In everyday conversation, we usually assume that the people whom we talk to (labeled as hearers) can comprehend our intention and that if the hearers understand it, we conclude that the communication is successful.
Meaning, as everyone knows, can be expressed through language, but it is not easy for us to define meaning since it has several dimensions. In addition, sometimes our utterance is just the façade of our intention, so as hearers, we must be sensitive with the semantic meaning and the speaker’s meaning or intention. How do we distinguish the semantic meaning from the speaker’s meaning?
To understand the semantic meaning, you have to combine the context (in which the sentence is used), the meanings of the words in the sentence and the morphological and syntactic structure. Whereas the speaker’s meaning is what the speaker intends to communicate, and this goes beyond the literal and semantic meaning of what is said.
To visualize the two kinds of meaning, here is a diagram:
Semantics focuses on the links between the lexicon and the grammar and semantic meaning and pragmatics focuses on the relationship between context of use and both semantic and speaker’s meaning.
Thus, semantic-pragmatic interpretation of language plays a vital role in creating meaning and in making sense of what is said. As speakers, they have an intention to communicate beyond what they directly express; they use pragmatic principles; and anticipate the hearer to use the same principles (or to identify ostensive violation of such principles). While as hearers they are expected to infer speaker’s meaning; examine pragmatic principles; identify ostensive violation; and perform contextual adjustment.
Not all aspects of meaning can be explained by its compositional perspective (i,e, lexicon and grammar), rather the view of meaning has focused on the intentions of language users. As speakers, we intend to communicate beyond what we directly express. That is, our utterance has an ‘extra layer’ of meaning which we leave our hearers the responsibility to infer what that ‘extra layer’ of meaning is. For example,
When the hearer (B) heared (1), A intends B to believe the fact that it is raining. However, A has this ‘extra layer’ of meaning that he wants to convey. That is it could either be (a) B should not go out and go somewhere or (b) B should bring his umbrella when he goes out. If B understands this ‘extra layer’ of meaning, he will perform a certain perlocutionary act (such as taking an umbrella with him when he goes out).
However, not all hearers take a hold of this ‘extra layer’ of meaning because they just understood the semantic meaning of the utterance. So as speakers, we should maximize an ostensive stimulus to attract the attention of the audience and to focus it on the communicator’s meaning. Consequently, the hearer, after hearing the speaker’s utterance and uses such ostensive stimulus, can infer and understand the speakers intention in communicating his utterance.
As hearers, it is their task to observe pragmatic principles used by the speakers. These pragmatic principles include the cooperative principle which states that speaker’s meaning can be calculated on the basis of semantic meaning and the assumption that speakers are behaving rationally and cooperatively (Fasold & Connor-Linton,2006) and this general principle is divided into four conversational maxims: quality, quantity, relevance and manner. These maxims are assumptions which hearers utilize to try to make sense of what people say. For instance,
(2) John and Jane have three children: James, Diane and Mary.
John: Who attended the party?
Jane: James and Mary.
By assuming that Jane follows the four conversational maxims, John is likely to infer that Diane didn’t attend the party. In this way, the idea that Diane didn’t attend the party is a part of Jane’s meaning (the speaker’s meaning) of her utterance. With that, John, concludes this as Jane’s intention when she answered “James and Mary”.
Fassold, R. and Connor-Linton, J. 2006, “An Introduction to Language and Linguistics,” UK: Cambridge University Press.
In addition, speakers also violate some conversational maxims to attain a certain intention, so they rely on the hearers to recognize apparent violation of the principles. Therefore, it is the hearers’ job to recognize and to make sense of it. For example,
- A: John is handsome, isn’t he?
B: He is intelligent.
A asked a question which is answerable by either a yes or a no, but B answered differently. Here, it is evident that B violated the maxim of relevance, but A can imply that B doesn’t agree with his statement. In that view, B’s intention of his utterance was recognized by A, his hearer. Although it is not directly stated what B means, A performed a contextual adjustment to derive an implicature. That is, B isn’t in agreement with the idea that John is handsome.
To sum up, the creation of meaning and making sense of what is said does not just rely on the semantic interpretation but also on the pragmatic interpretation and speakers and hearers are the ones responsible in achieving these interpretations.
WVSU-CAS Graduate School
Master of Arts in English & Literature