LINGUIST List 20.2342

Tue Jun 30 2009

Review: Pragmatics: Vega Moreno (2007)

Editor for this issue: Randall Eggert <>

        1.    Joerg Jost, Creativity and Convention

Message 1: Creativity and Convention
Date: 30-Jun-2009
From: Joerg Jost <>
Subject: Creativity and Convention
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at
AUTHOR: Vega Moreno, Rosa E.TITLE: Creativity and ConventionSUBTITLE: The pragmatics of everyday figurative speechSERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series; 156PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2007

Jörg Jost, University of Cologne, IDSL II

SUMMARYThe main concern of Vega Moreno's book is to provide ''a pragmatic inferentialapproach to the comprehension of everyday metaphorical and idiomatic speech.''This approach in its inferential processing character does not vary fromordinary literal utterances (pp. 1- 2). Vega Moreno's study is situated in theframework of Relevance Theory (RT) (Sperber & Wilson [1986] 1995). Sheconsequently argues from the wider perspective of human (creative) cognition. RTpresupposes that the human mind is (biologically) predisposed to efficientlyprocess information. In doing so, the theory claims, the human mind is generallysearching for relevance. Sperber and Wilson (1995:49) have called thisautomatism ''Cognitive Principle of Relevance''. It is this tendency of the humanmind which also makes manipulations and predictions about the mental states ofothers possible. Thus, a speaker may indicate (by giving a certain stimulus) hiscommunicative intention (i.e. manipulation) while relying upon the hearerprocessing the given information in the intended way (i.e. prediction). Forscholars within the tradition of RT, inferential communication is ''ostensive'',because it involves in addition to the informative intention an extracommunicative intention (Sperber & Wilson 1995:50- 54, see also Sperber & Wilson2008:610- 614) which has to be recognized for efficiently processing information(Sperber & Wilson 1995:50). With her study Vega Moreno explicitly refers to thisbasic RT idea, when she argues for ''the comprehension of linguistic utterancesin general, and of figurative utterances in particular'' as being a ''selectiveprocess'' whose result is ''either creativity or conventionalization'', for bothinvolve ''the construction of new ad hoc concepts'' (pp. 2, 3).

The first chapter adumbrates the human creative cognition perspective andoutlines ''selectivity'' as an important property for information processing. Moreprecisely, creativity is described as the cognitive ability of ''constructing,combining and modifying mental representations in thinking or in understandingwhat others think'' (p. 5). It is this cognitive process and the minds'selectivity that are of outstanding interest for the argumentation of VegaMoreno (p. 6). She finds evidence in psychological research for how the humanmind selects information by creating ad hoc categories. As the name implies,these categories are not permanently stored but instead they are built in orderto carry out a cognitive task online, e.g. a problem-solving task. RT claimsthat the human mind possesses stable concepts and furthermore has the ability tobuild new concepts ad hoc, for the latter can be described as subsets of theformer. In line with this assumption, for which RT provides some empiricalevidence, it is argued that selection ''results in a representation which denotesa subset (or superset) of the general category'' when merely some features of a(stable) concept are accessible while processing a certain task (p. 21). Thenewly constructed concept is what is then called an ad hoc concept.

Chapter two explores the theoretical basis for Vega Moreno's study on thepragmatics of everyday figurative speech: Sperber & Wilson's ([1986] 1995)Relevance Theory. Vega Moreno briefly outlines the connection betweencommunication and cognition. Starting from the very basic RT notion of theCognitive Principle of Relevance and people's - certainly limited - ability toread other people's minds (see e.g. Wilson 2000, Papafragou 2002), Vega Morenotraces the main line of argument of the RT comprehension procedure. Broughtabout by evolution, this procedure ''together with the notion of optimalrelevance and the communicative principle of relevance, are the key componentsof relevance- theoretic pragmatics'' (p. 35). RT suggests that implicaturesderive not consecutively but parallel to explicatures when interpreting anutterance. The interpretation process is driven by relevance and, consequently,is selective. According to this, Vega Moreno argues that understanding is acreative process (p. 43). When interpreting an utterance, the hearer's access tocontextual assumptions a speaker makes is guided by the comprehension proceduresRT explains. Vega Moreno relates these procedures to the so-called spreadingactivation models of memory. According to these, activating a concept initiatesthe further activation of semantically related concepts (in a certain degree ofsemantic depth) and so forth. From the lexical-pragmatic RT position, the numberof constructed and represented cognitive concepts is much larger than the numberof lexicalized linguistic concepts (p. 47). Factors influencing the pragmaticprocess of understanding an utterance, i.e. of processing relevant information,are the narrowing and the broadening of encoded concepts in contexts, which are''two different instantiations of a single process of pragmatic fine-tuning ofthe linguistically specified meaning of a word'' (p. 49). Accordingly, for RT''people often construct ad hoc concepts during utterance interpretation bybroadening or narrowing the encoded concepts. Furthermore, [RT; J.J.] proposesthat it is this ad hoc concept constructed on-line [...], and not the conceptencoded by the word, which the hearer takes as a constituent of the explicature''(p. 50). Under this perspective, the pragmatic fine-tuning process remains thesame, both when a literal intended utterance and a metaphorical intendedutterance are interpreted. This is the main theoretical assumption that VegaMoreno discusses.

