Academic journal article The Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education

The Interpretation of Indirect Speech Acts in Relevance Theory

Academic journal article The Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education

The Interpretation of Indirect Speech Acts in Relevance Theory

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

According to Sperber & Wilson (1995: 243), speech-act theory has little to contribute to pragmatics - pragmatics understood as "the study of how language interacts with other cognitive systems (e.g. perception, memory, inference) in verbal communication and comprehension" (Wilson 2003). Thus, the word indirect speech act2, found in the title of this paper, might appear something of a misnomer. If, as Sperber & Wilson (1995: 243) argue, "the vast range of data that speech-act theorists have been concerned with (including indirect speech acts) is of no special interest to pragmatics", then why even bother to examine the possibility of giving a relevance-theoretic account of them? The simple answer is because the range of data with which I'm concerned is different from the range of data with which they have been concerned. In this context, I suppose that it is relatively uncontroversial to assume that they mainly refers to Searle (1979: 30-57) and Bach & Harnish (1979: 173-202). My data, among other, comprises about 57 interrogative utterances collected from three presidential debates between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry in the 2004 US Presidential Election, which appear to be used to perform a variety of indirect speech acts, often simultaneously. I shall therefore mainly be concerned with the different types of indirect speech acts that interrogative utterances can be used to perform, and how the derivation of such indirect speech acts would have to be accounted for within the relevance-theoretic framework.

The paper is structured as follows: In section II, I introduce the principle of optimal relevance and the relevance-theoretic definition of a question. In section III, I introduce three reasons for anyone working within the relevance-theoretic framework to be skeptical about indirect speech acts. Among these, only one shall be considered in detail, viz. in sub-section III.1. Finally, in section IV, I present the implications of such deliberations.

II. Optimal relevance and questions

Viewed from the perspective of RT, utterance comprehension is best studied as a computational process involving the interaction of several input-output systems, such as, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. The most important input to the pragmatic system, or module, is the logical form expressed together with the syntactic form of a sentence uttered in conversation, also referred to as a sentence's meaning. In order to be fully truth-evaluable, such a logical form needs to be pragmatically developed and enriched in a number of ways into a propositional form, also referred to as an utterance's explicature. Moreover, for the propositional form to be relevant to the hearer, it is expected that it provides access to a contextual assumption from memory, referred to as an implicated premise, together with which it can be used to derive a contextual implication (cognitive effect), also referred to as an implicated conclusion, at a minimal cost. In combination, an utterance's explicature, implicated premise and implicated conclusion are assumed to make up a speaker's meaning.

Now, since the effort associated with accessing a contextual assumption in order to trigger a cognitive effect plays a central role in RT, cognitive economy can be said to be the driving mechanism of the relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure: (a) "follow a path of least effort in computing cognitive effects: test interpretive hypotheses (disambiguation, reference resolution, implicatures etc.) in order of accessibility; (b) stop when your expectations of relevance are satisfied" (Wilson & Sperber 2002: 11). In this context, it is worth noting that Wilson & Sperber (2002: 6-8) identify two distinct, but related, principles of relevance, the Cognitive Principle of Relevance (the most basic one) and the Communicative Principle of Relevance, from which the principle of optimal relevance can be said to be derived3. …

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