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The question of how the hearer infers the speakers meaning has been discussed throughout time. Prior to Grice, pragmatics, which refers to the intended meaning of a speaker, was an outgoing of semantic and syntactic theories but Grice viewed pragmatics differently and he proposed an alternative to the classic code-model. Grice's account is able to account for slips of the tongue and for incomplete utterances. Apart from the linguistic meaning, you can also have implicit meaning, which is the meaning intended by the speaker (pragmatics). Grice (1989) made a distinction between natural meaning (factive non-conventional sign) and non-natural meaning (non-factive conventional sign) and described non-natural meaning through the term implicature. Grice describes an implicature as a non-logical inference consisting of what is said by the speaker in uttering an utterance within a context (as cited in Assimakopoulos, 2008).
Grice was more interested in the speaker and proposed the co-operative principle along with the conversational maxims. He argued that these enable a participant in a conversation to assume whether a speaker is cooperative or not. Please refer to Appendix A for the cooperative principle and the maxims as discussed by Grice (1975). Conversational maxims are not obligations but give a description of how people are rational. Grice emphasised that in order to understand the speaker's meaning, it is crucial to understand the speaker's intention. He also argued that when one of the maxims is flouted/exploited, a conversational implicature would be activated and thus in order to understand the speaker's meaning (speaker's intention), the implicatures need to be understood.
Relevance Theory (RT) is a post-Gricean theory and similarly to Grice's Theory; its goal is to describe how people recognise the intended interpretation of an utterance. The RT is more interested in the hearer and as Assimakopoulos (2012a) explains, RT, tries to tackle the limitations of the Gricean's approach (such as reference resolution, disambiguation, vagueness and illocutionary indeterminacy) by taking a more cognitive orientation, rather than the philosophical perspective taken by Grice. Grice believed that inferencing is a conscious process whilst Relevance theorists believe that this is a an unconscious process. Whilst Grice and his followers are more interested in the way in which people communicate, the RT is more interested in explaining communication by accounting for how the mind works.
Wilson & Carston (2007) describe inferential processes as taking a set of premises as input and yielding as output a set of conclusions logically derivable from, or at least warranted by, the premises. In linguistic communication, the premises are the utterance itself and the contextual information and these are used by a hearer to formulate a logical inference. Sperber & Wilson (1986), define context as a psychological construct, a subset of the hearer's assumptions about the world (as cited in Assimakopoulos, 2008). This means that every individual has assumptions about the world that affect the interpretation of implicatures. Relevance theorists argued that in the mind we have a dedicated mental structure (which is innate) called the ostension-inferential processor which calculates the intended meaning of a speaker by taking inputs from semantics (Language Faculty) and working out inferences according to the context. Assimakopoulos (2012b) points out that the inferential processor constructs:
A hypothesis of what it believes a speaker wants to mean through decoding, disambiguation, reference resolution and other pragmatic enrichment processes
A hypothesis about the intended contextual assumptions
A hypothesis of the intended contextual implication (takes what is explicit and integrates it with the context)
Mark: "Is Maria still sleeping?"
Ben: "She is reading on the bank"
Using Grice's maxims, you cannot understand what 'bank' means and you cannot assign a referent to 'she'. According to the relevance theoretical framework, 'bank' and 'she' are fed into the processor and then the hearer constructs an implicated conclusion by taking what is explicit and integrate it with the context. The expectation raised by the Principle of Relevance is that Ben's utterance is relevant. Nevertheless, relevance is achieved only if Ben's utterances abides to Mark's question.
For Grice, flouting/exploiting one of the maxims would result in a speaker not being cooperative but for the Relevance theorists, the greater the positive cognitive effects of a stimulus are (the more a stimulus cannot adapt to someone's knowledge) the more productive the inferential mechanism is. Thus for the RT, if a siren would have been of a low volume and low pitch, it would take people more time to process it then if a siren is of a high volume and high pitch. RT states that the mind tries to get the maximum possible effect by using the least possible effort, thus the mind tends to prioritise stimuli according to their relevance. Similar to Darwin's argument of survival of the fittest, stimuli which are of higher relevance are prioritised over less relevant stimuli. Humans are able to recognise stimuli which are highly relevant and effective from stimuli which are less relevant and less effective.
Another difference between the two perspectives is that Grice accounts for sequential processing whilst RT accounts for parallel processing. Grice explained that first there is a sentence, propositions are identified and then implicatures are understood (pragmatics follows semantics). On the contrary, Relevance theorists explain that implicatures and explicatures are processed in parallel. When it comes to the relationship between semantics and pragmatics, Grice believed that first you get the semantics (linguistic knowledge) and then you get the pragmatics (implicatures). For the RT, pragmatics defines both what is said and what is implicated, thus semantics is autonomous.
When it comes to similes, Grice believed that these have a literal meaning. Grice also stated that metaphors and irony are hard to process since you have to first recover the literal meaning, then discard it due to maxim violation and finally construct an implicature. On the other hand, Relevance theorists explained that metaphors needs first-order intention-recognition whilst irony need second-order intention recognition. Research by Happé (1993) imply that the RT describe metaphors and irony better than Grice.
Another difference between the two theories is that Grice viewed semantics as 'what is said' and pragmatics as 'what is implicated'. Opposing this view, RT argued that there is the decoded content (semantics), explicatures (semantics/pragmatics- enrichment of what semantics feeds) and implicatures (pragmatics).
To conclude, both Grice and the RT attempt to explain the essence of communication. On the one hand, through his cooperative principle and the maxims; Grice argued that when we communicate we do not only mean what we say, but we mean other things and we do this through implicatures. On the other hand, Relevance theorists, through the Relevance Principle; explained how a hearer gets from words to what he understands. Grice explains how communication takes place while talking whilst RT describe how the mind interprets what is heard.
Grice (1975) explained that the cooperative principle expects that participants to make a "conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange". The maxims of conversation are as follows:
Maxims of Quantity- contribution to the discourse should be as informative as is required
Maxim of Quality- speaker should not lie or make unsupported claims
Maxim of Relevance- contribution to discourse should always have a bearing on and a connection with the matter under discussion
Maxim of Manner- contribution to discourse should be brief and orderly and should avoid ambiguity and obscurity