Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Bush joke

This post is not directly related to relevance theory, but it does contain a good joke. In a previous version of this post, I broke with scholarly neutrality for these reasons. It would have made a considerable difference, and it's difficult to keep quiet about these things and stick to academic work when you are wondering if war or the destruction of the environment will end human civilisation first.

From William Gibson's blog:
President Bush goes to an elementary school to talk about the war.
After his talk, he offers to answer questions. One little boy puts up his hand and the president asks him his name.
"I'm Billy, sir."
"And what's your question, Billy?"
"I have three questions, sir. Why did the US invade Iraq without the support of the UN? Why are you President when Al Gore got more votes? And whatever happened to Osama Bin Laden?"
Just then the bell rings for recess. Bush announces that they'll continue after recess.
When they return, Bush asks, "OK, where were we? Question time! Who has a question?"
Another little boy raises his hand. The president asks his name.
"I'm Steve, sir."
"And what's your question, Steve?"
"I have five questions, sir. Why did the US invade Iraq without the support of the UN? Why are you President when Al Gore got more votes? Whatever happened to Osama Bin Laden? Why did the recess bell go off twenty minutes early? And what the heck happened to Billy?"

If you want overtly political stuff, go to my other blog. I'll keep politics out of this one from now on.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

New papers relevant to relevance

Here are the latest additions to the online RT bibliography, courtesy of Franscisco Yus' posting to the relevance mailing list.
Andone, C. 2003) "Argumentative values of but in the discourse of economics." British and American Studies (Revista de Studii Britanice si Americane) 9: 211-218.

Escuder, A. (1996) "Relevance and translation in writing about environment." Georgica 4: 335-344.

Figueras Solanilla, C. (2002) "La jerarquia de la accesibilidad de las expresiones referenciales en español." Revista Española de Lingüística 32(1): 53-96.

Goerling, F. (1996) "Relevance and transculturation." Notes on Translation 10(3): 49-57.

Gutt, E.-A. (forthcoming) "Relevance-theoretic approaches to translation." In: Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2nd edition). Ed. K. Brown. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Kempf, S. (2000) "Who told the truth?" Notes on Translation 14(1): 34-46.

Meunier, J.-P. (1994) "Quelques aspects de l'evolution des theories de la communication: De la signification a la cognition." Degres 79-80: k1-k16.

Moeschler, J. (2004) "Intercultural pragmatics: A cognitive approach." Intercultural Pragmatics 1(1): 49-70.

Murillo, S. (2004) "A relevance reassessment of reformulation markers." Journal of Pragmatics 36(11): 2059-2068.
(updated reference)

Pilkington, A. (2001) "Non-lexicalised concepts and degrees of effability: Poetic thoughts and the attraction of what is not in the dictionary." Belgian journal of Linguistics 15: 1-10.

Ram, A. (1990) "Knowledge goals: A theory of interestingness." In: Proceedings of the 12th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Cambridge, MA, August.
Available here

Recanati, F. (2003b) "Embedded implicatures." Philosophical Perspectives 17(1): 299-332.
Adobe Acrobat format:
Rich Text format:
Available here

Schank, R.C. (1979) "Interestingness: Controlling inferences." Artificial Intelligence 12: 273-297.

Silva, F.-A. (1996) "Lancando anzois: Uma analise cognitiva de processos mentais em traduçao." Revista de Estudos da Linguagem (RevEL) 4(2): 71-90.

Storto, L. (2004)  "Review of F. Recanati's Literal Meaning." The Linguist List 15.2535, 11-9-2004.

Yus, F. (forthcoming) "Relevance theory." In: Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2nd edition). Ed. K. Brown. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Ziv, Y. (1996b) "Pronominal reference to inferred antecedents." Belgian Journal of Linguistics 10: 55-67..

