[LMB] OT: Implicature (second and last part)
jparish at siue.edu
Sat Jun 10 01:24:43 BST 2006
Okay, so how does conversational implicature work? The basic idea is
that ordinary conversation is a cooperative activity, and there are
certain - unspoken, even unconscious - conventions which are normally
in operation, which serve to ease the process of conveying information.
(At a certain level, people think faster than they talk, so reducing the
amount of speech by requiring additional processing by the listener is,
within limits, a good tradeoff.) My understanding is that these
conventions seem to be pretty much the same in all languages, though
I have a vague memory that some researchers think Malagasy does
something differently - what, I don't know.
There've been various formulations of the conventions; H. P. Grice
made the first attempt in 1957, and has offered several variants since
then. Stephen Levinson's version, the one I'm familiar with, offers the
following heuristics; I'll state them first before expanding on them.
Q: What isn't said, isn't.
I: What is expressed simply is stereotypically exemplified.
M: What's said in an abnormal way is abnormal.
The Q-heuristic basically means that, if I make statement A, and I could
have made statement B, which is "stronger" than A in some sense, then
my failure to say B implicates that B is not true. For example, if I say,
"Some of the boys came to the party", the fact that I didn't say "All of the
boys came" suggests that this is false: not all of them came. I say,
"John tried to climb the mountain", and I don't say "John climbed the
mountain"; the implicature is that he failed to climb the mountain. Or
again, "I have a red-headed sister" implicates that I don't have two -
because if I did, I should have said so. In each case, the implicature is
cancellable: "Some of the boys came to the party. Come to think of it,
all of them did." "John tried to climb the mountain, and eventually
succeeded." "I have a red-headed sister; in fact, I have two."
The I-heuristic means that, if there's a situation which is more typical, in
context, than any alternative, that's the one which should be assumed
unless the speaker says otherwise. For example, if I make a reference
to a knife without specifying what kind, the listener will assume that I
mean whatever kind of knife "fits" the discussion - if I'm talking about
cooking, any reference to a knife will be taken to mean a kitchen knife,
not a machete, and contrariwise if I'm talking about a safari. Again, if I
say that I'll give you $5 if you mow the lawn, you'll probably assume that
if you don't, I won't; the "if-then" becomes an "if-and-only-if", because,
most typically, one doesn't give money except in exchange for goods or
The M-heuristic is sort of the flip side of (I); if I say something in an
unusual way, it suggests that something unusual is intended. "John got
the car to stop" - what does this mean? If "John stopped the car" takes
the stereotypical interpretation, that he used the brake pedal, then the
wordier form suggests that that's *not* how he did it; maybe he turned
onto an upgrade and took his foot off the accelerator. I say, "The
corners of Sue's lips turned upward"; since I don't make the simpler
statement, "Sue smiled", I'm suggesting that her expression was
something different, not quite a smile.
So, to get back to Pete's original point: doesn't "last" mean "last out of
more than two"? Well, perhaps, but I'd be inclined to think that it's a
matter of implicature, rather than part of the inherent meaning of "last".
(Remember the Cold War joke, about the competition between a
Russian and an American car? The Russian press trumpeted the result,
saying that the Russian came in second, and the American was next-to-
I want to make one other comment here. There are certain situations in
which the conventions of implicature don't apply. First, young children
often violate them, because they haven't internalized them yet. Second,
there are contexts in which "conversation" is recognized as *not* being
cooperative; Bill Wenrich mentioned courtroom dramas, which involve
deliberately antagonistic "conversation"; press conferences and other
forms of interrogation also fit here, and the conventions don't apply.
Third - and this is the one which I, as a mathematician, find most
interesting - mathematical and, to some extent, scientific prose often
violates the conventions. (I could make some guesses as to why this
developed, but I'll forebear.) A lot of the differences between the
conventions of formal logic and those of ordinary speech can be
explained in these terms. The fact that the formal "or" is inclusive -
what, in ordinary speech, is sometimes presented as "and/or"; the
sharp distinction between implication ('if-then") and equivalence ("if-
and-only-if"); the fact that the existential doesn't exclude the universal
or the singular ("some", to a mathematician, means "at least one, and
possibly all", rather than "more than one and less than all") - all of these
can be viewed as the failure of the conventions of implicature to apply.
At any rate, that's a general overview of conversational implicature.
There's a lot more that could be said; Levinson's _Presumptive
Meanings_ devotes nearly 400 pages to its ramifications, not counting
the footnotes. I think, though, that I've said enough for now, unless
someone has questions or comments.
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