Essay Example on Relevance Theory

Date:  2021-04-01 23:51:38
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Sperber and Wilson (2002) postulated the relevance theory to explain implicit inferences as a method of communication (p. 583). Fundamentally, the authors argued that any receiver of communication will try and find the meaning of the communication. After finding a meaning that fits into their expectation of relevance, the recipient of the communication will stop processing the communication (Wilson & Sperber, 2002, p. 584). In this definition, the relevance theory makes several assumptions like most pragmatic theories. First, utterances convey varied meaning or implicatures. An expressed utterance can suggest something that is not necessarily implied. This assumption fits into Grices definition of implicature (Carston, 2002a, p. 127). Secondly, Wilson and Sperber (2002) underscore the notion of manifestness, which refers to the conscious or unconscious grasping of communication (p. 584). In this paper, the distinction between implicit utterance and explicit utterance has been explored. The paper also examines the processes in the relevance-theoretic notion of implicatures.

Explicit and Implicit Content of Utterances

Studies conducted by Wilson and Sperber (2012) revealed that human beings use varied modes of communication (p. 606). They can use coded communication and ostensive-inferential communication. Communication between two people involves coding and decoding. The process of communication involves encoding of the speakers thoughts. The coding process is followed by the transmission of the communication. The final process is decoding the communication so that it can be understood by the receiver as originally intended by the speaker (p. 607). Traditionally, this approach to communication is called the code model or the conduit metaphor.

However, other factors such as context and intention of the speaker have always influenced the way the recipient receives the communication. Carston and Powell (2006) noted that in some cases of communication, the relationship between the speaker and the receiver of the communication has impacted on the intended message significantly (31). In response to the influence of these factors, the conceptual model of communication takes cognizance of the context and the cognitive environment between the speaker and the receiver (p. 33). Thus, communication from the speaker in a particular context is encoded, transmitted and decoded to the receiver in a given context.

Ostensive-inferential communication is where the speaker induces a stimulus that manifests certain assumptions for the audience. This type of communication attempts to achieve two intentions. First, it intends to inform the listener of something (informative intention). The second intention is to inform the hearer of the informative intention of the speaker (Tendahl, 2009, p. 23). Thus, this type of communication lures the attention of the listener and focuses it on the meaning that the speaker intends. In inferential communication, the speaker offers an evidence of the interpretation he seeks to convey (Carston & Powell, 2006, p. 35). It is upon the audience to infer the meaning of the communication.

Wilson and Carston (2007) explored the cognitive principles in interpreting utterances. In pragmatics, there are problems encountered in communication which relate to the ambiguities in the construction of utterances (p. 230). The authors noted that utterances have both explicit content and implicit import. The authors revealed that inferential communication takes place between people who have the notion of relevance in their minds (p. 234). In this regard, every person that takes in the communication tends to arrive at the presumption of relevance. It assumes the relevance of implicit messages and that the communicator will be economical when communicating.

Thus, relevance in this context is the speakers notion that whatever s/he is communicating should be listened to by the receivers of communication. By being relevant, the communication offers cognitive effects on the mind of the receiver and triggers him/her to find meaning through cognitive processing (Gutt, 2014, p. 7).

Relevance-Theoretic Notion of Explicature

Relevance theory is premised on the expectation of relevance (Wilson, 2003, p. 273). When a speaker communicates, the intended audience hopes to find relevance through explicit interpretation of the meaning of the communication. In this regard, it is imperative for the speaker to make his utterance predictable so that the audience can find it easy to decipher the meaning (Wilson and Sperber, 2012, p. 607).

According to Carston (2010), a proposition on relevance theory makes it impossible to assume Cooperative Principle as postulated by Grice (p. 163). The authors offer useful insights on how relevance can be measured. Assuming other things are equal, then communication can achieve greater relevance when it has positive cognitive effects. When the hearer uses a lot of effort to find the meaning of a given communication, it lowers the relevance of the communication. Thus, the effort and the effect in communication determine its relevance greatly.

According to Wilson and Sperber (2002), relevance theory allows for the interpretation of both the explicit content (explicatures) and implicit import (p. 587). Fundamentally, communication is said to be relevant if it interacts with the existing assumptions regarding the world (Gutt, 1996, p. 240). For example, Peter wakes up with the thought that if it is raining, he wont go to school (a). He then discovers that it is raining (b).