Thursday, September 30, 2004


Arnold Zwicky, commenting on six inclusions in Richard Horsey's '101 Key Ideas in Linguistics', writes [see my item on this blog a few weeks ago, for a link to the original Zwicky post - Nick] :

"Ok, here's Horsey's list, in alphabetical order: Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky, Gottlob Frege, H. Paul Grice, Roman Jakobson, and Ferdinand de Saussure? Frege and Grice are the surprises, of course. Getting the other four is no great feat, but if you got both of these names, then you definitely have a Horsey take on things, and you get a dinner."

Well, I'm afraid I'm busy tonight, and I can think of better people to argue for the inclusion of Frege, but I do think Mr. Zwicky's being a bit of a meany begrudging a mention for Grice. Indeed, it seems to me that Grice's contributions to linguistics (via pragmatics)--not forgetting his contributions to the philosophy of language, and the influence this work has had on modern-day psychology and even cognitive science--make him pretty hard (not to say impossible) to leave out.

I wonder why Grice's importance is over-looked so often. I never met him, but he does seem to have been a fairly diffident chap. Perhaps that somehow lingers in his legacy. His ground-breaking paper 'Meaning', for example, was written in 1948, but Grice didn't deem it worthy of publication. Reliable reports (from Richards Grandy and Warner, two people who worked closely with Grice in his later years) have it that Peter Strawson had the article typed out (9 years later) and then submitted it without his knowledge, only informing him once it had been accepted.

Much of Grice's work was, quite simply, ahead of its time. Philosophers of language and pragmatists continue to build on the foundations he laid (still, perhaps, underestimating the extent of those foundations - more excavation required...). I recall psychologist Alan Leslie revealing at a workshop in Oxford a few years ago that it was 'Meaning' (1948, 1957) that sparked his interest in belief-desire psychology. Many of Grice's ideas on reason and rationality are reflected (not to say retrospectively endorsed) in recent work in cognitive science. Moreover, a forthcoming paper by Michael Tomasello and colleagues suggests that it was 'shared intentionality' and 'cooperation' that were the central factors in the evolution of human cognition. I must say that makes a nice change from cheating, deceiving and outmaneuvering (of which there's enough around at the moment).

Cooperative principle anyone?

(By Tim, despite what it says below.)

Friday, July 30, 2004

Update of RT bibliography

Francisco Yus has emailed the relevance list with additions to his online RT bibliography. Some of the papers are available online, including an article on relevance and conspiracy theories, which I will read and report back on (unless mysterious forces intervene), a Sperber and Wilson, a Wilson, and a Wilson and Sperber.

Casacuberta, D. and C. Figueras (1999) "The R files: applying relevance model to conspiracy theory fallacies." Journal of English Studies 1: 45-55.
Available here

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1990b) "Rhetoric and relevance." In: The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice. Eds. J. Bender and D. Wellbery. Stanford, C.A.: Stanford University Press, 140-156.=20
Available here

Wilson, D. (1994) "Relevance and understanding." In: Language and Understanding. Eds. G. Brown, K. Malmkj=E6r, A. Pollit and J. Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 35-58.
Available here

Wilson, D. and D. Sperber (1998b) "Mood and the analysis of non-declarative sentences." In Pragmatics: Critical Concepts Vol. II. Ed. A. Kasher. London: Routlesge, 262-289.
Available here

I'm also intrigued by Vlad ?egarac's paper "Relevance theory and the in second language acquisition" in the current issue of Second Language Research (20(3): 193-211) but UCL doesn't take this journal, so whether I get to look at it probably depends on whether I can muster the energy to walk across Bloomsbury to Birkbeck or the Institute of Education and meet a whole new set of librarians. It's a lot to ask for something that's very far from what I'm supposed to be working on.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Review of Pilkington's Poetic Effects; Livnat on irony

The new issue of Pragmatics & Cognition (2004, Volume 12, Issue 1) has a paper by Zohar Livnat: On verbal irony, meta-linguistic knowledge and echoic interpretation and a review of Adrian Pilkington's Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective by Motti Benari.

You can get the papers online if you have access to a university subscription to Athens or one of those services. UCL has, luckily.

