LINGUIST List 14.459

Sun Feb 16 2003

Review: Pragmatics: Blakemore (2002)

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  • Zouhair Maalej, Relevance and Linguistic Meaning

    Message 1: Relevance and Linguistic Meaning

    Date: Sat, 15 Feb 2003 22:21:00 +0000
    From: Zouhair Maalej <>
    Subject: Relevance and Linguistic Meaning

    Blakemore, Diane (2002) Relevance and Linguistic Meaning: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Discourse Markers, Cambridge University Press, viii+200pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-64007-5, $65.00, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 99.

    Announced at

    Zouhair Maalej, Department of Linguistics, UNM at Albuquerque Department of English Manouba, University of Manouba in Tunis

    Book's contents

    Apart from the introduction and the conclusion, the book includes five chapters.

    Introduction (pp. 1-11)

    Functioning in a relevance-theoretic perspective, Blakemore presents her book as dealing with a set of discourse markers in a non-truth conditional (p. 2) cognitive semantic framework (p. 3) which shuns the distinction between semantics and pragmatics, thus replacing them with ''procedural and conceptual encoding'' (p. 4).

    1) Meaning and Truth (pp. 12-31)

    The first chapter is devoted to two concerns: (i) criticizing generative grammar as providing very little insight into non-truth conditional meaning, and (ii) clarifying the relevance position in relation to truth- conditional meaning. Reviving the debate between semantics and pragmatics, the author argues that relevance theory knows no ''semantic retreat'' as it functions with conceptual representations and their truth conditions (p. 30).

    2) Non-truth Conditional Meaning (pp. 32-58)

    The author starts the chapter by making a distinction between two dimensions of non-truth conditional meaning: (i) where structures and expressions do not contribute to the truth conditions of the utterances that include them, and (ii) where context contributes to the truth conditions of the utterances. Blakemore isolates imperatives, interrogatives, and exclamatives as non-truth Conditional, and argues that Austin's speech act theory and Grice's version of pragmatics both failed to offer a non-truth conditional version for their respective theories. Blakemore devotes an important part of the chapter to the study of ''but'' from Grice's view of conventional implicature and relevance theoretic perspective.

    3) Relevance and Meaning (pp. 59-88)

    Blakemore continues what she started in Chapters I and II, i.e., the possible distinction between semantics and pragmatics through an extensive review of relevance theory. Her efforts are invested in looking if she can correlate or replace truth-conditional meaning (i.e., semantics) with conceptual encoding and non-conditional meaning (i.e., pragmatics) with procedural encoding. She eventually decides that ''not all non-conditional meaning is procedural'' (p. 83).

    4) Procedural Meaning (pp. 89-148)

    Blakemore abandons the distinction made between describing and indicating because they cross-cut the distinction between conceptual and procedural encoding, arguing that procedural encoding traces an inferential path for the understander to get to the conceptual representation. Only some discourse markers (e.g., but, after all, etc.) tend to involve cognitive effects of contextual implication, strengthening and elimination. Some others, however, require more than these cognitive effects (e.g., discourse initial ''well'').

    5) Relevance and Discourse (pp. 149-83)

    Blakemore discusses a few conception of discourse, and argues that what defines discourse is a search for coherence, which is not deemed to be sufficient to explain discourse markers. Eventually, coherence is superseded by relevance.

    Critical evaluation

    In the introduction to her book, Blakemore makes what seems to me to be two theoretically conflicting claims about the framework she is working with: (i) that she is working within ''a cognitive approach to meaning'' (p. 3), and (ii) that the relevance theoretic framework she is using has ''the potential to provide a theory of utterance interpretation which is consistent with generative grammar'' (p. 7). To use Sperber and Wilson (1995: 9) that Blakemore is using, ''the semantic representation of a sentence, as assigned to it by a generative grammar, can take no account of such non-linguist properties as, for example, the time and place of the utterance, the identity of the speaker, the speaker's intentions, and so on.'' The criticism that can be addressed is: Why has a theory of utterance interpretation, which purports to be grounded within a cognitive pragmatic framework, be consistent with generative grammar? As far as all of us know, if the formal and the cognitive frameworks overlap in some places, what divides them makes them stand poles apart (Langacker, 1987, 2002; Lakoff, 1991). It should not, however, be understood that Blakemore is too sympathetic to generative grammar or formal semantics; she devoted the bulk of the first chapter to condemning them as inadequate to deal with linguistic performance.

    Commenting on ''Even Ben likes Rugby'' and ''Ben Likes Rugby too'', the author writes that ''both utterances will be true iff Ben likes Rugby'' (p. 34). This is a strange statement from a pragmatist of a relevance-theoretic persuasion and the writer of _Understanding Utterances_, where at least ''Even Ben likes Rugby'' can be acceptable in an appropriate context even though Ben may hate Rugby. For instance, the speaker may want to tease Ben (wile knowing that he does not like Rugby) or the speaker may mean it ironically in a relevant context.

    The book offers, however, a great insight into the way relevance theory behaves vis-à-vis discourse markers. The fact that Blakemore rightly shuns traditional taxonomies has made her book a successful search for what kind of markers are procedural and how procedural they are in connection with the general search for optimal relevance. The extensive repetition of examples throughout the book has served the purpose of bringing her chapters together, as well as reminding the reader. Her book will very likely be more appreciated by relevance theory specialists than students of pragmatics.


    Lakoff, George (1991). ''Cognitive versus Generative Linguistics: How Commitments Influence Results.'' Language and Communication,'' 11: 1/2, 53-62.

    Langacker, Ronald (1987). _Foundations of Cognitive Grammar_ (Vol.1). Theoretical Prerequisites_. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson (1995). _Relevance: Communication and Cognition_. Oxford/Cambridge: Blackwell. (Second edition).


    Zouhair Maalej is an assistant professor of linguistics. His interests include cognitive linguistics, metaphor, pragmatics, cognitive pragmatics, neuropsychology, psycholinguistics, critical discourse analysis, sign language and gesture, etc. He has been awarded a senior Fulbright research scholarship that he is currently spending at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (2002-2003) in writing a book on cognitive metaphor, with special reference to Arabic.