We saw in the previous module that meaning is severely underdetermined by language: in
other words, language alone isn't enough to tell us what an utterance means. We need to do extra work
(i.e., we need to use pragmatics) to figure out what an utterance means in the context in which
it was uttered.
We could roughly divide the problems discussed in the previous module into two groups.
First of all, a lot of the challenge in figuring out meaning comes from the fact that language can often
be ambiguous or vague; that is what most of the previous module focused on. So, when a person says
something whose meaning is unclear because it has deictic words or because it has an ambiguous sentence
structure or because it has words with vague meaning or whatever else, we need to use context to assign
a more specific meaning to that utterance (i.e., a meaning that expresses a specific statement about the
world, which could be true or false). Secondly, even after we've figured out that specific meaning, we
are faced with the problem that people sometimes just mean something different than what they say anyway.
So, even once we've determined the specific meaning of the utterance, we still need to think about the
context and the speaker some more to see if the speaker really means something else (like we did when
we deduced that Jonathon might not actually want to keep in touch with Mary, given that he threw his
letter into the ocean).
Thomas (chapter 1) breaks meaning down along these lines, showing us that an utterance
has three types of meaning and that different kinds of information are used to figure out which meaning
is the one the speaker really "meant". Here are the terms she uses to describe them:
Abstract meaning: This is everything that an utterance could mean, given the
rules of the language. E.g., the abstract meaning of "Olga told me it rained yesterday" is all the
possible meanings that syntax and semantics could generate from the sentence: at the very least, it
includes "[Olga told me it rained] yesterday" and "Olga told me [it rained yesterday]", and probably
much more than that, given that there are several deictic expressions in it. Abstract meaning is a
list, or set, of possible literal meanings an utterance could have. Abstract meaning is ambiguous
because of the rules of how language works, i.e., because of grammar.
Utterance meaning: This is what you get when you choose one meaning out of the set of
literal meanings included in an utterance's "abstract meaning". It's the literal meaning that the
speaker intended for this utterance—in the strict sense of "utterance", as in, a particular
event consisting of a particular person saying a particular thing in a particular time and place.
(While "Olga told me it rained yesterday" is one sentence, you saying that today and me
saying it a year ago are two different utterances.) Getting from abstract meaning to
utterance meaning is mostly a matter of context: if someone utters "Olga told me it rained yesterday", you use the context to figure out what person in
the world the word "me" refers to, and there's probably also something in the discourse
context that tells you which way of interpreting "yesterday" is relevant (are you having a discussion
about what the weather was yesterday, or a discussion about what Olga did yesterday)? Utterance meaning,
like abstract meaning, is still a kind of literal meaning; it's the literal meaning of some ambiguous
sentence after context has helped us figure out which literal meaning is the relevant one for this
situation. (An easy way to remember what utterance meaning is: keep in mind that an "utterance" is
when a particular person says a particular thing on a particular occasion—for instance, if I say
"I'm leaving my house now" today and you say "I'm leaving my house now" next week,
then we've both used the same sentence, but these are two different utterances. So, "utterance meaning"
is what a sentence means on a particular occasion when it's used.) Nevertheless,
utterance meaning is still ambiguous, because, as we have seen throughout the past two modules, what a speaker
means to convey with this utterance might be quite different from what the utterance actually
says. Utterance meaning is ambiguous because people do not always say exactly what they mean;
in fact, they rarely do.
Force: This is "what is meant"; it's what you get when you take the utterance meaning and
use it to figure out what the speaker really wants (what they want to make you believe, what they want
to make happen, etc.). This might be a request (like when the sweaty person says "It's hot in here",
which really means "Turn on the air conditioner!"), an insult, an apology, etc. "Olga told me it
rained yesterday" might be a simple statement of fact or, in the right context, an accusation that
someone is lying about something (can you imagine a situation for that?).
Let's sum that up in a nice table:
Ambiguous because of...
