LINGUIST List 25.383

Thu Jan 23 2014

Review: Pragmatics; Semantics: Wilson & Sperber (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 01-Sep-2013
From: Leah Paltiel-Gedalyovich <>
Subject: Meaning and Relevance
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Deirdre Wilson
AUTHOR: Dan Sperber
TITLE: Meaning and Relevance
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Leah R. Paltiel-Gedalyovich, Hedim Institutes of Audiology, Ltd

This volume is a collection of papers previously published by Sperber and
Wilson. This book contains a sample of the current status of relevance theory,
as it has developed since originally present in the authors' 1986 book
''Relevance: Communication and Cognition''. The preface presents the general
hypothesis that linguistic meanings provide evidence of a speaker's intended
meaning but do not actually encode this meaning.

The introduction defines 'pragmatics' as ''the study of how contextual factors
interact with linguistic meaning in the interpretation of utterances'' (p.1).
The authors begin with Grice's work on implicature, bridging linguistic
meaning and broader communicated meaning. Then they present three approaches
to pragmatics which follow from Grice's work: the 'literalist' approach, the
'contextualist' approach, and the 'cognitive-relevance approach'. The
'literalist' approach describes a process of recovering explicit sentence
meaning through assignment of referents. The 'contextualist' approach
describes recovery of speaker meaning through a significant amount of
pragmatic inference. The 'cognitive-relevance' approach describes a process
which results in optimally relevant interpretation of utterances. The authors
also relate these principles to the question of semantic interpretation. The
'literalist' approach sees explicit sentences as expressing (near)
propositions. The 'contextualist' approach sees these as expressing only
partial propositions, such that even complete truth-conditional meaning is
achieved through pragmatic inference.

Relevance theory introduces the idea of 'explicature', the speaker's explicit
meaning developed from the logical form represented by a sentence.
'Implicature' on the other hand refers a message implicitly communicated by
the speaker by uttering the utterance. Degrees of explicitness of a message
relate to the relative degrees to which decoding and pragmatic inference
contribute to utterance interpretation. The final interpretation of an
utterance is a choice from several possibilities which arise from the details
of implicatures that arise.

The introduction continues with a discussion of lexical pragmatics. A
comparison of Gricean and relevance theory approaches to metaphors, trope and
vagueness is presented. Relevance theory suggests a process of adjustment of
explicatures and implicatures of an utterance as an explanation.

Finally, the authors suggest that combining a contextual semantics and a
relevance-theoretic pragmatics allow for explanation of speech acts,
presuppositions and indexicals. Interpreting these parts of utterances
requires selecting 'higher order' explicatures from those arising as directed
by 'indicators' in the utterance. The introduction concludes with a
reiteration of the cognitive nature of the relevance theory approach to
sentence interpretation and the advantages of such an approach.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, 'Relevance and Meaning',
deals with the human ability to communicate beyond the bounds of an agreed
linguistic code. It includes 6 chapters. Each discusses the relevance theory
approach to a specific language phenomenon.

In Chapter 2, Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson discuss 'The mapping between the
mental and the public lexicon' the mapping between 'public words' and ' mental
concepts'. There is no one-to-one mapping between words and concepts; the most
appropriate of the possible mappings is contextually chosen. The 'literal'
mapping is just one of these possibilities, and not necessarily favored. A
concept is defined as 'an enduring elementary structure, which is capable of
playing different discriminatory or inferential roles on different occasions
in an individual's mental life' (p.35). An 'inferential theory' of
communication is presented. Relevance is defined in terms of a relationship
between inputs and cognitive processes. From this they derive a 'cognitive
principle' and a 'communicative principle'. The result is a comprehension
procedure of this type: construct a conceptual structure from the linguistic
code, explicitly enrich this structure and implicitly complement it until an
'expectedly' relevant interpretation is reached. The variability of the
mapping from linguistic code to interpretation, both within and between
speakers, does not impede communication since an encoded message merely
provides an indication of the speaker's communicative intent, and not a
complete explicit message.

In Chapter 3, 'Truthfulness and relevance', Wilson and Sperber argue that what
is 'communicated' is assumed to be true, and not what is 'said'. Expectations
that utterances are true result from the expectation that these utterances are
relevant. Different explanations of metaphor, irony, loose and figurative
speech follow. The emphasis is on the truth of the conclusions drawn by the
hearer based on the utterances which may have practical implications for the
hearer's behavior.