Chapter three focuses on metaphors under two perspectives, since metaphors areviewed as being both a form of creative language use and a touchstone for everytheory of meaning. Vega Moreno asks how existing theories of metaphors explainmetaphorical meaning construction. She critically takes into considerationdifferent approaches: the classical view of metaphor that understands metaphoras a derivation from literalness and truthfulness; theories that understandmetaphorical interpretation as derived from an utterance's literalness; thecomparison view and matching models; and, discussed in more detail, theClass-Inclusion Theory by Glucksberg & Keysar (1990), which is important forVega Moreno's further argumentation (more precisely: the property- attributionhypothesis). She basically agrees with the interactive idea of this approach,but criticizes that no explanation is given of ''what [in the metaphoricalmeaning construction process; J.J.] determines the formation of [...] differentad hoc categories [...] on each occasion'' (p. 73). On the background of severalempirical studies and in line with different theories she discusses theimportance of the emergence of features for metaphorical meaning construction.In this context, both selection processes and attributing processes come to thefore. Yet, it is not enough to know ''the selection of vehicle properties andattribution of these properties'' for understanding how interpretation ofmetaphors works. It is more important to ask how properties are transformed,when a metaphorical expression is interpreted, ''into properties that can beappropriately attributed'' (p. 82). For this widely unresolved problem (i.e. thetransformation problem) a RT approach of metaphor comprehension in accordancewith empirical psycholinguistic evidence may offer an adequate explanation.

Chapter four elaborates the announced RT approach of metaphor interpretation. RTallows overcoming the literal priority as claimed by some non- cognitivemetaphor approaches. It does so by not clearly distinguishing between differentshapes of loose use of language and between loose use and literal use oflanguage. Viewed from a RT perspective, a speaker communicates both theexpressed proposition and a set of implications of that proposition (the encodedconcept). While selecting encyclopedic assumptions from the encoded concept, ahearer ad hoc builds a new concept. ''It is this new, broader ad hoc concept[...] constructed during the comprehension process, and not the encoded conceptthat [...] is taken to be a constituent of the proposition expressed by theutterance'' (p. 92). Whether the utterance is understood as literal or as a formof loose use, depends, according to RT, on the hearer's selection of assumptionsincluded in that ad hoc concept; the selection follows a hierarchical order ofcognitive accessibility. The criterion guiding the interpretation process is'relevance'. The RT pragmatic processes involved in interpreting utterances like''John is a soldier.'' or ''I am afraid about the divorce. My husband's lawyer is ashark.'' are above all inferential processes. Such transformation processesinvolve the pragmatic adjustment of the explicit content of that utterance, ofcontextual assumptions, and of implicatures as well as it involves thelexical-pragmatic fine-tuning in understanding the utterance either literally orfiguratively (p. 95). The specification of metaphorical force, and moregenerally the distinction of looseness/creativity and convention/literalness ofan utterance, is regarded as depending on the requirement of pragmaticadjustment, i.e. as depending on ''the strength of the explicatures andimplicatures which the hearer takes the speaker to have intended to convey andthe amount of processing required to derive them'' (pp. 112, 113). In otherwords: the more creative the metaphor the more adjustment is required. Given theRT premise of our cognitive disposition being triggered by relevance, frequencyof use and familiarity of an expression reduce the cognitive effort of thehearer searching for relevance when interpreting an utterance. This is what VegaMoreno calls ''pragmatic routine'' (pp.116- 119).