Linguistic rules (grammar)
Lexical, syntactic, and semantic ambiguity, and deixis
Using context to select from abstract meaning
Speakers mean things other than what they say
Pragmatic reasoning: thinking about the speaker's intentions
Not ambiguous (or is it?)
(If you're paying attention, you may have noticed by now that "utterance meaning" is about
the same as "what is said" or "sentence meaning", and "force" is about the same as "what is meant" or
Abstract meaning is linguistic: if you look at a sentence like He is a vegetarian,
you can use your knowledge of language to understand what that sentence could "mean" or express in any
context, even if you don't know who is saying it at what time and about whom. But abstract meaning is
not propositional—in other words, it doesn't express any statement about the real world.
If you don't know who "he" is, you can't tell if the sentence is true or false. The abstract meaning
is just a linguistic representation of what the sentence could mean, but you need a context
to know what the sentence is actually saying about the world. We could also call abstract meaning
"sentence meaning", because it's the linguistic meaning of a sentence divorced from any context
(keep in mind that a "sentence" is a linguistic expression [a sequence of words put together in a certain
way following certain rules], whereas an "utterance" is the action of saying a sentence in a certain
context—if I say "It's raining today and you say "It's raining" tomorrow these
will be two different utterances, even though they each consist of the same sentence).
Utterance meaning, on the other hand, is propositional: it expresses some idea about the
world (some "proposition"). If you know that I said He is a vegetarian and you know what
person I am talking about, you can judge whether the utterance is true or false. So, utterance meaning
combines abstract meaning with context to create a fleshed-out proposition, i.e., a statement about
Force is even more context-dependent than utterance meaning. If you are preparing a
dinner party and you ask me whether a certain guest likes hamburgers, and I say "He is a vegetarian",
then you will probably infer that what I'm really saying is that he won't eat hamburgers and you should
probably prepare something else for him. But if I said that exact same sentence in a different context,
that meaning might not arise.
The example we saw from Roger Federer in the previous module fits perfectly into this framework. The sentence
alone, taken out of context, could mean lots of different things (i.e., its abstract meaning is
very ambiguous). Once we have some context, we can figure out what it literally means (its utterance
meaning), by figuring out that "it" refers to the tennis match, "tough" means difficult, etc. But
that literal utterance meaning is also pragmatically ambiguous, because we can't be certain what message
he really wants to convey by saying it—i.e., we aren't sure what its force is (its force
might just be a simple and objective description of how he felt about the match, or its force might be
a complaint about how the referees handled the match, or an excuse for why he lost).
Another example example from the
TV show BoJack Horseman can also help illustrate similar ambiguities at each level of meaning
within the same utterance. (Spoiler alert for a gut-wrenching moment from the show.) In this episode,
BoJack, who has always had a negative and hateful relationship with his mother, is reflecting on the
last moments he spent with her in the hospital before she died. Not long before she died, she looked towards him and said,
"I see you". Afterwards, he spends a long time thinking about what that might have meant. Maybe
it was a last moment of genuine person-to-person connection between them and showing that she understands
who he is and what he needs (which could be particularly poignant because for the last few months of her
life she had serious dementia and usually couldn't even recognize BoJack). Or maybe it was a criticism,
like "Everyone else thinks you're a great guy but I know what kind of bad person you really are, I see
you for who you really are!" Here we can see that BoJack thinks he understands the utterance
meaning of "I see you" (i.e., that his mother literally meant that she, his mother, sees him,
BoJack) but he is struggling to understand what the force was meant to be. Later, though, he
recalls that his mother's hospital room was in the Intensive Care Unit—the
I.C.U. When he thought she was looking at him and saying "I see you", she was actually just looking
over his shoulder at an "ICU" sign and reading aloud "I. C. U.". So he ultimately realizes that
none of his original assumptions about her force were right, because actually he had gotten her utterance
meaning wrong: she didn't mean that she [his mother] sees him [BoJack], but she was just saying the word
"I.C.U.", and thus she didn't really mean anything (i.e., her utterance didn't have any intended force).
