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Relevance

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Some linguists (such as Howard Jackson and Peter Stockwell, who call it a “Supermaxim”) single out

relevance as of greater importance than Grice recognised (Grice gives quality and manner as supermaxims).

Assuming that the cooperative principle is at work in most conversations, we can see how hearers will try to

find meaning in utterances that seem meaningless or irrelevant. We assume that there must be a reason for

these. Jackson and Stockwell cite a conversation between a shopkeeper and a 16-year old customer:

Customer: Just these, please.

Shopkeeper: Are you eighteen?

Customer: Oh, I’m from Middlesbrough.

Shopkeeper: (after a brief pause) OK (serves beer to him).

Jackson H., and Stockwell, P. (1996), An Introduction to the Nature and Functions of Language, p. 142

Jackson and Stockwell suggest that “there is no explanation for” the customer’s “bizarre reply”. Perhaps this

should be qualified: we cannot be sure what the explanation is, but we can find some plausible answer.

Possible explanations might include these:

• The young man thought his being from Middlesbrough might explain whatever it was about him that

had made the shopkeeper suspicious about his youth.

• The young man thought the shopkeeper’s question was provoked by his manner of speaking, so he

wanted to explain this.

• The young man was genuinely flustered and said the first thing he could think of, while trying to think

of a better reason for his looking under-age.

• The young man thought that the shopkeeper might treat someone from Middlesbrough in a more

indulgent manner than people from elsewhere.

Jackson and Stockwell suggest further that the shopkeeper “derived some inference or other” from the

teenager’s reply, since she served him the beer. It might of course be that she had raised the question (how

old is this customer?) once, but when he appeared to have misunderstood it, was not ready to ask it again or

clarify it – perhaps because this seemed too much like hard work, and as a stranger, the teenager would be

unlikely to attract attention as a regular under-age purchaser of beer.

In analysing utterances and searching for relevance we can use a hierarchy of propositions – those that

might be asserted, presupposed, entailed or inferred from any utterance.

• Assertion – what is asserted is the obvious, plain or surface meaning of the utterance (though many

utterances are not assertions of anything).

• Presupposition – what is taken for granted in the utterance. “I saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre”

presupposes that the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre.

• Entailments – logical or necessary corollaries of an utterance, thus, the above example entails:

o I saw something in the Louvre.

o I saw something somewhere.

o Something was seen.

o There is a Louvre.

o There is a Mona Lisa, and so on.

Inferences are interpretations that other people draw from the utterance, for which we cannot always directly

account. From this example, someone might infer, rationally, that the Mona Lisa is, or was recently, on show

to the public. They might infer, less rationally, that the speaker has been to France recently – because if the

statement were about something from years ago, he or she would have said so.

Pragmatics

© Copyright: Andrew Moore, 2001

http://www.shunsley.eril.net/armoore/

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