I've read the review of Pilkington's book and I think it shows some serious misunderstandings of relevance theory or Adrian Pilkington's interpretation of it. The introduction is really good though. I'll post some of my thoughts if I have time later.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Quantification papers

There's been a fantastic run of draft papers on quantification and (formal) semantics available via semantics etc.:

  • a review article covering generalised quantifiers from a philosophical perspective by Michael Glanzberg
  • the slides for a talk Angelika Kratzer gave this summer arguing for hidden situation variables where Stanley and Szabo want hidden variables - and elsewhere besides
  • Bart Geurts arguing that:
    Conditional sentences with quantifying expressions are systematically ambiguous. In one reading, the if -clause restricts the domain of the overt quantifier; in the other, the if -clause restricts the domain of a covert quantifier, which defaults to epistemic necessity.
  • and Geurts again on why unary quantification is fine for most, often etc. if you use Belnap-style conditional assertion.
Very useful for me, since Hiroyuki Uchida and I are thinking of running our informal formal semantics course next year on quantification. Now all I have to do is understand it all...

Friday, July 23, 2004

test - posting with ecto

this post was generated by ecto, a lovely piece of software for managing blogs.
If you post a lot it will save a lot of time - or at least allow you to generate more posts in the same ludicrously long time you already spend online. It's cheap shareware with fantastic support - the author emailed me back within minutes to answer some questions I had.
It's available for Mac OS X and now for Windows - you get the message... (I have no ulterior motive for this, shares in the company... I'm just really pleased with ecto and, particularly, the support.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Chekhov's law of relevance

This post is a response to an Emergency call for the pragmatics police by Mark Liberman on Language Log.
There's a story today in the New York Times about a planned "major expansion of the city's information hot line, 311, ... undertaken just in time to help thousands of visitors to the Republican National Convention next month navigate the city by simply picking up a phone". Terrific, but can somebody tell me why the picture that runs with the story -- at least in the online edition -- shows a sign on the wall in Yiddish?

There must be a journalistic variant of the famous Chekhovian law of relevance for suggestive details in literature, two versions of which are:
"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." ---Letter to A. S. Lazarev-Gruzinsky, Nov. 1, 1889.
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." --- from the Memoirs of Shchukin (1911)
Let me propose a journalistic lemma: one must not put a foreign-language sign on the wall in a picture of an American municipal office, if the story is not going to comment on it. If it's not going to be mentioned, it shouldn't be hanging there.

What interested me about this is that it seems that Chekhov's law might be derivable from the communicative principle of relevance with some extra assumptions. All that communicative or pragmatic considerations as such say about the situation according to relevance theory (Liberman only mentions Grice) is that the details of a story should turn out to be relevant enough to have been worth attending to and processing.
It's not clear to me just what is the extra assumption that Chekhov needs to derive his law. Whatever it is, Chekhov's law presumably only applies to certain styles of writing, as contributors to the thread on Chekhov's law seem to discuss:
Of some note in this regard is the opera "The Abduction of Figaro" by P.D.Q. Bach, in which three separate characters, at various points in the action, wave guns around, but never fire them.

(On the other hand, one of them does toss a hand-grenade...)

Ok, I can't let this thread go by withoug mentioning that Gogol (who died before Chekhov was born) was a great writer because he violated this rule. I can't think off-hand of an example in his plays, but the first few paragraphs of "Dead Souls" is spent describing in detail the appearance of a youn man coming out of a tavern, down to the style of pin and type of embroidery in his clothes. This person is never seen again and has nothing to do with the story at all.

And the modern author, Vladimir Voinovich, in tribute to Gogol and thumbing his nose at Chekhov, made sure he pointed out a shotgun, foreshadowed it heavily, only to have it fail to fire at the critical moment in The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.
On the other hand, all of these might be seen as examples of deilberate flouting of expectations to create comic infelicity, so there's perhaps no example here of literature entirely outside of Chekhov's law. Still, it seems to me that it can't be reasonable for journalists to remove real details that fail to conform with our (stereotypical) expectations: life is richer in details than we expect, perhaps, and I don't think we need to be protected from that.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Robert Quine was W. V. O. Quine's nephew!

