Constructing And Interpreting The Meaning Of Utterances English Language Essay

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We examine how speakers and hearers rely on context in constructing and interpreting the meaning of utterances. Sometimes this kind of knowledge is called non-linguistic knowledge because it is argued that knowing the names of some person does not form part of one's knowledge of English, in the same way as knowing the meaning of pair or talk. For, of course, knowledge about film stars or music personalities is not restricted to speakers of any single language in the way that knowledge of a particular noun or verb's meaning is. We see that non-linguistic knowledge about the world does perform an important role in understanding utterances.

The reason of course is that, pronouns like I, you, he. Etc are shorthand devices which need various forms of contextual support. Elements of language that are so contextually bound are called deictic, from the noun deixis.


Spatial deixis

The deictic devices in a language commit a speaker to set up a frame of reference around herself. As we will see, every language carries an implicit division of the space around the current speaker, a division of time relative to the act of speaking, and, via pronouns, a shorthand naming system for the participants involved in the talk.

Eg: It's too hot here in the sun, let's take our drinks into the shade over there.

The adverbs here and there pick our places according to their proximity to the location of the speaker. We can see this because, of course, if the speaker moves, the interpretation of the adverbs will change. When the speaker and her addressee have moved, they can call the shade here and their original place in the sun there as in the following example,

Eg: I'm glad we moved here, I was melting over there.

Extensions of spatial deixis:

Systems of spatial deixis are also used in other domains. for example they are often used as a form of orientation within a discourse, in what we could therefore call discourse or textual deixis, as when we say here our arguments runs into some difficulties or at this point we have to look back to our initial premises. In many languages too, spatial deixis terms, such as demonstratives, are extended to refer to time. An example of this use of the demonstratives is below:

Eg: That year was much hotter than this one is.

This transference is often described as a metaphorical shift from the more concrete domain of physical space to the more abstract domain of time. The belief that there is general human tendency to extend spatial terms in this way to a range of other linguistic domains is sometimes called localism. A more complicated example which is sometimes quoted is the use of the verb go in English and other languages for immediate future tenses, as in the future-tense reading of 'he is going to leave the country', where the idea of spatial movement away from the speaker is mapped into time as a future event.

Person deixis:

A further deictic system grammaticalizes the roles of participants: the current speaker, addressee and others. This information is grammaticalized by pronouns: typically a first person singular pronoun is used for the speaker, second person pronouns for addressee and minimally, a third person category for a category 'neither-nor-addressee(s)'.This basic three-way system is the basis of most pronoun systems but once again languages differ in the amount of other contextual information that is included in pronouns. Generally Arabic pronouns encode more information about number than the English pronouns, there is an extra category dual, which is used for 'exactly two'. The coding of gender is also different: English has a neuter pronoun 'it' which does not occur in Arabic, where all third persons have to have either masculine or feminine gender. On the other hand, Arabic pronouns encode gender more widely: English distinguishes between he and she. So both language have an economic and portable reference system for participants that can be used in any context, but we can see that the packaging of information about participants differs.

Social deixis:

The pronouns systems of some languages also grammaticalize information about the social identities or relationships of the participants in the conversation. Some writers, for example Levinson (1983), call this phenomenon social deixis. There is a lot of distinction in many European languages between 'familiar' and 'polite' pronouns. Speakers of these languages are committed to revealing their calculations of relative intimacy and formality to their addressees. If we identify this category of social deixis, then Asian languages like Japanese, Korean and Balinese have much richer systems for grammaticalizing social relations. In Japanese, the distinctions are marked by the speaker not only in relation to an addressee but also to third persons.

Reference and Context:

Deictic expressions have been extensively studied, but it would be wrong to see their context-dependence as exceptional, as a special part of language. Much of reference involves reliance on context, together with some calculation on the part of the speaker and hearers. A clear example of this is what Clark (1978) calls short-hands. Shorthands are sometimes grouped with the rhetorical devices metonym and synecdoche. The former is where we identify the referent by something associated with it, as below


The cover-up extends to the 'oval office'.

Who were all 'those suits' drinking in the pub last night.

Have you cleared this deal with 'the top floor'?

Synecdoche is a form of reference where the part stands for a whole, as below..,

All of his cattle are affected; he'll lose more than fifty 'head'.

It's good to see some new 'faces' in here.

The use of technical terms like Shorthands, metonymy and synecdoche has the disadvantage that it suggests that these are rhetorical devices, special uses of language, whereas they are just specific examples of the routine calculation involved in making reference. We can see this use of context and calculation if we parallel examples from Clark (1978) with a hypothetical situation where someone wants to buy two bottles of Heinekens lager. In a pub, they might say 'Two bottles of Heinekin, please!'.In a theatre bar, where only bottled beer is available, their order might be: 'Two Heinekin, please!, .At a sponsor's stall at an open-air concert, which only serves Heinekin beer, in bottle and on draught, they might say just 'Two please!'.The point here is that the ordinary use of referring expressions involves calculations of retrievability, which take account of contextual information.

