Article for October: Pragmatic Choice in Conversation

In October we read the paper from Raymond W. Gibbs and Guy Van Orden, published in Topics in Cognitive Science in 2012, Pragmatic Choice in Conversation.


The authors are discussing regularity and variability in human conversation and the (in)ability of pragmatics theories to explain both of them. They offer to advance the view of pragmatics based on complexity theory in order to better explain the choices people make in conversations based on context and introduce the concept of self-organized criticality in order to explain how a common ground can affect language behavior. The conclusion that follows is that pragmatic choice in conversation is not a product of a specific module but it arises from coordination between speakers and their communicative tasks.

We hope this paper would inspire a discussion on pragmatics in linguistics (and beyond).

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1 Comment

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    Olivier Morin 26 October 2016 (09:19)

    Thanks to Lidiia for proposing the paper, and to Barbara for the summary. It’s interesting to see a paper attempting to stress the importance of verbal production for pragmatic theory. That being said, I had the impression the authors were trying to start from scratch, for reasons that elude me (although perhaps a longer paper would have made them apparent).

    Two examples: Politeness is a key theme in this paper, yet Levinson and Brown’s classic work on that topic goes unmentioned. (So does Pinker’s work on the same topic, indirect questions in particular.) Such omissions make it hard for me to agree with their claim that “Most pragmatic theories assume that the choice of which linguistic forms to use when making an indirect request is primarily a matter of arbitrary convention.”

    Unlike that of Levinson, Dan Sperber’s work is cited, but in a way that I found slightly caricatured—and with one omission. In a 2002 paper, “Truthfulness and relevance in telling the time”, van der Hernst, Carles and Sperber studied the way people rounded their answers when asked what time it is. The 2008 study by Gibbs et al. discussed for most of the paper, published 6 years later, seems to be reporting fundamentally the same finding (as far as I could judge, knowing that paper only from the discussion in this one). This suffices to show that relevance theory is attentive to issues of production, and to the flexibility and context-sensitivty of speakers’ behaviors. Likewise, I don’t think one can pin on Sperber the claim that there is one single module responsible for all the choices we make in conversation—the massive modularity thesis, properly understood, implies the opposite. That conversational choices are the output of many interacting, context-sensitive cognitive mechanisms seems not to be such a controversial view.