Pragmatics Deixis and Conversational Implicature
1.1 The concept of deictic centre
Deixis deals with the words and expressions whose reference relies entirely on the circumstances of the utterance. For that reason these special expressions and their meaning in discourse can only be understood in light of these circumstances. The term deictic centre underlines that the deictic term has to relate to the situation exactly at the point where the utterance is made or the text is written. One could even say that the deictic centre is the unmarked “anchorage point” from which the utterance is made. To decode the meaning of a sentence we use a “navigation system”.
In our day-to-day conversational exchanges, the speaker does not consciously use deictic expressions, as well as the adressee usually understands the utterance immediately (meaning that the adressee does not need much time to think about an utterance before understanding the message). Deixis makes discourse easier and more effective, giving us a means to pass more information in less time. Nevertheless, there are certain situations making an interpretation difficult or even impossible, mostly when we only get chunks of information and therefore lack context. If, for example, a person tells a story and forgets to give the essential information a deictic term refers to, we will grow aware of the weakness the deictic system features. Or if the fax machine just receives the second page of a letter, beginning with “Then he was quite embarrassed about it ” – the adressee will never be able to guess what “then”, “he” and “it” stands for. Similar gaps arise if we read about an utterance made in the past and lack information about the references. Although the adressee at that time could easily have understood the sense, we may not be capable of getting the original meaning. Even if we knew the context in detail, this might not be sufficient to understand discourse, for example if a special gesture is made when pointing at a building while saying: “I lived there two years ago.”
1.2 Linguistic categories
The Greek origin of the term deixis meaning pointing via language already hints at its function. According to Yule (1996:9), “Deixis is clearly a form of referring that is tied to the speakers context”. This again leads us to the concept of deictic centre. The deictic centre can be divided into certain sub-centres.
1. Central person (speaker): Personal pronouns, I (Speaker), you (Addresse)
2. Central time (coding time): Adverbs of time, now and then
3. Central place (the location of the speaker): Adverbs of space, here and there
4. Discourse centre (the point of the speakers discourse): Adverbs of time and place, conjunctions
5. Social centre (the speakers social status relative to the Adressees)
Next we can distinguish between proximal terms (like here, now, this – near to the speaker) and distal terms (like there, then, that – away from the speaker). It is important to note that in context of deixis and grammar, when direct speech is shifted into indirect speech, the proximal forms also shift into the corresponding distal forms. Compare the two following sentences:
“You were here this morning?”
I asked him whether he had been there that morning.
In contrast to the effect of “immediateness” proximal deictic forms create, the reported speech utterance normally makes the original speech event seem more remote.
In the following section, I shall discuss some forms of deixis in detail.
These seemingly simple forms are sometimes quite tricky in their use. Children often have problems using personal pronouns. The three pronouns from first to third person I, you and he, she, it are in many languages elaborated with markers of relative social status (social deixis). Expressions indicating a higher social status are called honorifics. In German or French, there is a special social aspect about a familiar form of you (Du/tu) and an unfamiliar one (Sie/Vous). The use of either one form gives us information about the speakers view of his relationship to the addressee. Third person terms are usually more distant terms. Today they sometimes may serve ironic purposes (” Should I clean the dishes for her majesty?”), and they can also be used to make a potentially personal issue seem like an impersonal one, e.g. if I want someone to do me a favour.
Spatial deictic terms indicate the relative location of people and things (here, there). Interesting about the use is the aspect of deictic projection: Speakers often refer to physically distant locations like “home” using here, as if they still were in that location. Moreover, modern technology allows us to utter seemingly impossible sentences like “I am not here at the moment” on an answering machine. Yet another shift takes place when I tell a story quoting direct speech, as here or there have to be understood relative to the place my story takes place.
Now is indicating both the time coinciding with the speakers utterance and the time of the addressee hearing these words. Then may either refer to past and future actions relative to the moment where it is uttered (deictic centre). Deictic expressions like yesterday, tomorrow, today, next week etc. have to be separated from non-deictical temporal references such as local time. Showing similarities to the notion of spatial deixis, the remote form in temporal deixis can be used to communicate not only distance from current time, but also distance from current reality or facts.
1.3. “May we come in, sir?”
We refers to a group of at least two persons that the speaker belongs to. In this case the exclusive we (addressee does not belong to group) should be suggested more likely (Person deixis). Sir implies that the addressee has at least the same social status as the speaker or probably even a higher status relative to the group (Social deixis). The action of coming in involves a certain place, or, to be more precise, two places (Spatial deixis): One where the speaker is situated at the moment of his utterance, and one where he requests to go.
As this sentence seems typical of our everyday life politeness, it is not very difficult to find a situation where it could have been uttered, e.g. a group of pupils visiting their teacher at his home.
2 Introduction: The notion of implicature
How is it that we can convey meanings which we do not actually state?
To solve this problem – which we are not aware of as a problem in our day-to-day conversational exchanges pragmatics uses the notion of implicature. The concept of implicature is so salient because it explains how it is possible to mean more than what is actually said by the single words. Implicature bridges the gap between what is literally said and what is meant, suggested, what is implied. By contrast, a semantic theory is based on the belief that natural language expressions tend to have simple, stable and unitary senses so that consequently, a semantic theory will never be able to give full account of how we use language in our conversations (cf. Levinson 1983: 99).