Utterances are defined as relevant only in the case that they result in the
cognitive benefits of information (knowledge) gain and/or revision of
currently held assumptions. Utterances are also evaluated in terms of the cost
or effort required to achieve the interpretation. Human communication aims for
'optimal relevance', based on relevance relative to hearer effort and relative
to the speaker's characteristics. The chapter includes an illustration of how
this works. Linguistic decoding is seen as an automatic, almost trivial part
of the process. The chapter concludes by redefining the concepts 'explicit',
'literal' and 'what is said' within the framework of relevance theory.

In Chapter 4, 'Rhetoric and relevance' by Sperber and Wilson, the dilemma of
rhetoric is described. The proposed solution to the dilemma is to retain the
notion of literal meaning without the presupposition of literal use. The
application of relevance theory to metaphor and 'loose' uses of language is
described. In interpreting these utterances, no literal interpretation is
examined and rejected; the hearer interprets directly to the 'non-literal'
interpretation relevant to the discourse. Metaphors and 'figurative' speech
are not merely seen as decorations but as triggering cognitive effects, by
basically the same mechanism as is used in interpreting non-figurative speech.

In terms of speech acts, there is not a direct correspondence between
grammatical mood and illocutionary act. In echoing an utterance the speaker is
communicating his attitude to this utterance and thus the echo is relevant.
Irony is seen as echoing a thought while expressing an ironic attitude.

Chapter 5, 'A deflationary account of metaphors', is also by Sperber and
Wilson. Relevance theory views metaphor as important, but not distinctive from
other, more 'literal' expressions. The chapter reviews the role of language in
communication. As opposed to the traditional orientation, relevance theory
does not view human communication as the process of decoding and sees language
as a defective code.

When interpreting an utterance, the concepts available include broadening and
narrowing, as well as the continuum between them. Similarly there is a
continuum between 'literal' to variously inferred interpretations so that the
interpretation of metaphors does not require a special mechanism. Poetic
effects are achieved by promoting the inference of a large number of weak

In Chapter 6, 'Explaining irony', Wilson and Sperber describe the point of
irony as the speaker showing that the statement uttered is grossly inadequate.
In this chapter for the first time a reference is made to the developmental
and clinical applications of pragmatic theory. They point out three puzzles
connected with irony. First, relevance theory suggests that irony involves the
expression of an attitude rather than an assertion literal or otherwise. Irony
relates to attitude while other types of figurative expressions are thoughts
about to states of affairs. Second, irony appears to have a normative bias
where is can be used to deride but not to praise. Thirdly, ironic expressions
have a specific intonation pattern.

Relevance theory provides an echoic account of irony in which irony is seen as
an example of attributive use of language in which the speaker does not make
an assertion but communicates an attitude about an assertion. Ironic
utterances are distinctive in that the attitudes they convey are dissociative
(the thought is considered to be false or grossly inadequate). Metaphors are
distinguished from irony in that metaphors express a thought about a state of
affairs while irony expresses an attitude about a thought.

The second part of the book, 'Explicit and Implicit Communication', discusses
arguments in support of the major contribution of pragmatic processes to
explicit communication, beginning with Chapter 7, 'Linguistic form and
relevance' by Wilson and Sperber. Utterance interpretation involves two
phases. A linguistically encoded logical form is enriched first by inference.
This enriched 'propositional' form, which may be seen as an explicature, is
then the input to an inference mechanism. Relevance theorists argue that among
Gricean maxims, relevance is sufficient to motivate this mechanism and the
remaining three maxims are therefore unnecessary.

Pragmatics deals with the distinction between decoding and inference while
semantics then deals with questions about the decoding phase. A distinction is
made between informative and communicative intentions. One may be covert while
the other is overt. Linguistic constructions not only include decoded
information (conceptual information) but also the procedures for dealing with
this information. This 'conceptual representation' acts as we might have
assumed a logical form would act in terms of entailment and contradiction
relations and truth-conditions.