In the statement above, there is an existing assumption (if it is raining) and the new piece of information that Peter gets after looking outside (the rain). The assumption (a) together with the new information (b) allows for the deduction to be made and a new piece of information (c) to be generated (not going to school). Apparently, we can only arrive at (c) by using both (a) and (b) as premises to make inferences (Blakemore, 2002, p. 11). Information (b) is only relevant when it is used in a context in which (a) is involved. It necessitates the inference process to occur. Information (a) offers the context for the processing of (b), and information (b) contextually implies (c). Thus, information is relevant if it has many contextual implications.

Explicatures and Implicatures were developed in the post-Gricean positions of pragmatics (Wilson, 2003, p. 281). Anything that the speaker utters may be interrupted to mean something else. Consider the following statements:

Everyone cried

The car is locked

There is milk on the shelf

I've had supper

The first statement implies that everyone in the universe cried. However, the speaker may have meant that everyone is a particular context. For example, if a plane was involved in an accident, it is possible that everyone in the plane could have panicked and cried out. However, when the statement is left open as it is in (1) above, its implied meaning in a general context is clearly distinct from the, otherwise, explicit meaning in a specific context.

In statement 2, it can be deduced that there is only one car in the world and that the car in question is locked. However, the speakers intended meaning could be different from its implied meaning. The speaker could have meant a car in a specific context, such healthcare center setting, garage, company, and educational institution. The statement could have referred to the doctors car or the principals car, or the CEOs car depending on the specific context that the speaker implied. In cases 1 & 2, what the speakers said may not be necessarily what they meant. The suggested meanings are called implicatures (DeKeyser, 2008, p. 12).

There is the weak general premise of what is said in statements 3&4. The third statement could mean that milk is available on the shelf. It is not clear whether the speaker is referring to a few drops of milk or say, a glass of milk. Statement 4 implies that the communicator has had supper in his lifetime, at least on the day s/he uttered the words. DeKeyser (2008) refers to statements 3&4 as explicatures (p. 15).

Contextual Effect and Processing Effort

In separate studies, Wilson (2003) described relevance on the foundation of both contextual effect and processing effort. He opined that the consumers of certain communication achieve maximum relevance if the contextual effect is greater; however, if the effort required in processing the meaning of the communication is greater, little relevance is achieved (p. 286). In the context of relevance theory, a piece of communication is relevant when the processing yields positive cognitive effect (Wilson & Sperber, 2002, p. 598). The receiver of the information should not strain or struggle to find out the suggested meaning. A positive cognitive effect envisioned in this context is a precondition for a text to become an explicature. Carston (2002), described explicatures as developments of logical forms (p. 127)

An Evaluation of the Relevance-Theoretic Explicit/Implicit Distinction

To understand the relevance-theoretic explicit/implicit distinction, it is imperative to consider the following sentences.

The volleyball players gathered around their coach.

In relevance theory, the recipient of the information in the above statement must determine the volleyball team in the mind of the person who uttered the communication. However, such determination does stop with the knowing the volleyball team in this context. Further, the hearer must determine what coach the speaker was referring to.

Explicit and implicit utterances are also called performatives. The two versions are not always equivalent. Carston (2004) posited that explicit performatives contain performative verb that is known to the receiver of the intended communication (p. 634). This verb usually has a clear meaning. For example, a child may promise his parent to work hard in school. In this case, the verb promise becomes the performative verb. The child makes a declaration to put his best efforts in the classroom and emerge top in his class.

When the child makes this declaration, the subject of the sentence is usually in the first person (I). It is followed by a present verb in its active form. However, there are a few exemptions regarding explicit performatives (Ellis, Loewen, & Erlam, 2006, p. 339). This occurs when the verb takes a passive form. For example, Students are requested to assemble at the parade. In this case, the subject in the communication does not take the first person while the verb assumes a passive voice. In this sentence, the speaker is addressing the students.

Implicit performatives depart from explicit performative significantly. They do not have performative verbs (Carston, 2002b, p. 87). The receiver of the communication must know the intention of the speaker. The context/environment where the communication is made is significant in deciphering the meaning of the utterance. Unlike explicit performatives, the communication fails to have a direct meaning, prompting the receiver to discern its meaning by applying the contextual effect and processing effort (Clark, 2013, p. 117).

An analysis of the following communication between Tom and Malika can help unravel the different types of utterances.

Tom: Is Peter a good sailor?

Malika: All Portuguese are good sailors.

Clearly, Marys response to Tom regarding Peters sailing ability does not come out vividly. In this regard, Tom must apply both contextual effect and processing effort to understand Marys response. Mary has made it clear that all Portuguese are good players. But she falls short of telling her audience if Peter is a Portuguese. In this regard, it is imperative for Tom to decipher the hidden meaning in Marys response. Tom must determine if Peter...

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