It is an important feature of implicatures that they make a vital contribution to the simplification in language use, in both the structure and the content of semantic descriptions. In order to explain pragmatic phenomena like implicature, the semanticist, would finally be forced to ascribe to the simplest looking and most common words a wide range of different, even contradictory meanings.
Pragmatic thinking is always context-bound. No matter how natural our language facilities or how convention-bound their use is, as language users we always work in contexts. First of all, the utterance itself is embedded in a context of situation. By this context of situation we have to understand the relevant surrounding text, and everything in this co-text that is responsible for cohesion, coherence and relevance. Furthermore, context is also what gives our utterances their deeper meaning. When the hearer has found out that the message is another than what the single words say, he has to infer what the additional meaning is, and he can only do so on the basis of the contextual information. This contextual knowledge is the second form of context, and it is necessary for decoding implicit meaning.
The context of an utterance determines not only what I say, but also what I can say, given the circumstances, and what I must say, given my partners expectations. Communication is not a matter of logic or of absolute truth, but of cooperation. When we are talking with each other, we always have to keep in mind the knowledge of our partner and the expectation that follows from that knowledge. We try to convey a certain message around the assumption that we share with our partner a “mutually recognized, common cognitive environment” (Mey 1993: 81) and expect our partner just as well to build his understanding around this assumption.
This explains why an answer taken by itself sometimes does not make sense at all and seems to be absolutely irrelevant for the asked question, and yet tells the hearer what he wants to know, assumed he knows the appropriate context. For instance, if a person asks Where does the pragmatics seminar take place?, it is quite reasonable to answer I hope you like standing up for 90 minutes, in case that there is only one very small room and both participants are aware of this fact. Nevertheless, if our contextual beliefs and assumptions do not fit together, we fail to understand each other.
Interestingly, any utterance in a conversation turns into being common knowledge of the participants of the conversation. In this way, it becomes part of their shared cognitive environment and serves as an assumptional basis for the continuation of the conversation. We can infer from this that the single utterance and the context interact with each other, so that we have to understand context to be dynamic.
2.1 The cooperative principle (CP) and the four conversational maxims
The linguistic philosopher Paul Grice (1975) developed the concept of implicature on the basis of a theory about how people use language. He claims that our talk exchanges are related to each other and do not consist of a succession of disconnected remarks. Our conversational contributions can be understood as cooperative efforts, and each participant recognizes in them, “a set of purposes, or at least a mutually accepted direction” (Grice 1975: 45). Grice suggests that there are some unwritten rules which underpin conversation. They are called the Cooperative Principle and represent a rough general principle of usage.
The CP runs as follows:
“Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which they are engaged”. Grice (1975: 45)
Grice identifies as guidelines of this sort four basic maxims of conversation or general principles underlying the efficient cooperative use of language. The principle that Grice (1975:45ff) introduces is expressed in the following way:
The maxim of Quality
Try to make your contribution one that is true, specifically:
(i) Do not say what you believe to be false.
(ii) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
The maxim of Quantity
(i) Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange.
(ii) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
The maxim of Relevance
The maxim of Manner
Be perspicuous, and specifically:
(i) Avoid obscurity.
(ii) Avoid ambiguity.
(iii) Be brief.
(iv) Be orderly.
It is obvious that these maxims have various weightings in peoples mind. Thus, the observance of the maxim of Quality is of greater importance, even of greater moral value than the others. However, with regard to the generation of implicature, all the maxims should be treated equally.
Grice noted that the CP arises from basic rational considerations. The idea that talking is a variety of rational behaviour is likely to be true, as presumptions formulated in the conversational maxims have their analogues in the sphere of transaction, meaning that we are cooperative in non-linguistic spheres as well.
2.2 Implicature generated by observing or flouting the conversational maxims
With the maxims running as a tool, we can explain implicature beyond the semantic content of the sentence uttered.
Implicature is generated in two distinct ways, depending on the relation the speaker is taken to have towards the maxims, that is, whether he is observing the maxims or not. For the case that the speaker is observing the maxims in a fairly direct way, he may nevertheless rely on the addressee to make some guess, to form some hypothesis, of what the speaker means. The speaker expects the addressee to make his inferences on the assumption that the speaker is following the maxims (cf. Levinson 1983: 104). This means that the speaker and the hearer assume that they are both following the conversational maxims. Inferences that arise from observing the maxims are called standard implicature. Yet another meaning may arise when a speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim. This means that the addressee assumes, contrary to all outer appearance, that the principles are being observed only at some basic level. If someone obviously and deliberately is not following some maxim, he generally does so not with the intention of deceiving or misleading, but in order to exploit it for communicative purposes, in order to prompt the hearer to look for a meaning which is different from the explicitly stated meaning. The generation of this additional meaning is called flouting a maxim.