Four types of information are described: conceptual, truth-conditional
information coded by 'content' words, conceptual, non-truth-conditional
information inferred by adverbials as higher level explicatures, procedural,
non-truth-conditional information inferred from discourse connectives which
constrain implicature inferences and procedural and truth-conditional
information encoded by personal pronouns which restrain the explicature
inferences arriving from an utterance in which they participate.

In Chapter 8, 'Pragmatics and time', Wilson and Sperber contrast the Gricean
interpretation where the temporal (including interval), causal and sequential
information provided by conjunction is purely inferential (implicatures) on
one hand and how relevance theory views this information as the pragmatically
inferred parts of the truth-conditional content of the utterance. The authors
argue that this latter approach allows this phenomenon to be analyzed within
the same general explanation based on inference as other phenomena discussed.

Chapter 9 is 'Recent approaches to bridging: truth, coherence, relevance' by
Wilson and Tomoko Matsui. It discusses inferences based on 'bridging
assumptions', or assumptions made by the hearer to allow him to find the
reference of a noun phrase. The authors argue for a relevance-based
explanation which incorporates cognitive effort and communicative effect
rather than 'coherence' and truth-based approaches, or combinations of the
two. In this chapter too, experimental results are brought to illustrate and
support the arguments.

Chapter 10, 'Mood and the analysis of non-declarative sentences' by Wilson and
Sperber, begins with a discussion of 'mood' as the logical properties of
declarative versus other types of sentences. 'Illocutionary force' is then
taken to be a pragmatic property of utterances. Here too, the relationship
between mood and force is seen as inferential. Mood seems to indicate a group
of utterance uses. Semantically, imperative sentences are considered to
describe possible worlds which the speaker sees as 'potential' and
'desirable'. Depending on the use of the utterance, desirability may be
defined from the point of view of the speaker or the hearer. The authors
describe 'descriptive' representation as 'a relation between thoughts or
utterances and possible or actual states of affairs which make them true' and
'interpretive' representation as 'a relation between thoughts or utterances
and other thoughts and utterances that they resemble in content.' (p.218).
Thus, an explanation of imperative utterances relies on an interpretive
representation. A similar line is presented to explain the interpretation of
interrogative utterances. The authors claim that the linguistic form of
imperatives, interrogatives and other non-declarative sentences is restricted
to indicating the relevance of the utterance and plays a minimal role in
utterance interpretation.

Chapter 11, 'Metapresentation in linguistic communication' by Deidre Wilson,
deals with an integration of a relevance theory account of understanding
speaker meanings and a more general cognitive account of 'theory of mind'. The
part of language under discussion is the comprehension of reported speech,
direct or indirect, and this chapter again includes a summary of relevance
theory. Developmental stages in inference are described. Progress from stage
to stage parallels general stages of development of 'theory of mind'. In this
approach interpretation is achieved by 'resemblance', either metalinguistic or
interpretive. The chapter also shows how this approach deals with attributive

The third part of the book, ''Cross-Disciplinary Themes', explores broader
implications of relevance theory. Chapter 12, by Sperber and Wilson,
'Pragmatics, modularity and mindreading', begins with a summary of the nature
and purpose of pragmatic study. Pragmatics is seen as a metapsychological
process, specialized for communication. Support for comprehension being a
general metapsychological process is found partly in the correlation of
various degrees of difficulty (first, second, third order, etc.) with other
cognitive abilities, particularly of a 'theory of mind'. An argument is made
for the modular nature of pragmatics. The rationalized inferential steps
suggested by Grice can then be a 'test' for the pragmatic nature of the
inference (i.e. conversational implicature), but may not be a model of how the
inference is actually made. The currently proposed model suggests a sub-module
for comprehension within a more general theory of mind module. At least some
of the specific functions of the mind-reading module may be innate.

The authors take an evolutionary approach to human cognition. A gradual
evolutionary process steers the cognitive system to relevance while a discrete
evolutionary process results in the 'relevance -- based comprehension module'.
The search for relevance guides attention, memory retrieval and inference.

