Relevance theory is a cognitive approach to pragmatics which starts from two broadly Gricean assumptions: (a) that much human communication, both verbal and non-verbal, involves the overt expression and inferential recognition of intentions, and (b) that in inferring these intentions, the addressee presumes that the communicator’s behavior will meet certain standards, which for Grice are based on a Cooperative Principle and maxims, and for relevance theory are derived from the assumption that, as a result of constant selection pressures in the course of human evolution, both cognition and communication are relevance-oriented. Relevance is defined in terms of cognitive (or contextual) effects and processing effort: other things being equal, the greater the cognitive effects and the smaller the processing effort, the greater the relevance.
A long-standing aim of relevance theory has been to show that building an adequate theory of communication involves going beyond Grice’s notion of speaker’s meaning. Another is to provide a conceptually unified account of how a much broader variety of communicative acts than Grice was concerned with—including cases of both showing that and telling that—are understood. The resulting pragmatic theory differs from Grice’s in several respects. It sees explicit communication as much richer and more inferential than Grice thought, with encoded sentence meanings providing no more than clues to the speaker’s intentions. It rejects the close link that Grice saw between implicit communication and (real or apparent) maxim violation, showing in particular how figurative utterances might arise naturally and spontaneously in the course of communication. It offers an account of vagueness or indeterminacy in communication, which is often abstracted away from in more formally oriented frameworks. It investigates the role of context in comprehension, and shows how tentative hypotheses about the intended combination of explicit content, contextual assumptions, and implicatures might be refined and mutually adjusted in the course of the comprehension process in order to satisfy expectations of relevance.
Relevance theory treats the borderline between semantics and pragmatics as co-extensive with the borderline between (linguistic) decoding and (pragmatic) inference. It sees encoded sentence meanings as typically fragmentary and incomplete, and as having to undergo inferential enrichment or elaboration in order to yield fully propositional forms. It reanalyzes Grice’s conventional implicatures—which he saw as semantic but non-truth-conditional aspects of the meaning of words like but and so—as encoding procedural information with dedicated pragmatic or more broadly cognitive functions, and extends the notion of procedural meaning to a range of further items such as pronouns, discourse particles, mood indicators, and affective intonation.
Elizabeth Closs Traugott
Traditional approaches to semantic change typically focus on outcomes of meaning change and list types of change such as metaphoric and metonymic extension, broadening and narrowing, and the development of positive and negative meanings. Examples are usually considered out of context, and are lexical members of nominal and adjectival word classes.
However, language is a communicative activity that is highly dependent on context, whether that of the ongoing discourse or of social and ideological changes. Much recent work on semantic change has focused, not on results of change, but on pragmatic enabling factors for change in the flow of speech. Attention has been paid to the contributions of cognitive processes, such as analogical thinking, production of cues as to how a message is to be interpreted, and perception or interpretation of meaning, especially in grammaticalization. Mechanisms of change such as metaphorization, metonymization, and subjectification have been among topics of special interest and debate. The work has been enabled by the fine-grained approach to contextual data that electronic corpora allow.
Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla, and Klaus Zuberbühler
Rich data gathered in experimental primatology in the last 40 years are beginning to benefit from analytical methods used in contemporary linguistics, especially in the area of semantics and pragmatics. These methods have started to clarify five questions: (i) What morphology and syntax, if any, do monkey calls have? (ii) What is the ‘lexical meaning’ of individual calls? (iii) How are the meanings of individual calls combined? (iv) How do calls or call sequences compete with each other when several are appropriate in a given situation? (v) How did the form and meaning of calls evolve? Four case studies from this emerging field of ‘primate linguistics’ provide initial answers, pertaining to Old World monkeys (putty-nosed monkeys, Campbell’s monkeys, and colobus monkeys) and New World monkeys (black-fronted Titi monkeys). The morphology mostly involves simple calls, but in at least one case (Campbell’s -oo) one finds a root–suffix structure, possibly with a compositional semantics. The syntax is in all clear cases simple and finite-state. With respect to meaning, nearly all cases of call concatenation can be analyzed as being semantically conjunctive. But a key question concerns the division of labor between semantics, pragmatics, and the environmental context (‘world’ knowledge and context change). An apparent case of dialectal variation in the semantics (Campbell’s krak) can arguably be analyzed away if one posits sufficiently powerful mechanisms of competition among calls, akin to scalar implicatures. An apparent case of noncompositionality (putty-nosed pyow–hack sequences) can be analyzed away if one further posits a pragmatic principle of ‘urgency’. Finally, rich Titi sequences in which two calls are re-arranged in complex ways so as to reflect information about both predator identity and location are argued not to involve a complex syntax/semantics interface, but rather a fine-grained interaction between simple call meanings and the environmental context. With respect to call evolution, the remarkable preservation of call form and function over millions of years should make it possible to lay the groundwork for an evolutionary monkey linguistics, illustrated with cercopithecine booms.
Speech acts are acts that can, but need not, be carried out by saying and meaning that one is doing so. Many view speech acts as the central units of communication, with phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties of an utterance serving as ways of identifying whether the speaker is making a promise, a prediction, a statement, or a threat. Some speech acts are momentous, since an appropriate authority can, for instance, declare war or sentence a defendant to prison, by saying that he or she is doing so. Speech acts are typically analyzed into two distinct components: a content dimension (corresponding to what is being said), and a force dimension (corresponding to how what is being said is being expressed). The grammatical mood of the sentence used in a speech act signals, but does not uniquely determine, the force of the speech act being performed. A special type of speech act is the performative, which makes explicit the force of the utterance. Although it has been famously claimed that performatives such as “I promise to be there on time” are neither true nor false, current scholarly consensus rejects this view. The study of so-called infelicities concerns the ways in which speech acts might either be defective (say by being insincere) or fail completely.
Recent theorizing about speech acts tends to fall either into conventionalist or intentionalist traditions: the former sees speech acts as analogous to moves in a game, with such acts being governed by rules of the form “doing A counts as doing B”; the latter eschews game-like rules and instead sees speech acts as governed by communicative intentions only. Debate also arises over the extent to which speakers can perform one speech act indirectly by performing another. Skeptics about the frequency of such events contend that many alleged indirect speech acts should be seen instead as expressions of attitudes. New developments in speech act theory also situate them in larger conversational frameworks, such as inquiries, debates, or deliberations made in the course of planning. In addition, recent scholarship has identified a type of oppression against under-represented groups as occurring through “silencing”: a speaker attempts to use a speech act to protect her autonomy, but the putative act fails due to her unjust milieu.
In the linguistic literature, the term theme has several interpretations, one of which relates to discourse analysis and two others to sentence structure. In a more general (or global) sense, one may speak about the theme or topic (or topics) of a text (or discourse), that is, to analyze relations going beyond the sentence boundary and try to identify some characteristic subject(s) for the text (discourse) as a whole. This analysis is mostly a matter of the domain of information retrieval and only partially takes into account linguistically based considerations. The main linguistically based usage of the term theme concerns relations within the sentence. Theme is understood to be one of the (syntactico-) semantic relations and is used as the label of one of the arguments of the verb; the whole network of these relations is called thematic relations or roles (or, in the terminology of Chomskyan generative theory, theta roles and theta grids). Alternatively, from the point of view of the communicative function of the language reflected in the information structure of the sentence, the theme (or topic) of a sentence is distinguished from the rest of it (rheme, or focus, as the case may be) and attention is paid to the semantic consequences of the dichotomy (especially in relation to presuppositions and negation) and its realization (morphological, syntactic, prosodic) in the surface shape of the sentence. In some approaches to morphosyntactic analysis the term theme is also used referring to the part of the word to which inflections are added, especially composed of the root and an added vowel.