Chapter five distinguishes the RT approach of metaphor from Class InclusionTheory (CIT) and Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT). RT and CIT share theassumption that in a metaphorical expression, the metaphorical word's content ispart of the explicit content of that utterance (in the utterance ''My lawyer is ashark'' the content of 'shark'). According to both theories, the ad hoc conceptSHARK*, which entails 'aggressiveness of animals and people which makes one fear...', is part of the explicit content of the utterance but differs from theconcept SHARK encoded by the word 'shark'. The theories vary, however, in theirexplanation of how the conceptual construction is processed while understandingthe utterance (pp. 121- 130). In contrast to both of these theories CMT does notexplain (and does not want to do so) online comprehension of metaphors butprimarily looks at 'why' we live in metaphors. For Vega Moreno it is of primaryimportance that RT allows explanation of the comprehension processes ofcommunication – be they literal or figurative. She criticizes CMT because notonly the concept of 'conceptual metaphor' remains unclear but also its role instructuring our thought and in comprehending metaphorical language use.

Chapter six and seven report mainly psycholinguistic research on comprehensionprocesses of idiomatic expressions. Idioms share the ''ability to move back andforth between literalness and looseness, creativity and standardisation'' (p.185) and, hence, are interesting phenomena for an RT approach. Vega Moreno firstdiscusses the analyzability and compositionality of idioms. She then points outthat it is necessary to examine how the transparency of idioms in onlineprocessing (p. 174), i.e. the relation between the single words of an idiomaticexpression and the expression as a whole, relates to their role in onlinelanguage processing. Vega Moreno argues that RT offers an answer to theseresearch questions. The author claims that hearers process idioms like ''spillthe beans'' always the same, i.e. irrespective of their degree of literalness orlooseness. She further claims that comprehension processes of idioms do notdiffer from those of non-idiomatic expressions.

Chapter eight finally summarizes first the argument of ordinary language usefloating between creativity and conventionality, and secondly that of pragmaticroutines guiding hearers through these free floating boundaries of utterances.It is this ''psychology of routines'' (p. 221) that Vega Moreno asks for and thatshe defends against the background of general psychological and psycholinguisticevidence about utterance comprehension as gained by RT.

EVALUATIONThis is a valuable book for scholars interested in pragmatic processes ofunderstanding figurative speech and sharing cognitive pragmatic presumptions.With 'creativity' and 'conventionality' the book highlights two 'aggregatestates' of language use resulting while interpreting everyday (figurative)speech. Embedded in the RT framework Vega Moreno starts her argumentation from acritique of traditional models of figurative and conventional language use onthe basis of the criterion of familiarity. Under this perspective meaningconsists in retrieving static patterns from memory, and not - as RT suggests -in online processing linguistic expressions on the basis of both their encodedliteral meaning and of the context. Consequently, traditional models fail inexplaining idiom variants and possibly different meanings resulting from one andthe same linguistic expression (pp. 1- 3). This critique is the very startingpoint of the book.

There are two main arguments developed which seem to me the most interesting andfruitful contribution of the book to explaining pragmatic (inferential)processes: First the assumption that not the encoded concept (the concept PIGSTYencoded by the word _pigsty_) but the construction of a new and broader ad hocconcept (MAX'S ROOM IS A PIGSTY*) is a constituent of the proposition expressedwith an utterance, i.e. of the explicature. When interpreting an utterance ase.g. ''Max's room is a pigsty'' the hearer chooses the 'right' aspects of theconstructed ad hoc concept by processing them in order of their accessibility.He thereby is guided by his permanent search for relevance during which healways chooses the path of least cognitive effort. There is no doubt that thisargument offers a plausible explanation for the selection problem ininterpretation processes. However, it is not extensive enough for describing whyselection happens in a way. When Peter asks: ''Can we trust John to do as we tellhim and defend the interests of the Linguistics Department in the UniversityCouncil?'', and Mary answers: ''John is a soldier!'' (pp. 92- 93) a subset ofpossible encyclopedic assumptions is activated by the hearer when interpretingMary's answer in the given context:

a. John is devoted to his duty.b. John willingly follows orders.c. John does not question authority.d. John identifies with the goals of his team.e. John is a patriot.f. John earns a soldier's pay.g. John is a member of the military. (cf. p. 93)

