Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity

On Accommodation and Its Consequences

Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity

On Accommodation and Its Consequences

Article excerpt

There are many normative language-related phenomena, both inherent in the object language and at the metalinguistic level. Indeed, the common practice of teaching and grammar-writing has constantly hesitated between the down-to-earth recording and presentation of the language facts and the more normative approach, aimed at spreading "good usage." While descriptive grammars content themselves with 'what there is,' normative grammars purport to speak of 'what there should be,' attempting to use their institutional prestige in order to "improve" linguistic usage in accordance with certain standards or appropriateness. (e.g. the language used by canonical writers, the language of the biblical texts, etc.)

Beyond this academic, at times highly ideologized dispute as to whether teaching and grammars should be normative or merely descriptive, it remains indisputable that normativity is intrinsically embedded in the structure of language, at all significant levels of structure: the lexicon, syntax, semantics, pragmatics. Consider, for instance, the case of generic sentences, like "Tigers are striped," "Lemons are yellow," "Kings are generous." Such sentences have always been regarded as true, in spite of the common knowledge that there are tigers that are not striped, lemons which are not yellow and kings who fail to be generous. The truth of generic sentences follows from their normativity. They are not exceptionless inductive statistical generalizations, but descriptions of prototypical entities, descriptions which are part of the stereotype associated with particular classes of objects, as well known at least since Putnam's Meaning of 'meaning' (1977).

The normativity of presuppositions was understood as soon as they were discovered; it was immediately obvious that presuppositions are preconditions for the semantic and pragmatic appropriateness of utterances. Thus at the semantic level, a proposition whose presuppositions are not satisfied cannot be assigned a truth-value and remains undetermined. From a pragmatic perspective, presuppositions restrict the class of contexts where a sentence can be felicitously used to make an assertion. Thus a question like, "Has he come back from The Moon?," cannot be felicitously answered, if it is not known, that, say, 'The Moon' is the name of the local pub.

Work in discourse semantics has convincingly shown that the relations between (acts of) assertion and contexts is dynamic, since contexts are progressively constructed and negotiated as the conversation/discourse activity unfolds.

The aim of the paper is to discuss one aspect of the relations between assertions and contexts, namely, the process of presuppositions accommodation. Informally, accommodation is a repair strategy of context adjustment: a presupposition which is not known to be part of the context, but is induced by an assertion that has just been made in the context is quietly added to the context, to allow the assertion to be truth-functionally evaluated in the context and to update the context according to its meaning. Accommodation is a process of redefining the context, so as not to obstruct the flow of the conversation/discourse. Accommodation can only be understood in the context of dynamic semantic theories, which incorporate the real-time unfolding of the conversation/discourse and where each utterance/sentence is interpreted in the context already created by the previous conversation/discourse. The meaning of the sentence is precisely the change that it produces in the context (viewed as an information state). Each sentence has an update potential, mapping the old context into a new one.

The process of accommodation raises a host of problematic issues, the most disturbing of which is what are the limits of presupposition accommodation? If a context can smoothly be adjusted by adding to it the required presupposition, do presuppositions still have their normative force, do they still filter away as inappropriate those discourses that suffer from presupposition failure? …

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