) that his tweet: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" – was a joke.

It's a kind of irony and/or parody: his message was something like: It's crazy to say "You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Various comedians were called as experts in the case, but I'm not aware that they asked any linguists to comment, which is a bit of a shame. On the other hand, here pragmatics ≈ common sense, in that the intuition is clear enough to everyone. (Except the first two judges, as I said, and they get slapped down with some force in the new judgement: "We have concluded that, on an objective assessment, the decision of the crown court that this 'tweet' constituted or included a message of a menacing character was not open to it.)

Guardian story here.

The significance of dot dot dot

Fri, 27 Jul 2012 06:02:56 PDT

Young people have difficulty understanding the "coyly placed line of white space," according to (great sf author) Samuel Delaney. Michael Swanwick (also a writer of outstanding sf) quotes/summarises:
Today, I watch seminar rooms of graduate students misread both Bester and Conrad because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing both sex and violence. In Tiger! Tiger! the demonic antihero, Gully Foyle, invades Robin's exploded apartment and stalks across her living room to where she cowers away from him on the couch. There is a line of white space . . .
Foyle, of course, rapes Robin. But many of Chip's students simply can't see this. Nor, in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which the death of the African woman that Kurz has been sleeping with, occurs in another line of white space, can half the students understand that when Kurz cries, "The horror! The horror!," he is thinking of her death.

And, further down the page, he concludes:
"If he raped her, why didn't the writer say so?" "If they shot her, why didn't Conrad show her fall dead?" my graduate students ask.
The answer, of course: because they couldn't, and their audience knew they couldn't, so the author could safely assume that the reader would infer what was unsaid.
Delany continues:
It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four or five thousand years of "literacy."
As Swanwick says, that final sentence is "a speculation that opens vistas." He says, "Ever since, I've been thinking about the Bible and Gilgamesh and most especially the works of Homer and what I'm not seeing when I read them."
I wonder, though. It's not that a blank space here is an arbitrary convention. If you guess that something is missing then you can guess that it was unwritable for some reason. So it's not a rule that only makes sense once you learn it: it follows from some simple assumptions about communication and society. Delaney's students are halfway there when they ask the question: Why didn't he write it, if he meant it?
Similarly, one can guess why Victorian translations into English of books in various foreign languages sometimes switch into Latin, mid-sentence, when describing sex.
Of course we might be missing out on a lot of what, say, Homer assumed we would take as read because, firstly, he(/they) might have found things unsayable that we can't now guess, and secondly, he might have used some more arbitrary conventions that were known to his listeners/readers but which we can't work out from first principles.
One more or less arbitrary convention that I never understood the need for is the (19th c?) habit of shortening proper names to initials: Took the landau to T., where I met S., P. and X. and we discussed A.'s betrothal to Z. But it earns its keep in retrospect just by making this Woody Allen gag possible:
Should I marry W.? Not if she won't tell me the other letters in her name.

xkcd on the usefulness of linguistics

Fri, 03 Feb 2012 02:45:44 PST

New list for pragmatics in Norway

Wed, 18 Jan 2012 03:41:49 PST


A list for

a) brief announcements of forthcoming events/activities/publications
relating to pragmatics in Norway, or otherwise likely to interest many
members of the list, and

b) substantive comments/queries/discussions focusing mainly on pragmatics,
particularly relating to research being carried out in Norway, or to the use of
languages spoken in Norway.

(Set up with Kaja Borthen of NTNU, Trondheim, where they have quite a few people working on pragmatics, due to a great extent I think to the efforts of Thorstein Fretheim, who is emeritus there now.)

More information and sign-up form.

The cooperative listener?

Fri, 23 Sep 2011 06:14:47 PDT

In a comment on this post on Language Log, Spell Me Jeff wrote:I've been doing some admittedly shallow searching on topics like Grice and cooperative principle, and all I'm finding focuses on the role of the speaker. Surely there is work describing a "cooperative listener"?I think that there are several areas of research that may be relevant, including work on:what expectations hearers have,whether the Cooperative Principle is real/operative,charity in interpretation (perhaps the hearer-side counterpart of cooperation), andfeedback that hearers provide to the speaker (also a candidate for being the hearer-side counterpart of cooperation).There has been a lot of work on what expectations hearers have (and what they are justified in having). For example neo-Griceans such as Larry Horn and Stephen Levinson try to boil Grice's maxims down to two or three. According to Levinson, each of them can be expressed as a guideline for the speaker and a rule of thumb for the hearer.e.g. Speaker side: Say as much as you can.Hearer side: What isn't said, isn't. (Levinson 2000, p. 31)A classic paper on hearer expectations (and speaker maxims) is Wilson and Sperber 2002, which argues that there is no maxim of truthfulness and, correspondingly, hearers do not expect speakers to say only things that are literally true:"hearers expect to be provided with true information. But there is an infinite supply of true information which is not worth attending to. Actual expectations are of relevant information, which (because it is information) is also true. However, we have argued that there just is no expectation that the true information communicated by an utterance should be literally or conventionally expressed..." (pp. 627-8)On the Cooperative Principle more specifically, a number of theorists have argued that talk-exchanges need not be cooperative, and that the fundamental explanation for speakers tailoring their utterances to their audience is simply that they want to be understood (Kasher 1976, Sperber and Wilson 1986, inter alia; but see Grice's reply to some of these criticisms: 1989, around p. 369). If this is right then hearers can't generally expect cooperation, but they can expect that utterances will have been sufficiently tailored for them to be understandable and worth processing. Relevance theory can be seen as an attempt to spell out what this amounts to, and how it could be enough for communication to work:The goal of inferential pragmatics is to explain how the hearer infers the speaker’s meaning on the basis of the evidence provided. The relevance-theoretic account is based on another of Grice’s central claims: that utterances automatically create expectations which guide the hearer towards the speaker’s meaning. Grice described these expectations in terms of a Co-operative Principle and maxims of Quality (truthfulness), Quantity (informativeness), Relation (relevance) and Manner (clarity) which speakers are expected to observe (Grice 1961; 1989: 368-72): the interpretation a rational hearer should choose is the one that best satisfies those expectations. Relevance theorists share Grice’s intuition that utterances raise expectations of relevance, but question several other aspects of his account, including the need for a Co-operative Principle and maxims, … The central claim of relevance theory is that the expectations of relevance raised by an utterance are precise enough,[...]