Logical connectives, relationships and relevance

1.     Introduction


In April 1989 Eugene Loos and Ivan Lowe conducted a linguistic workshop designed to tackle a number of important questions in the area of logical connectives in discourse, such as the following:

"What are the essential typological syntactic and semantic features that must/should characterize each connective in any language for a relationship between propositions to be acceptably defined?


“What are the pragmatic characteristics of a designated connective?”


“What kinds of data should field workers seek in order to present convincing evidence that what they claim to be a particular logical connective, is in fact that?"[1]


In the first two weeks of the seminar, the participants were introduced to the Rhetorical Structure Theory developed by Mann and Thompson (1986,1987), and also - in one session - to relevant aspects of the communication theory currently being developed by Kathleen Callow (1998) in her book Man and Message.


Rhetorical Structure Theory looks at texts primarily from the analyst's point of view, and is intended to provide for him "a linguistically useful method for describing natural text" (Mann and Thompson 1987, p. 1). It does not make explicit claims as to whether this analysis reflects what goes on in people's mind when they communicate.


Kathleen Callow's presentation differed from this in that she was interested in what goes on in the speaker's mind rather than in possible ways of describing a text. Consequently the relationships her theory proposes to hold between the different parts of a text are meant to reflect a psychological reality in the speaker's mind.


I believe that Callow's position is preferable because by changing the question from "What is the best (most appropriate, most elegant) way of analysing the relationships in a text?" to "How does the communicator relate the propositions in his mind?", the issue becomes a psychological, hence an empirical one, rather than one of finding the "best" description for a set of phenomena - in whatever terms that is to be evaluated, such as elegance, completeness, simplicity and so forth.


What both Rhetorical Structure Theory and Callow's approach have in common is the reliance on a set of relations, thought to hold either between text parts or between propositions and chunks of propositions. This brings us to the central topic of this seminar: how do you know in any given case that there is such an interpropositional or rhetorical relation, and that it is of type X rather than Y? The current understanding is that both approaches need to define sets of relationships that are wide enough to cover all possible relations that speakers can use in texts. At the same time, the relations need to be defined in sufficiently explicit terms to differentiate them clearly from one another.


The fact that even with the more explicit definitions given in Mann and Thompson (1987) it often proved difficult in the workshop to determine why a particular example was analysed as exhibiting relation X rather than Y seems to suggest that the task is not an easy one. This difficulty is further evidenced by the existence of a number of different schemes of relations that have been proposed in the past, such as in Ballard et al (1971), Beekman and Callow (1974) and its further developments reflected in the "Semantic Structure Analysis" approach (e.g. Callow (1982®LBSSA of 2nd Thessalonians¯)), Pike and Pike (1977), Longacre (1983) and others.


It is at this point, I believe, that the relevance theory of communication developed by Sperber and Wilson (1986) can be of considerable value because it offers the possibility of solving the problem by going one step further: there is good evidence that relevance theory can account for these various relationships without necessarily having to refer to them as theoretical constructs in their own right. In other words, relevance theory does not need for defining a set of such relationships in order to account for our intuitions about them. The main point of this paper is to demonstrate this possibility with examples taken from the Silt'i language, an Ethio-Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia. As we shall see, this approach also allows a clearer understanding of how logical connectives work.[2] Furthermore, we shall find that relevance theory helps us to gain a much richer understanding of the speaker-intended interpretation than relation-based approaches.


However, before we can turn to examples, we will need to look at some basic notions of relevance theory.


2.     Theory sketch


In this section I can only give the briefest sketch of relevance theory; a few more notions will be introduced as we go along. For more detailed information the reader is referred to Sperber and Wilson (1986).[3]


2.1.           Ostensive-inferential communication and the principle of relevance


The starting point of relevance theory is a familiar one - it is the question: how do people manage to communicate? How is it possible for me as communicator to induce you to entertain thoughts that I have?


At a very general level, the answer is that a communicator produces a stimulus that makes evident a) that he intends to convey some thoughts, and b) what those thoughts are. In other words, the communicator behaves in a way that provides evidence of his intention to communicate certain thoughts, and it is the audience's task to infer from the evidence provided what these thoughts are. This means that communication is viewed essentially as an inferential process. Communication succeeds when the audience's inferences lead it to the thoughts which the communicator intended to convey.


For example, suppose you are at a party with a friend. You notice that it is time to go home. So when your friend is looking at you, you catch her eye and direct her attention to the clock on the wall by conspicuously looking there yourself. The conspicuous nature of behaviour will induce your friend to infer that you want to communicate something, and she will try to infer from it what it is that you want to convey. Thus she will notice that you are drawing her attention to the clock, and will try to infer what you are intending to communicate by that. One possible inference would be that you intend her to take note of what time it is, which may lead to the further inference that you might think it time to go home and so forth.


Note that we are not normally conscious of this inference process - it works very fast and is something that our mind takes care of subconsciously. We will usually have some awareness of the results of this process, but the process itself goes on below the level of consciousness. There are, of course, instances when our interpretation efforts rise to consciousness, but that is usually only when there are problems.