I found this out reading this Guardian obituary of Robert Quine, great punk guitarist, who died around May 31st.
Richard Hell's fierce, beautiful elegy in the New York Metro confirms it.

I've learned such different things from the Quines; it's really odd for me to find out that they were related, especially now, although I don't see that it makes any difference to anything.

I guess if you're reading this you'll know all about W.V.O., but maybe not about Robert Quine. As Richard Hell says:
His command of technique came from endless hours of studying the records that moved him — but it was the combination of rage and delicacy, and the pure monstrosity of invention, that set him apart.

I particularly recommend his playing on John Zorn's soundtrack for the film White and Lazy (on John Zorn Filmworks 1986-1990) as well as the Voidoids albums Blank Generation and Destiny Street. You can read about them on Robert Quine's homepage.

Relevance theorist mentioned on Language Log; priorities questioned

Richard Horsey's book 101 Key Ideas in Linguistics. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 2001, is mentioned by Arnold Zwicky on Language Log blog.
...six of these 101 Key Ideas in Linguistics aren't ideas at all, but people. Men, in fact. None dead a hundred years now. So this part of the book is really a list of Six Key Men of Twentieth-Century Linguistics.

Now, take out a slip of paper and write down your six nominees for the Key Men of Twentieth-Century Linguistics. No cheating: no checking Horsey's book or peeking ahead in this posting. If anyone, absolutely anyone, playing fair, gets the same list as Horsey, I'll be astonished. In fact, if you manage this feat, e-mail me and I'll take you out to dinner at the next conference we're both at.

Ok, here's Horsey's list, in alphabetical order: Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky, Gottlob Frege, H. Paul Grice, Roman Jakobson, and Ferdinand de Saussure. "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" gets an entry, but Horsey gives no biographical data on either man, nor any discussion of their intellectual contributions beyond the SWH, so they don't count.

Frege and Grice are the surprises, of course. Getting the other four is no great feat, but if you got both of these names, then you definitely have a Horsey take on things, and you get a dinner.

I got Grice, of course, just after Chomsky - it was the rest of the list I had trouble with. Frege and de Saussure seem to me more 19th than 20th century, since their major work was mostly done by 1900, I think. And what did Bloomfield and Jakobson do again?

I guess that Richard's 'take on things' is a relevance theory perspective, with Jakobson, Bloomfield and de Saussure thrown in to keep the publisher happy.

My list would keep Chomsky and Grice and add Richard Montague. I'm not sure who to add after that: Austin, perhaps, or Bertrand Russell. Or some current practitioners other than Chomsky (who has been canonized in his lifetime) - but then it's very hard to choose just a few.

Disclaimer - I wouldn't want anyone to take these comments too seriously; I'm hardly in a position to judge the importance of linguists outside pragmatics and semantics. In fact as as a pragmatist, I wouldn't claim to be a linguist at all, but that's a debate for another time. And anyway, assembling best of... lists is hardly a serious pursuit.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Death of Stuart Hampshire

The philosopher Stuart Hampshire died on June 13th. According to this obituary he was highly regarded as a moral philosopher. I'm not qualified to comment, but he was clearly an important member of the loose group of philosophers at Oxford including Austin and, particularly, Grice, that a lot of pragmatics has its roots in. (Some other names are mentioned in this post in the Relevance list archives.)

In Grice's Aspects of Reason Hampshire makes a cameo appearance as "the hapless Shropshire in Chapter 1 who "reasons" in one quick step from the premiss that chickens run around after their heads are cut off to the conclusion that the human soul is immortal." as Richard Warner puts it in his introduction (available as a pdf here).

Grice was making a serious point: it's not good enough - if we aim to define reasoning (or good reasoning) to count all cases like Shropshire's "argument" where the conclusion follows from the stated premise plus a number of unstated premises. On the other hand, we want to count some such cases - there are plenty of good arguments in which the conclusion only follows from the stated (or mentally entertained) premise or premises when they are combined with unstated (or non-entertained) premises. Grice certainly didn't want to have a definition of reasoning which excluded these cases.

