One utterance, multiple implicatures

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So far we have generally been describing implicatures in terms of what a speaker "means" or wants to convey. But this is actually an oversimplification; we often need to think of implicatures instead as telling us something about what a speaker does or does not believe. In the next several modules we will see how this helps us notice several very important distinctions.

First, though, we need to highlight an important point that we have mostly been ignoring thus far: one utterance can imply multiple different things at the same time.

In the previous module we saw some examples of how the same stentence may imply different things in different contexts. But that's not what I'm talking to here. What I mean is that the an utterance in one given context may simultaneously imply more than one thing. Let's see an example.

In the below clip from the musical My Fair Lady, Freddy has recently fallen in love with Eliza ("Miss Doolittle") and has gone to her house to profess his love for her. While he's waiting for her to come to the door, he sings about how happy he is to be on the street where she lives, and he says [sings], "I have often walked down this street before, but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before."

What this statement implies is that he's floating high above the ground (this itself is, of course, not literal, but is a metaphor for how happy he is). But to get to that meaning, we need several implicatures.

First of all, he doesn't literally say he's floating above the pavement now; he says that the pavement used to stay beneath his feet in the past. This seems to imply that it's not staying there now (because if it were, he wouldn't say "the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before"; that seems to be an irrelevant, extra, unnecessary detail, in violation of the maxim of quantity, unless we infer that he really means the pavement is not staying beneath his feet now).

That in of itself doesn't get us the interpretation that he's floating above the ground, though. Even if he's floating above the ground, the pavement would still literally be beneath his feet. So we also need to infer that he means the pavement used to stay directly beneath his feet (i.e., touching his feet—or at least his shoes!), and now it doesn't.

So, in short, for us to get from Freddy's actual utterance to the idea that he's floating above the ground (metaphorically), the utterance needs to imply that "staying beneath his feet" means directly touching his feet, and that, while the pavement used to do that, it is not doing that anymore.

(The part about "beneath" is actually trickier than I have suggested so far. Whether this is actually an implicature is arguable. Some other approaches may instead argue that this is actually just what the word "beneath" literally means, or that this meaning is accomplished through "lexical narrowing" rather than through an implicature. I'll ignore this complication for now, but for further discussion of it check out the in-class activity at the end of this module.)

There's a similar (but made-up and not as fun) example in a paper of mine: "Carlyle asked Thisbe if she would lend him a thousand dollars. Thisbe scoffed and walked out of the room." Here, the sentence Thisbe scoffed and walked out of the room implies two things: it implies that she first scoffed and then walked out of the room, and it implies that she will not lend Carlyle a thousand dollars. (Unlike the previous example, though, the ultimate interpretation doesn't seem to depend on both implicatures; I feel like I would still understand that she's not willing to lend the money, regardless of the order in which the scoffing and the walking out of the room occur. This distinction seems related to the distinction Noveck [chapter 14] makes between voluntary and imposed implicatures. "Voluntary" implicatures arise when the literal meaning of an utterance already provides a meaning that is roughly good enough for the conversation at hand, but hearers can make an extra effort to get an even more specific one; here, the implicature that Thisbe scoffed and then walked out of the room in that order seems like a voluntary implicature. "Imposed" implicatures are ones that are necessary to understand what the speaker wants to communicate; the implicature that Thisbe will not lend Carlyle a thousand dollars seems like an imposed implicature here, since you don't know the point of the utterance if you don't figure out this implicature.)

With these preliminaries out of the way, we can go on to the next module to see one very important and systematic way in which an utterance can yield multiple implicatures; after that, we will explore a few interesting phenomena that these different implicatures can help us understand.

Video summary

In-class activities

In the analysis above, I assumed that beneath literally means something like "anywhere below" (e.g., it sounds pretty normal if I'm e.g. standing at the observation deck near the top of the Burj Khalifa and I say "I can see all of Dubai spread out beneath me"), and that it takes an implicature to interpret it as meaning directly below (i.e., touching). But I also hinted that this analysis may be problematic. Let's dig a bit deeper into this.

One alternative explanation of where the meaning comes from is that this just is already what the word beneath already means. This seems straightforward so I don't think I need to explain it further. The other alternative is that the meaning may come from "lexical narrowing" that takes place during the process of going from abstract meaning to "what is said". This may need some explanation, so let's unpack it a little.

Implicatures, in the classical Gricean sense, take place during the process of going from "what is said" to "what is meant". But recall, as we discussed way back in the "Three Kinds of Meaning" module, pragmatics is also involved in determining "what is said". At that time we discussed this in terms of polysemy—when a word has multiple meanings, we need pragmatics to determine which particular meaning is being said. The important idea here is that not everything pragmatic is necessarily an implicature.

The idea of "lexical narrowing" is very similar to this. The idea is, again, that pretty much all words have vague and flexible meanings, and that in order to figure out "what is said" we have to determine what meaning is the relevant one. This often involves narrowing or broadening the literal meaning of a word. For example, if I say "It is well known that all doctors drink" (this example is from Zufferey et al., chapter 3), you will probably "narrow" the meaning of drink to mean not just drinking any liquid, but specifically drinking alcohol (otherwise the utterance would be kind of pointless, because of course everyone drinks liquids).

Anyway the argument here is that this sort of "lexical narrowing" is not an implicature, because it doesn't take place at the stage of figuring out "what is meant", but at the stage of figuring out "what is said"; see, e.g., Noveck & Sperber (2007) or Zufferey et al. (chapter 3).

Have students discuss which view they support. Using the diagnostics we discussed before may be helpful.

⟵ Types of implicatures and their diagnostics
Weak and strong implicatures ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2021-10-13. CC-BY-4.0.