Chapter 13, by Jean-Baptiste Van der Henst and Sperber, 'Testing the cognitive
and communicative principles of relevance', surveys experimental data
supporting the cognitive and communicative principles of relevance. It
recounts the basis of relevance theory using a previously appearing example.
The experimentation requires manipulating the effort required to achieve an
interpretation while holding the effect constant, or by manipulating the
effect while holding the effort constant. This results in different degrees of
satisfaction of a hearer's expectations of relevance. Determinate and
indeterminate problems are presented. Subjects are asked what follows from the
premises. Answers of 'nothing follows' from the indeterminate problems show
that irrelevant or trivial conclusions are not considered, thus supporting the
notion of relevance in inference. The effort required to reach a conclusion
affects its perceived relevance. The conclusions from these reasoning
experiments lead to a theory that relevance generally influences performance
on cognitive tasks and results may reflect task relevance rather than an
individual's ability. Manipulation of effort and effect independently showed
that both affect reasoning. Further experiments specifically address the role
of the communicative principle of relevance in speech production. Results show
that speakers formulate their utterances such as to achieve maximum relevance.

Chapter 14, 'The why and how of experimental pragmatics: the case of 'scalar
inferences' by Ira Noveck and Sperber, further discusses experimental support
for relevance theory, specifically the case of 'scalar inferences'. The
problem of basing pragmatic theory on pragmatic intuitions of researchers is
brought. Experiments clarify these intuitions and further help sort out
differences between different theoretical accounts. The chapter reviews
generalized conversational implicatures (GCIs). Four claims of GCIs are
brought and then refuted. The first, that GCIs are default, is refuted since
cancellation of GCIs in a significant percentage of cases would require too
much effort. The context independent argument is refuted as a scalar term such
as 'some' would vary in its reference (the quantity referred to) depending on
the context of the utterance. Relevance theory argues that these inferences
are not scalar -- not really indicative of a pre-existing scale since the
'literal' meaning can be extended or restricted, and are not implicatures but
in most cases explicatures.

GCI and relevance theory accounts of scalar term interpretation predict
different experimental results. Developmental experiments are described which
show that children are overall less likely to interpret scalar terms with
pragmatic enrichment than adults. Experiments showing that enriched
interpretations take longer than literal interpretations are counterevidence
for default scalar inferences and support a relevance theory approach.
Specifically, these results do not support a default -- and thus speedier --
nature of the scalar inferences. The main aim of their chapter is to encourage
students of pragmatics to consider experimental work in their theoretical

The final chapter, 'A pragmatic perspective on the evolution of language' by
Sperber and Gloria Origg, begins with an overview of the differences between a
'code' model of communication and an 'inferential' model. The discussion
distinguishes animal communication, which involves codes, from human
communication in which the 'code' plays only a minor role. In inferential
communication, a mutual goal or conclusion is required, not a mutual code.
From an evolutionary point of view, changes and developments of the existing
grammar of the code are felicitous in inferential communication but
detrimental in non-inferential, 'code' communication.

The chapters originally appeared as independent papers. Still, the chapters
cohere since the editors authored or co-authored all of the chapters. There is
repetition of basic definitions and concepts of 'relevance theory' in most
chapters. Often, there are slight differences in emphasis and definition of
central concepts (e.g. compare the two main principles of relevance as
described in Chapters 2, 4 and 5). In each case the explanation assumes no
prior knowledge on the part of the reader. The result is on one hand highly
repetitious, while on the other, guarantees that by the end of the book the
reader is well familiar with these principles and mechanisms. Throughout,
examples clarify the theory and to support its explanatory value. Several of
the examples recur in different papers. Other topics recur in different

The book is cleanly produced, though I found one small typo on page 318 where
'some' should be replaced by 'or'.

The authors have met their proposed goal of providing a survey of relevance
theory in recent years. Interesting issues include a solution to the interval
problem presented in Chapter 8, which could have interesting applications to
the 'allover' implicature affecting colors and other adjectives. I am left
with a question about the place and process of decoding. The actual words are
seen by relevance theory as a trigger, however I did not gain a clear picture
of how the nature and the details of the trigger are seen within the theory.

Overall, this book is well organized and gives a comprehensive overview of
relevance theory.

Leah R. Paltiel-Gedalyovich is a speech language clinician with a special
interest in clinical applications of theoretical linguistics. Her doctoral
thesis, and research since, investigated the semantic-pragmatic interface in
first (Hebrew) language acquisition, specifically scalar implicatures. Her
current research projects involve the development of a comprehensive battery
for developmental Hebrew language acquisition.

Page Updated: 23-Jan-2014