One important consequence of this for Grice's pragmatics is the way it bears on the debate about whether conversational implicatures are always calculated by explicit reasoning or, at least sometimes, via heuristics or shortcuts.
The discussion around the Shropshire example in Aspects of Reason suggests that Grice could choose both options simultaneously: the derivation of a conversational implicature need not be thought through on any particular occasion to count as having been produced by (sound) reasoning, since in general, sound reasoning does not involve consciously entertaining all of the steps in a logical derivation.
Therefore (and not coincidentally) the criterion in Aspects... for sound reasoning ends up being very similar to the idea that conversational implicatures have to be derivable from what is said plus other premises, so a rational reconstruction should always succeed. What the discussion of Shropshire adds to this is that not just any proposition is to be allowed as an unarticulated premise in this kind of reconstruction. It is one of the central problems of pragmatics to explain which extra premises are allowed in which cases.

Richard Breheny comes back to UCL

My department has appointed Richard Breheny to a lectureship. He'll be here from January 2005, making it three relevance theory lecturers in the department (plus a post-doc). I would imagine he'll be teaching courses on language acquisition, psycholinguistics and semantics as well as pragmatics.
Richard did his PhD here, with Deirdre Wilson as his supervisor, then joined RCEAL at Cambridge.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Jackendoff talk: semantics must be generative

On Friday (4th) I heard Ray Jackendoff give the keynote lecture at a conference organised by the UCL Centre for Human Communication which my department (UCL Phonetics and Linguistics) is part of (in some way I don't understand).

What he said may not be news to anyone else, but I hadn't heard it, not having read any of his recent stuff, except the bits about music.

Broadly, he thinks that mainstream - ie Chomskyan - linguistics is on the wrong track by supposing that syntax is the only generative component needed in the grammar, so that phonology and semantics need only interpret the output from syntax.

On the phonology side, he thinks that auto-segmental phonology is on the right track, since it is a separate generative system with a 'dirty connection' to syntax, in the sense that there is no one-to-one mapping between phonological and syntactic structure.

Jackendoff wants to treat semantics in the same way, as an independent generative component, linked with syntax, and - separately - with phonology, by constraints, not isomorphic mappings.

This has a number of interesting consequences, one of which is that words become constraints across components of the language faculty, which seems like a neat idea. Another is that in the evolution of language, syntax might have come last to mediate a previously direct link between rich conceptual structure and phonology, rather than first as Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) seem to propose.

I'm with Jackendoff on the last point - it doesn't make sense to me that recursion would develop first in syntax to link a conceptual system with a sound system, because a conceptual system without recursion wouldn't be worth linking with anything. If you couldn't think, you wouldn't have anything to say.

But I don't think agreeing with this commits anyone to Jackendoff's position. It seems to me that he assumes that anything (or, presumably, anything propositional) that you can think must be representable in linguistic semantics. But that doesn't seem right. All that you can really say is that anything (propositional) you can think must be representable in the Language of Thought (assuming there is such a thing). The semantics of sentences, on the other hand, are notoriously underspecified relative to the Language of Thought, and if Sperber and Wilson's recent work is right, the same goes for the semantics of lexical items. (Since the contribution a lexical item ends up making to the propostion expressed by an utterance will generally be an ad hoc concept reached by narrowing and/or broadening the concept encoded by the lexical item.)

So it's perfectly consistent to think that we need to have a richly structured conceptual system for propositional thought, and that some parts of this must predate a structurally rich linguistic syntax (or there would have been nothing for the syntax to express) - without thinking that linguistic semantics needs to be generative in its own right. It could just be read off LF, which seems the simplest assumption.

I'll give one example to try to make this clearer. Jackendoff mentioned Pustejofsky's work on lexical semantics. The basic idea is something like this: You interpret 'begin' differently in 'I began the book' and 'I began the beer' or, say, 'The goat began the book'.
It's clear (I think) that something like this is the case at the level of the thought formed in interpreting utterances of these sentences, but it's a huge (and apparently unjustified) step from there to say that those differences in the meaning of 'begin' should be encoded in the lexical semantics.


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