What is said and what is meant

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Previously we saw that when someone says something, they might mean something very different. In this module, we'll take a closer look at what that means.

Another example

For fun, let's take a look at another example. The text below is from a poster I saw in France when I was in college. The left side is the original French, and the right side is my rough translation.



On ne le dira jamais assez : le niveau baisse, baisse, baisse, et la jeunesse n'est plus ce qu'elle était. A preuve ces quatre témoignages désabusés :

  • "Notre jeunesse [...] est mal élevée, elle se moque de l'autorité et n'a aucune espèce de respect pour les anciens. Nos enfants d'aujourd'hui [...] ne se lèvent pas quand un vieillard entre dans la pièce, ils répondent à leurs parents et bavardent au lieu de travailler. Ils sont tout simplement mauvais."
  • "Je n'ai plus aucun espoir pour l'avenir de notre pays si la jeunesse d'aujourd'hui prend le commandement demain, parce que cette jeunesse est insupportable, sans retenue, simplement terrible."
  • "Notre monde a atteint un stade critique. Les enfants n'écoutent plus leurs parents. La fin du monde ne peut pas être très loin."
  • "Cette jeunesse est pourrie depuis le fond du coeur. Les jeunes gens sont malfaisants et paresseux. Ils ne seront jamais comme la jeunesse d'autrefois. Ceux d'aujourd'hui ne seront pas capables de maintenir notre culture."

Ça c'est bien vrai !

Une précision toutefois : la première citation est de Socrate (470-399 av.JC) ; la deuxième est d'Hésiode (720 av.JC) ; la troisième est d'un prêtre égyptien (2000 av.JC) et la dernière, vieille de plus de 3000 ans, a été découverte sur une poterie d'argile dans les ruines de Babylone. Comme le temps passe...


It can't be said enough: the standard is getting lower and lower, and youth aren't what they used to be. As evidence, these four disillusioned accounts:

  • "Our youth are poorly brought up, they mock authority and don't have a whit of respect for their elders. The children of today don't get up when an elderly person enters the room, they talk back to their parents and chat instead of working. They are, quite simply, bad."
  • "I no longer have any hope for the future of our country if the youth of today take control tomorrow, because these kids are unbearable, without restraint, simply terrible."
  • "Our world has reached a critical point. Children no longer listen to their parents. The end of the world cannot be far away."
  • "These kids are rotten from the bottom of their hearts. Young people are wicked and lazy. They will never be like young people used to be. Those of today won't be capable of maintaining our culture."

Yeah, that's true!

Nevertheless, a clarification: the first citation is from Socrates (470-399 B.C.); the second is from Hesiod (730 B.C.); the third is from an Egyptian praetor (2000 B.C.), and the last, more than 3000 years old, was discovered on a pot in the ruins of Babylon. How the times pass...

It should be clear that the person who wrote this does not actually think the youth of today (or the youth of the 1990s—since this poster has been around since at least 1998, if not earlier) are bad. Rather, the writer seems to think that there's nothing especially bad about modern youth. But the writer doesn't actually say that anywhere. In fact the writer often says the opposite of this! The writer says, but clearly does not believe, "youth aren't what they used to be". And, reflecting on those four quotes, the writer says, "Yeah, that's true!", even though the writer thinks what the quotes are saying is not true! It's pretty clear that the writer was being sarcastic. To figure out what the writer really meant, we had to consider some additional context: the fact that those quotes were apparently written millenia apart in ancient times (although I honestly don't know if those are real quotes or were just made up for this poster, but anyway they help make the author's point), and our own knowledge that the things those quotes predicted did not actually happen. (Clearly the world has not ended yet!)

This long example illustrates the same thing Jonathon's letter to Mary illustrated: what someone says is not always what they mean. In fact, over the course of the semester, we will see that what someone says is rarely what they mean.

"What is said" vs. "what is meant"

This idea is the fundamental starting point of pragmatics. The field of pragmatics is all about studying how we use language to convey ideas beyond the literal meaning of what we say, and how we understand what other people mean when they are doing that. (Coming up with an exact definition of what "pragmatics" is, and where the boundary between pragmatics and other parts of linguistics lies, is a bit more complicated and is something we'll think about more as this class progresses. But the rough description above is a good starting point.) In pragmatics there are many distinctions between different aspects of a person's meaning—and we will discuss many of them in this class. Probably the most basic, most simple, and most important one is this one. Many pragmatics scholars (starting, I think, with H.P. Grice, whom we'll hear more about in a later module) refer to literal meaning as "what is said", and the speaker's real intended meaning as "what is meant".

(The term "what is meant" is, unfortunately, quite confusing, because "meaning" can refer to many different things, as we're going to see throughout this class; sometimes people use other terms for this. Zufferey et al., chapter 1, call it "what is communicated", which I rather like. But anyway, the phrase "what is meant" is so widely used in pragmatics that I'm sticking with it here, in spite of its ambiguity.)

Another pair of terms for the same distinction is "sentence meaning" vs. "speaker meaning". Sentence meaning (which corresponds to "what is said") is the literal, inherent meaning of a sentence, based purely on what the words in the sentence mean and how they go together. On the other hand, speaker meaning (which corresponds to "what is meant") is what the person saying the sentence (the "speaker") intends to convey by saying that sentence. The message the speaker actually wants to convey ("what is meant", or the speaker meaning) can often be quite different from what the sentence itself literally means ("what is said", or the sentence meaning).

Examples where "what is meant" is different from "what is said" are easy to think of or find. When a person is sweating and they say, "It's hot in here," their words literally are just stating a fact, but we usually interpret them as meaning a request—something like "Please open a window!" or "Turn on the air conditioner!" In examples like this, the distinction between "what is said" and "what is meant" is pretty easy to see. As this class goes on, we will also encounter cases where the distinction is not so obvious—in fact, in daily life, most people rarely notice the difference between these, because we are so good at immediately recognizing what is meant. We will also see some examples where there is still debate over whether the typical interpretation is "said" or "meant".

A quick note on terminology: here, and throughout the rest of the class, I will use the word "say" to refer to people producing language in any form—speaking, writing, signing, etc. Pragmatics is about all kinds of language use, not just speech. What pragmatics is really interested in is utterances, i.e., the act that a person does when they say (or write, or sign) something. An utterance might consist of a sentence, but it often does not; it might be spoken, but it might be written or signed. If I were being more careful and accurate, then when doing pragmatic analysis I would always talk about what people "utter" rather than what they "say". However, that can sometimes get clunky, so throughout this class I will often use phrases like "Divya said this..." as a shorthand for "Divya uttered this...". Likewise, when I say "speaker", that's really a shorthand for "utterer", and may also refer to a writer, signer, etc. By the same token, "hearer" can also mean reader, seer of signed language, etc. (a more accurate term here would be "addressee"—the person being addressed—but, again, I will sometimes just say "hearer" for simplicity).

Video summary

In-class activities

We could break down the "what is said" vs. "what is meant" distinction even further. There are a few different ways that "what is said" could related to "what is meant":

Have students brainstorm examples for each of these, and/or have students try to guess the relative frequency of each of these situations (which is most common, which is least common, etc.). Then have them share (and hopefully debate!) their ideas with each other.

⟵ Introduction to the class
How meaning is underdetermined ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-04-24. CC-BY-4.0.