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Myrto Grigoroglou and Anna Papafragou

To become competent communicators, children need to learn that what a speaker means often goes beyond the literal meaning of what the speaker says. The acquisition of pragmatics as a field is the study of how children learn to bridge the gap between the semantic meaning of words and structures and the intended meaning of an utterance. Of interest is whether young children are capable of reasoning about others’ intentions and how this ability develops over time. For a long period, estimates of children’s pragmatic sophistication were mostly pessimistic: early work on a number of phenomena showed that very young communicators were egocentric, oblivious to other interlocutors’ intentions, and overall insensitive to subtle pragmatic aspects of interpretation. Recent years have seen major shifts in the study of children’s pragmatic development. Novel methods and more fine-grained theoretical approaches have led to a reconsideration of older findings on how children acquire pragmatics across a number of phenomena and have produced a wealth of new evidence and theories. Three areas that have generated a considerable body of developmental work on pragmatics include reference (the relation between words or phrases and entities in the world), implicature (a type of inferred meaning that arises when a speaker violates conversational rules), and metaphor (a case of figurative language). Findings from these three domains suggest that children actively use pragmatic reasoning to delimit potential referents for newly encountered words, can take into account the perspective of a communicative partner, and are sensitive to some aspects of implicated and metaphorical meaning. Nevertheless, children’s success with pragmatic communication is fragile and task-dependent.


Deirdre Wilson

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.