It is fundamentally vital to understand that it is the principle of politeness (PP) which is involved when we look for an explanation why people are so indirect in their meaning. With the PP we can explain, even justify apparent breaches of the CP, and we realize that the conversational maxims are often flouted only to prevent the channel of communication to break down.
Before providing some examples, there is another basic remark on implicatures I must mention, namely that they do not inevitably have to be conversational implicatures. Defining the term implicature more precisely, one can distinguish conversational implicature from conventional implicature. Conventional implicatures arise from expressions which, taken by themselves, implicate certain states of the world that cannot be attributed to our use of language. They are not derived from pragmatic principles like the maxims, but are simply attached by convention to particular lexical items or expressions.
A: “Why do you want to leave the company?”
B: “Because I know that our situation soon will be devastating.”
If B wants to observe the quality maxim, he must not only be convinced about his utterance being true, but also know that there is clear proof of what he is claiming. If he lacks adequate evidence, he better should mark this by using a cautious note (hedges) “I dont know or sure, but”.
A: “How do we get those seven persons back there?”
B: “I own one old car.”
Observing the quantity maxim, this also means that B does not have more than one car.
A: “I wont describe every single minute, but it was a great game.”
A shows that he is conscious of the quantity maxim, making use of hedges.
A: “Can you tell me how to get to the university?”
B: “There is a petrol station just some hundred metres away.”
B does not know where the university is located. Still, he observes the maxim of relevance by giving a hint where the driver could get better information.
A: “I know this sounds a little obscure, but I did not notice you at all.”
Presupposing that A did not recognize a good friend, A still tries to show that he is trying to observe the maxims.
A: “Did I call you too early?”
B: “Oh, I love getting up at six in the morning”
By blatantly flouting the first maxim, B implies that his utterance has to be interpreted in quite a different way (and furthermore, that his question was quite unnecessary).
A: “Seems they are going to lose this match.”
B: “Dont forget about our goalie. Hes top of the league.”
Everybody knows that the goalkeeper is not very skilled, thus B obviously flouts the maxim of quality, hinting at a sarcastic meaning.
A: “You still use this car, honestly?”
B: “Well, its got four wheels and a steering wheel.”
In this case, B is flouting the maxim of quantity, of manner and even of relevance, as he says something A already knows before B answers his question (giving more information than necessary), being neither brief nor he avoiding obscurity, and not responding directly to As question. One could translate Bs utterance into: “Dont make such a fuss, the car is in a good condition.”
A: “Can you tell us about your teams line-up next Sunday?”
B: “Sure. There will be eleven players.”
The coach is flouting the maxim of quantity, giving less information than required. He is tired of the journalists always asking the same questions that he must not answer.
A: “Did I tell you, Graham Potter finally got this job in Glasgow?”
B: “The lobster is delicious, darling.”
Flouting the maxim of relevance, B tells her husband that she definitely does not want to talk about his job or his colleagues.
A: “And then, after all we have been through, he did not notice me at all”
B: “Oops, right at the back there is a spot on your dress”
Again flouting the maxim of relevance, B possibly warns her girlfriend that the guy she has been talking about is approaching.
A: “I could invite you for dinner tomorrow.”
B:” Your girlfriend is doing well, is she?”
Flouting the third maxim, B reminds her admirer that he should be faithful.
A: “Rumour has it that you had an affair with this woman.”
B: “I do not claim that this question is unjustified.”
B is flouting the maxim of manner, thus indicating that there was an affair, but he does not dare to admit things.
A: “Tell me about your last match!”
B: “It came quite close to playing tennis”
B played his worst tennis and uses a flouting of the last maxim to indicate this.
2.3 The process of flouting in detail
In this section I shall take a closer look at one of my examples, making explicit the types of knowledge required for the implicatures to be worked out.
A: “Oops, did I call you too early?”
B: “Oh, I love getting up at six in the morning”
This flout exploits the maxim of quality as the speaker says something which is blatantly untrue. Assuming cooperation, the listener is forced to look for another plausible interpretation. His line of thought (as well as the speakers codification process shortly before uttering his sentence) might work like this:
1. B has expressed pleasure at being disturbed early in the morning (utterance X)
2. But normally people in our society do not like this.
3. So why is B uttering X?
4. I cannot assume that B is violating the cooperative principle, namely he tries to deceive me.
5. I also do not think that Bs sentence is entirely pointless.
6. As 3 and 4 are not true, B must be trying to put across some other proposition
7. Is there a related meaning Bs utterance hints at?
8. In this case, the only obviously related proposition is the exact opposite of the one B has expressed.
9. Therefore the only plausible explanation is that B is quite annoyed at me calling this early.
10. I will accept this meaning unless context hints at a more persuasive interpretation
Grice, H. Paul. 1975. “Logic and conversation”. In: Cole, P. and J. Morgan (eds.).
Pragmatics. (Syntax and Semantics 9). New York: Academic Press, 41-58
Levinson, Stephen. 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP
Mey, Jacob. 1993. Pragmatics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Thomas, Jenny. 1995. Meaning and Interaction. An Introduction to Pragmatics. London:
Yule, George. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford UP