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The interactional achievement of speaker meaning: Toward a formal account of conversational inference

Chi-Hé Elder and Michael Haugh
From the journal Intercultural Pragmatics


Dominant accounts of “speaker meaning” in post-Gricean contextualist pragmatics tend to focus on single utterances, making the theoretical assumption that the object of pragmatic analysis is restricted to cases where speakers and hearers agree on utterance meanings, leaving instances of misunderstandings out of their scope. However, we know that divergences in understandings between interlocutors do often arise, and that when they do, speakers can engage in a local process of meaning negotiation. In this paper, we take insights from interactional pragmatics to offer an empirically informed view on speaker meaning that incorporates both speakers’ and hearers’ perspectives, alongside a formalization of how to model speaker meanings in such a way that we can account for both understandings – the canonical cases – and misunderstandings, but critically, also the process of interactionally negotiating meanings between interlocutors. We highlight that utterance-level theories of meaning provide only a partial representation of speaker meaning as it is understood in interaction, and show that inferences about a given utterance at any given time are formally connected to prior and future inferences of participants. Our proposed model thus provides a more fine-grained account of how speakers converge on speaker meanings in real time, showing how such meanings are often subject to a joint endeavor of complex inferential work.


Research for this paper was supported in part by the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship scheme.


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Published Online: 2018-11-30
Published in Print: 2018-11-27

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