Meaning of words – meaning
of speech acts
Approaches to meaning
• Meaning as
Logical form
Context and use
Conceptual structure
» from Forrester 1996, 42
• NB: No either … or … issue, rather depending
on research interest and / or context of
• In Fregean terms:
– Sense : meaning
– Reference : truth-value
• Less restrictive:
– Words refer to entities and relationships within
a world
• One-to-one or via a conceptual structure
• Entities and relationships:
– Persons/objects, events, space, time, modality
Logical form
• Meaning : truth-conditions (of a sentence)
• In everyday terms: we know the meaning of a
sentence if we know under which circumstances
what is said literally (its proposition) is true
– (1) The arrow hits the target.
– (1) is true if, and only if
• xy ((arrow(x)  target(y))  hit (x,y))
• Relates to Philosophy of Language as well as
Artificial Intelligence applications
Context and use
• Meaning and use are inseparable
• Utterances provoke “activation” of
• Presuppositions:
– Semantic: invoked by lexemes and syntactic
structure, e.g. (1) presupposes that there is an arrow,
a target and a hitting-relation between both
– Pragmatic: (2) The baby cried. The mother picked it
– (2) presupposes, e.g. that the baby stopped crying, it
lay in a cot, a pram, … but not on the kitchen table …
Conceptual structure
• Pre- / non-linguistic mental models of the
world and elements of it
– E.g. spatial relations, school: building, school:
• Explains why we can refer to abstract
– vs. prototype semantics
– Is there prototypical love? Or more
pragmatically: there are good fish and bad
• Acquisition of cultural practices and language
acquisition are closely related, parallel
• Rationale: Culture shapes the way we think; the
way we think shapes the way we speak (what
we have to and are able to express in words)
• But beware of the Great Eskimo Vocabulary
Hoax (Pullum, 1991)
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax
• “It is quite obvious that in the culture of the
Eskimos … snow is of great enough importance
to split up the conceptual sphere that
corresponds to one word and one thought in
English into several distinct classes …”
• “It is quite obvious that in the culture of the
printers … fonts are of great enough importance
to split up the conceptual sphere that
corresponds to one word and one thought
among non-printers into several distinct classes
Pullum 1991
Extra-linguistic event
From Semantics to Pragmatics
• What do sentences mean in the context of actual
• How do participants in interactions convey this meaning
to other participants?
• What are the organising principles of conversation /
verbal interaction?
• What else is conveyed in interaction settings?
• These topics rest on the intersection between semantics,
pragmatics, sociolinguistics, sociology, and possibly
psychology and psycholinguistics.
Grice’s maxims of conversation
Levinson 1983, 101/2
Conversational Implicatures
• A: Have you seen Rebecca?
• B: There’s a pink mustang at the back of Paul’s
Forrester 1996, 52
• B’s utterance forces A to draw certain inferences
assuming that B is not violating the cooperative
• Levinson 1983, 103: “people will interpret what
we say as conforming to the maxims on at least
some level” and
• the maxims of conversation “describe rational
means for conducting co-operative exchanges.”
More on implicatures
• Generalised implicatures
– I walked into a house. Implicates:
– The house was not my house.
• Particularised implicatures
– The dog looks very happy. Implicates:
– Perhaps the dog has eaten the roast beef.
Only e.g. in the following context:
– A: What on earth happened to the roast beef?
– B: The dog is looking very happy.
• Conventional implicatures
– Do not affect truth conditions of a sentence
– Cannot be detached from the word / sentence
• E.g. German du/Sie distinction
• ?Du bist der Professor. Vs. Sie sind der Professor.
Flouting maxims
• A: Teheran’s in Turkey, isn’t it, teacher?
• B: And London’s in Armenia, I suppose.
– Quality
• War is war.
– Quality (Tautology).
• Johnny: Hey Sally, let’s play marbles.
• Mother: How is your homework getting along Johnny?
– Relevance
• Miss Singer produced a series of sounds corresponding closely to
the score of an aria from Rigoletto.
– Manner (and others)
• Special case: Metaphors, particularised, yet quite context
– England is as sinking ship.
Computing implicatures
Levinson 1983, 113/4
Speech to interaction:
Speech acts (Austin /Searle)
• Locutionary act - what is said
• Illocutionary act - speech act
• Perlocutionary act - effect of speech act
• Felicity Conditions (for promises):
– Preparatory conditions
• Hearer would prefer S doing the act
• It is not obvious that S would do the act anyway
– Sincerity condition
• Speaker intends to do the act
– Essential condition
• Speaker intends that the utterance will place him/her under
an obligation to do a future act
Types of Speech Acts
Commit speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition
Attempts by the speaker to get the addressee to do something
Commit speaker to some future course of action
Express a psychological state
Effect immediate changes in the institutional state of affairs, usually involving elaborate extralinguistic institutions
declaring war
firing from employment
Speaker’s intentions and hearer’s perceptions
1. Mother: Where are your boots?
2. Son:
In the closet
3. Mother: I want you to put them on right now!
(1) Intended as an order, interpreted as a question. Or
response (2) is joke?