Knowledge as Context:

These calculations of retrievability are really guesses about knowledge: a speaker choosing how to make references to an entity must make estimations of what her hearers know. So if someone were to rush up to you and shout:

Eg: The baby's swallowed the canary!

Their choice of words reveals that they think you can identify both the baby and the canary involved. To discuss the role of knowledge it is useful to divide it into different types. This is not a scientific classification but just a way of organizing our discussion. We might, for example, distinguish between three different sources for the knowledge a speaker has to estimate:

that computable from the physical context;

that available from what has already been said;

that available from background or common knowledge.

Mutual knowledge:

One important point about this background knowledge is that, while the speaker makes guesses about the knowledge her listeners have, there is no certainty. It is probably a mistake to identify this background knowledge with mutual knowledge. This is a topic that has been heavily debated in the philosophical and semantic literature; for example of a proposition that might be mutual knowledge in this sense..,

Shall we go and get some ice cream?

I'm on diet.

Oh, okay.

We could take the mutually known proposition P to be something like 'Diets usually prohibit ice cream'. So B knows this, and relies for her implication on A knowing it. Since A seems to understand the refusal correctly, then A did know P, and also knows that for B to imply it, A must have known it, and so on. It seems that a plausible pragmatic theory of how participants use background knowledge will have to employ a weaker form of knowledge than this philosophical notion of mutual knowledge.

Information Structure:

We have been looking at how different types of knowledge provide a contextual background for understanding utterances, and at how speakers routinely make guesses about the knowledge accessible to their listeners. In this section we briefly examine how linguistic structure reflects these guesses, or to put it another way: how these estimates of knowledge are grammaticalized. We will see that speakers 'package' their utterances to take account of these estimates of knowledge. This packing is often called information structure or, alternatively, thematic structure.

Perhaps the most universally grammaticalized distinction is the basic one between the information which the speaker assumes her hearers already know and the information that the speaker is presenting as additional or new. This distinction is so ubiquitous and grammaticalized in so many different ways that there are a number of different terminologies describing it. As a starting point it is the simplest to call the already present knowledge given, and the additional information, new.

The information status of nominals:

One basic way for a speaker to convey her assumption that something that is given is to use a definite nominal. One way to do this in English is to use the definite article 'the'; for example:

I'm going to the party.

I'm going to a party.

The definite article signals that the speaker assumes the hearer can identify the referent, the party. The normal conversation pattern is for items to be introduced by an indefinite nominal, remain conversationally salient for a time, then fade from salience, perhaps later to be reintroduced. This is a very complicated and little understood process but a simple sketch might go as follows:

Eg: I'm going to a party tonight.

Thereafter a definite article can be used to show that it is now given:

Eg: The party begins at eleven.

If the party is not mentioned again, it fades from salience and will need to be referred to by various support structure: that party, that party you mentioned, etc. While an entity is accessible, it can be referred to by pronouns,

Eg: The party begins at eleven and it'll go on for hours.

The sensitivity of normal types to information structure has been described in various approaches.

Conversational Implicature:

The term 'conversatinal implicature' was introduced by the philosopher H. Paul Grice. In lectures and a couple of very influential articles, he proposed an approach to the speaker's and hearer's cooperative use of inference. Grice argued that this predictability of inference formation could be explained by postulating a cooperative principle: a kind of tacit agreement by speakers and listeners to cooperate in communication. It would be a mistake to interpret this too widely: we may assume that Grice is not identifying in human interaction a utopian ideal of rational and egalitarian cooperation. As sociolinguists have shown us, people use language as an integral part of their social behaviour, whether competing, supporting, expressing solidarity, dominating or exploiting. Grice's observations are focused at a different, more micro level: if am in conflict with you, I still may want to communicate my intensions to you, and assume you will work out the implications of my utterances. It is at the under lying level of linguistic communication that Grice identifies this cooperation between speakers and listeners.

Grice maxims of conversational cooperation:

The assumptions that hearers make about a speaker's conduct seemed to Grice to be of several different types, giving rise to different types of inference, or, from the speaker's point of view, implicatures. In identifying these Grice called them maxims, and phrased them as if they were injunctions: it is important to realize that the conversational principles that Grice proposed are not rules, like phonological rules or morphological rules, which people have to follow to speak a language; nor are they moral principles. Perhaps the best way to interpret a maxim Do X! is to translate it into a descriptive statement: the hearer seems to assume that the speaker is doing X in communicating. We can see this by looking at some examples.

The maxim of quality:-

Try to make your contribution one that is true, i.e.

Do not say what you believe is false.

Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

The maxim of quantity:-

Make your contribution as informative as is required.

Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

The maxim of relevance:-

Make your contributions relevant.

The maxim of manner:-

Be perspicuous, and specifically:

Avoid ambiguity

Avoid obscurity

Be brief

Be orderly.