Understanding each kind of meaning
Getting from the actual words that were said to the abstract meaning (the list of all the possible
things that combination of words could mean) is the domain of syntax and semantics. We will have little to
say about it in this class.
Getting from abstract
meaning to utterance meaning (which of the possible literal meanings the speaker intended the utterance to
express) is what some researchers call "semantic pragmatics"—it's kind of pragmatics, because it does
consider context, but it's still dealing with literal meaning. Nevertheless, pragmatics clearly has an
important role to play in determining "utterance meaning" or "what is said".
Recanati (1989) coined
this issue "the pragmatics of what is said". In fact, most words have
multiple meanings (at the very least, most words have multiple polysemous senses), so context is almost
always necessary to determine what a speaker has said. For example, the word
"pump" could refer to a hand pump for putting air into a bicycle tire, or it could refer to
a big, powerful water pump for a fire hose; but if a firefighter in a fire truck arriving at a burning
house asks for a "pump", she's probably asking for the second one! The way you can figure this out is
by considering the context, not anything inherent to language itself. This issue is easy to forget about,
because the vast majority of
pragmatics research and pragmatics textbooks (and this class) focuses on the other part, "what is meant";
nevertheless, it's important to keep this other part in mind as well. Geurts (chapter 1.6 and chapter 8.5)
has some interesting and in-depth discussion of how important pragmatics is for determining what is said,
and how important determining what is said is for theories of pragmatics.
Getting from utterance meaning to force (what
the speaker wants to do with the utterance) is the domain of what I would consider true, "pragmatic"
pragmatics, because it considers not just context but also the speaker and hearer's goals and intentions. This
last part, the step from utterance meaning to force, will be the main focus of this whole class.
While the breakdown sketched above is not always as clear-cut as it may seem (for example, you
can probably think of ways that considering speaker intentions may also help the hearer get from abstract
meaning to utterance meaning—and indeed, the whole division between these things is kind of questionable,
because people's goals and intentions are part of the context!), it is a useful starting point and a useful
guideline for what we will consider "pragmatics" to be about.
Another note as we wrap up: at this point you might be starting to think that the distinctions I'm raising sound
crazy or implausible. That's ok. An important part of thinking about pragmatics is questioning the
ideas. Most of the ideas we will discuss in this class are ideas that are still being challenged, and
there are many linguists and philosophers out there who totally reject the theories that we are
working through here. (For example, while some pragmatics approaches assume that "force" ["what is
meant"] is figured out based on "utterance meaning" ["what is said"], other approaches reject
this idea; for instance, Relevance Theory, which is very important but which I mostly ignore
for this whole class, argues that "what is said" and "what is meant" are not figured out in
serial order, but are both worked out simultaneously, and each informs the other; see e.g. Zufferey
et al., chapter 3.) So, if you feel like the distinctions or concepts I'm describing are crazy
or don't really work for certain examples, that doesn't mean that you're wrong or that you're
misunderstanding the ideas; it might just mean that you're thinking like a good pragmaticist!
The goal of this class is not for you to just memorize and accept some "wisdom" from some old
famous guys; the goal is for you to understand the ideas but then question them, challenge them,
and come to your own conclusions. (There is, of course, a difference between saying "I reject this
idea because it just sounds crazy / because I don't understand it", versus saying "I understand
what this idea claims, and here is my evidence that its claims are wrong"—good pragmaticists
and linguists do the latter, not the former.)
Given that understanding an utterance involves understanding its abstract meaning, understanding its
utterance meaning, and understanding its force, there are lots of combinations of things that can
happen. A person might understand some of these and not others. Have students brainstorm the possible
combinations, and brainstorm examples that illustrate them. You can also have them try to estimate
which situations are more common or less common.
Thomas (chapter 1) provides a breakdown, with examples, of this. Below is a list of all the possible
combinations, along with some suggestions of my own for examples. (You don't have to share this with
students before the discussion; these are some ideas in case students can't come up with ideas for
some of these.)