Vega Moreno explains that ''[t]he process stops when once the hearer has arrivedat a combination of explicit content, context and implicatures which satisfieshis expectations of relevance. In processing [the given example; J.J.], Petermay satisfy his expectations of relevance by only the implications in [a- d]. Itfollows that, contrary to the prediction of standard pragmatic models, he [...]may never derive the implication in [g] or derive at a literal interpretation ofMary's utterance'' (p. 93). This explanation seems to me very similar to MaxBlack's ([1954] 1962) ''filter''. Black compares a metaphorical expression to ''apiece of heavily smoked glass on which certain lines have been left clear.''(Black 1962: 41) When interpreting the metaphorical expression only someattributes of – what Black calls – systems of associated commonplaces, i.e.commonplaces we associate e.g. with soldier, are relevant for interpreting themetaphorical expression, comparable with those attributes that lie on the clearlines of the glass, whereas attributes not associated while interpreting theexpression lie behind the smoked glass. In my opinion, the problem of the RTapproach (and of Black's) is the unidimensionality of the selection processproposed, which results in the uniqueness of the criteria of relevance (or inBlack's 'filter function') for explaining selection. The approach proposed byVega Moreno doesn't address that problem either. An alternative going beyondthis unidimensionality would probably be Levinson's (2000) approach of heuristicinterpretation. Levinson claims a set of hierarchically organized heuristicswhen interpreting, and therewith gets over one single criterion responsible forexplaining the complex process of selection, as proposed by RT.

The second important argument of this book is what Vega Moreno calls''inferential routes and pragmatic routines''. The frequent use of utterances andtheir resulting familiarity allows minimizing the cognitive effort of a hearer,when repeatedly processing an inferential path. ''Pragmatic routines are a kindof cognitive procedure that might be expected to develop given the CognitivePrinciple of Relevance. Use of available pragmatic routines is encouraged by theCommunicative Principle of Relevance since they make an utterance particularlyeasy to process in a way that is likely to satisfy expectations of relevance''(p. 118). Satisfying expectations, not of relevance (as in RT) but ofcoordination problems in communication, is tied in Lewis' ([1969] 2002)philosophical approach to convention, a primary category of linguistic units.Vega Moreno argues for the processing of familiar (linguistic) stimuli todevelop routines for minimizing cognitive processing effort, and that thismechanism does not only apply to utterance interpretation but is rather acharacteristic attribute of cognition. Apart from the cognitively interestingpoint, the development of pragmatic routines sheds light on the balance ofconventionality and creativity of language use. This idea is also central toNelson Goodman's (1976) theory of symbols. According to Goodman, realism ofrepresentation (contrary to invention) is a matter of a relationship between asystem of representation and a standard system. Realistic representation(realism) is not a case of imitation or illusion, but of inculcation, whichmeans that ''realism is a matter of habit'' (Goodman 1976:38). Under thisperspective creativity and convention become floating boundaries which graduallyappear through concrete language use. What Vega Moreno argues for being acognitive procedure, sheds light on the symbolic procedures in a symbolic theoryframework. Even for those primarily interested in the latter processes, VegaMoreno's ambitious book is an inspiring and absorbing reading.

REFERENCESBlack, Max. ([1954] 1962). ''Metaphor.'' In: _Models and Metaphors_. Ithaca,London: Cornell University Press, 25- 47.

Goodman, Nelson. (1976). _Languages of Arts_. Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett.

Levinson, Stephen. (2000). _Presumptive Meanings. The Theory of GeneralizedConversational Implicature_. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Lewis, David. ([1969] 2002). _Convention_. Oxford: Blackwell.

Papafragou, Anna. (2002). ''Mindreading and Verbal Communication''. _Mind &Language_, 17 (1/2), pp. 55–67.

Sperber, Dan & Wilson, Deirdre. ([1986] 1995). _Relevance. Communication &Cognition_. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sperber, Dan & Wilson, Deirdre. (2008). ''Relevance Theory''. In Horn, Laurence R.& Ward, Gregory (eds.): _The Handbook of Pragmatics_. Oxford: Blackwell, 607- 632.

Wilson, Deirdre. (2000). ''Metarepresentation in linguistic communication''. InSperber, Dan (ed.): _Metarepresentations_. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 411-448.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJörg Jost teaches at the University of Cologne, IDSL II. He holds a PhD inLinguistics from RWTH Aachen University. His 2007 book (in German) is _Topos undMetapher. Zur Pragmatik und Rhetorik des Verständlichmachens_ (_Topos andMetaphor. The Pragmatics and the Rhetoric of Enhancing Comprehension_). Currentresearch interests in the field of pragmatics concern metaphors andimplicatures. In the field of applied linguistics he is interested incommunication in educational contexts and in the pragmatics of writing competencies.