(2) Interpreted as a refusal to obey her order. Or
indicate that joking is not appropriate
Maybe all of these are present? Context is critical.
Speech acts to Joint actions
• A joint project is a joint action projected by
one of its participants and taken up by the
(Clark 1996, 191)
• Principle of joint construal:
For each signal the speaker and the addressee
try to create a joint construal of what the speaker
is to be taken to mean by it.
(Clark 1996, 212)
• Common Ground (shared bases):
– “p is common ground for members of community C if and only if:
– 1. every member of C has information that basis b holds;
– 2. b indicates to every member of C that every member of C has
information that b holds;
– 3. b indicates to members of C that p.” (Clark 1996, 94)
• Common Ground (mutual beliefs):
– “1. A and B each believe that situation s holds
– 2. s indicates to A and to B that A and B each believe that s
– 3. s indicates to A and to B that there is (object o) between them”
(Clark 1996, 97)
jAct: abdominal tumor resection
jAct(jA1 - jAn)
jAn+x: providing instrument
jP1: proposal
with with with thread?
jP1: compliancejP1’: alteration
don’t mind- er no. Just
an overholt
jP1’: compliancejP1’: alteration
i just want to lift at
this stage, you know?
jP2: proposal
jP2: confirmation
jAn+y: closure of a renal vessel
could you set one?
jP1: proposal/request
what do you want now?
an overholt?
jP1: declination
jP1’: alteration/proposal
yes- size eight;
jP1’: confirmation
you better first take a
small one, don’t you?
jP2: proposal
now, come on-
jP3: proposal/break
hm- i hardly get (.)out
of here; you know,
jP3: alteration (jP2:
jP3: confirmation
10 cop
15 cop
could you
jP1(re-start): proposal/request
=and that one’s a
little bit too big, eh?
jP2’(re-start)/jP4: alteration/proposal
(works out)
[alright that way.]
jP4: compliance/alteration
[alright that way.] (-)
jP4: compliance
I’ll close it then,
jP1(re-start): confirmation
jP4 (?) /1(re-start): confirmation
20 cop
Adjacency Pairs
• Adjacency Pairs (Levinson 1983, 303)
– are sequences of two utterances that are:
produced by different speakers
ordered as a first part and a second part
typed, so that a particular first part requires a particular second (...)
[production of a first part requires closing a TCU and a next speaker to
produce a second part] (PG)
• Clark 1996, 201:
– „1.Adjacency pairs consist of two ordered actions – a first part and a
second part.
– 2. The two parts are performed by different agents A and B.
– 3. The form and content of the second part is intended, among
other things, to display B’s construal of the first part for A.
– 4. The first part projects uptake of a joint task by the second part.“
Adjacency pairs
Conversation Analysis –
Basic Terms
Turn constructional unit (TCU)
Transition relevance place (TRP)
intonation rising or falling
drawl on final syllable
stereotyped sequences
drop in pitch or loudness
completion of syntactic clause
termination of gestural movement
tags such as “you know”
hold the floor with “attempt suppression signal”
• (following Duncan, 1972)
CA – Basic Terms
• Rules for transition
– current speaker can select next speaker
– non-selection allows for self-selection
– the current speaker can continue, but is not
obliged to
• Projectability
• Insertion Sequences
• Conditional Relevance
Conversational Organisation
• Preference Organisation
– Preferred vs. Dispreferred (marked vs.
– Repairs
• Sequential Organisation
– (pre-)sequences
– openings / closings
• Topical Organisation
Accountability for non-response
Preference organisation
Closing sequence
New topic introduction
Social meaning of verbal actions
• Deixis: sets what is said into a relation to
the speaker’s position
Person deixis – Who am I?
Spatial deixis – Where is here?
Temporal deixis – When is now?
Discourse deixis – Where are we in a
narrative universe?
Social deixis
• What we say and how we say it conveys
our relationship to other participants in an
• Examples:
– Politeness phenomena / social honorifics
– Code-switching / register change
Politeness phenomena
• Accounting for status (often combined with age)
– Du/Sie distinction (also e.g. in French and Dutch; but
Danish: ‘Sie’ equivalent almost only used to address
the Queen)
– Honorifics such as: Ma’am, Your Honour, Your
Excellency, Father, …
– Some languages, e.g. Japanese require some kind of
addressee honorifics in almost any utterance
– Producing more elaborate utterances, e.g. in requests
• ‘face’ maintaining acts
– E.g. hedging (similar to requests)
• Can be more or less formulaic
Code-switching / register change
• Using a language variety according to
social setting, e.g. informal v. business or
friends v. government officials
• Switching between different languages
according to addressee and / or situation
– Kenyan example: Luyia when chatting with
bus driver, Swahili when negotiating fare,
English when requesting change to be given
– Professional contexts
Examples: professional contexts
• PIC: kannst du den glide path angle mal
• F/O: set speed brake one eight zero (.)
tschuldigung. one nIne zero.
• PIC: one niner zero.
• F/O: guet. wir ham bereits final configuration.
landing check three greens.
• PIC: jawohl ah- (.) landing- (---) all green. ja.

Meaning of words – meaning of speech acts