Understanding none of the meanings. This is often what happens if people speak in a
language or dialect you don't know. For example, in the movie Brave (2012),
no one can understand what the character
Young MacGuffin says. (But we'll see some other situations where it might be
possible to understand force without understanding all of the other meanings).
Understanding abstract meaning, but not utterance meaning or force. Also fairly
straightforward; if you fail to get the correct utterance meaning, it's also likely you'll
misunderstand the force. Thomas has a very interesting example of this. She describes how,
in the hallway outside her office, she saw a piece of paper that said "Out of order". This
has three possible utterance meanings: in English, the phrase "out of order" can mean
something is broken (this is the most common use), it can mean something is not in the
correct sequence (e.g., the numbers 1-2-3-6-4-7-5 are out of order), or in a courtroom or
other formal setting it can mean someone is breaking the rules of procedure—the judge
might bang the gavel and say "You're out of order!" (To me, this meaning
seems closely related to the second one.) Anyway, she interpreted it as the first meaning,
assuming it had fallen off a coffee machine or something, and thus assumed that the force
of the piece of paper was as a notification to let people know not to use the machine. But, it
turns out, actually some students were alphabetizing theses in the library, and had been
using these papers to mark theses that were in the wrong place and needed to be moved (and
this particular piece of paper had fallen off a stack). So the utterance meaning of "out of
order" was actually the "not in the correct sequence" meaning, not the "broken" meaning. Since
Thomas had gotten the utterance meaning wrong, she had ended up getting the force wrong as
Understanding abstract meaning and utterance meaning, but not force. A joke I heard has
an example of this. (To get the joke you have to keep in mind that learners of English as a
second language are often explicitly taught that the appropriate response to the greetings
like "How are you doing?" is "I'm fine, thank you, and you?") Anyway, the joke goes that
a Chinese student studying in the US or UK or something was on a drive on a snowy winter day,
and her car hit an icy spot on the road and fell off a bridge. She was trapped under the car.
Another driver saw the accident and stopped his car at the bridge. He shouted down to her,
"Are you ok?" So she shouted back, "I'm fine, thanks! And you?" Anyway, in this joke, the
student clearly understood both the abstract meaning and the utterance meaning, but mistook
the speaker's force as being a greeting, rather than a genuine request about her safety.
Understanding force without understanding either abstract meaning nor utterance meaning.
This might be more esoteric, but it's sometimes possible to understand what a person means
even when you don't understand what they're saying. Sometimes intonation and body language
can help—for example, if you ask me if I can do something for you, and I respond,
"Chipper chop, boy-o!" but I say it with a smile and a happy-sounding tone, you might
understand that I'm agreeing to do it, even though what I said is just made-up nonsense.
Another example is the
"Cheeky Nando's" phenomenon. Apparently there is a British English phrase "cheeky
Nando's" (Nando's is a common restaurant in the UK), and when Americans asked what that
means, some Brits explained it in a way using lots of UK slang that is impenetrable to
Americans (click the link above to see the description in all its glory). Many Americans
don't know what a lot of the words there mean, and thus cannot understand either the abstract
meaning or the utterance meaning, but I suspect many of them can still get the rough idea of
what a cheeky Nando's is, and—more importantly—can understand that the whole
description is a joke to mess with non-British English users. Another example is that
sometimes when watching a movie or something in a language you don't speak, you can still
kind of tell if someone is insulting someone, telling a joke, asking for help, etc.
Understanding abstract meaning and force but not utterance meaning. This might happen if,
for example, you don't know who someone is referring to with the pronouns in something they
utter, but you can still understand that they are complaining.
Understanding utterance meaning and force without understanding abstract meaning. Hard
for me to think of how this could happen.
Understanding utterance meaning without understanding abstract meaning or force. Hard
for me to think of how this could happen, too.
Understanding all three types of meaning. This is what normally happens.