Of course, you could also have communicated by using some verbal stimulus, e.g. by saying, "Look at the clock" or "Look what time it is". Again your friend would then have to infer what thoughts you wanted to communicate from your utterance. In either case, the basic process would be the same: one infers from people's behaviour, both non-verbal and verbal, what they intend to communicate.[4]


Communication thus involves inference, and inference involves information processing, but information processing is something we do and hence costs some mental effort: the audience needs to carry out inference, it needs to access information from memory, i.e. carry out memory searches; and in the case of verbal communication it also needs to carry out linguistic decoding, which is not for free either.


However, life is not all work: there are also benefits, and these are defined in terms of contextual effects. Put simply, contextual effects can be thought of as gratifying changes in one's knowledge. I shall say more about these changes in section 3.2.2 below, but crucially contextual effects are achieved not by the utterance alone, but by the inferential combination of the utterance with the contextual knowledge of the audience. This captures two basic intuitions: firstly, it accounts for the fact that one does not usually consider it very rewarding to be told something one was well aware of already - the information presented has to make some difference. Secondly it captures the further intuition that in communication it is not enough for the information to be new - it must rather link up with knowledge already present in some way.[5]


The main points so far,then, are these: communication is rewarding, it brings contextual effects, but there is also a cost attached to it in that it requires mental processing effort. This relation between contextual effects and the processing effort needed to derive them is defined as relevance: the relevance of an utterance will be the greater the more contextual effects it has, and the less processing effort it requires. It will be the smaller the fewer contextual effects it has and the more processing effort it requires to achieve those effects.


And now we are ready to come to the crucial point: relevance theory proposes that by beginning an act of communication, a communicator automatically communicates the following presumption: firstly, that there will be adequate contextual effects, and secondly, that these effects will be derivable with minimal processing effort on the audience's part. Put in less technical language, by claiming the audience's attention, the communicator claims that what he intends to convey will be rewarding, and that he has made it as easy as possible for the audience to receive this reward. This presumption is assumed to follow from our human nature, and relevance theory refers to it as the principle of relevance.[6]


This principle is so important because it explains how communication overcomes certain inherent problems. For example, as Kathleen Callow also pointed out in her presentation, for successful communication it is necessary for the hearer to have just the right context - communication cannot be successful unless the hearer actually uses the contextual information envisaged by the communicator. In relevance theory this follows from the fact that communication necessarily requires the inferential combination of what is expressed with contextual information: and if the audience does not use the contextual information envisaged by the speaker, it is likely to come up with the wrong interpretation. Therefore since it is in the speaker's interest that the audience will get it right, he will naturally try to clue them in about the right context, if he is in doubt that they can access it.


Thus Kathleen Callow gave the example that if she wanted to talk to her husband about an individual called 'Phil' who was not a very close friend of theirs, she would probably introduce her actual remark by saying, 'You know Phil at church? Now he ...'. She also noted that in the case of a very good friend this would not be necessary.


In relevance theory this behaviour is explained by the principle of relevance: when hearing the name 'Phil', the hearer will have to find a referent in memory to assign to this name. The speaker can, of course, leave that task completely to the hearer without giving him further clues, and if the referent is highly accessible in memory at the time of speaking, then this might well be the best strategy. Thus information about people very close to us is probably highly accessible at most times, and it would be wasting the audience's processing effort to give further information about an individual that the audience would have thought of right away anyhow.[7]


At other times, however, the speaker will assist the audience in finding the right context in order to ensure that they arrive at the intended interpretation. He can do so not only by prefacing his utterance with preliminary remarks like the one just considered, but in many other ways. As we shall see, logical and other connectives are valuable devices for this purpose.


From the perspective of the communicator this may be clear enough - but given that we can never know any other person's thoughts directly, how can the audience ever be confident that they have got things right, both with regard to the context envisaged by the speaker and the interpretation as a whole? Even if they arrive at some interpretation what reason do they have to believe that it is the interpretation the speaker had in mind?


Thus if you draw my attention to the clock on the wall - how can I tell whether you intend to convey to me that it is a very expensive clock or that it is time to go?


The answer lies in the principle of relevance: there is never more than one interpretation that is consistent with the principle of relevance. There can be only one such interpretation, because as soon as the audience has arrived at an interpretation that the communicator could have expected to have adequate contextual effects without requiring unnecessary processing effort, the interpretation process will stop. There may be other possible interpretations that might have adequate contextual effects - but they would no longer be optimally relevant because of the additional processing effort they require. Of course there may be no interpretation that is consistent with the principle of relevance; in this case one will need further clarification of what the communicator meant or else it will remain unclear what he had in mind.


Therefore the criterion of consistency with the principle of relevance entitles the audience to assume that the first interpretation that they find to be consistent with the principle of relevance is the one that the communicator intended to communicate. Thus as soon as the audience has arrived at an interpretation that seems to have adequate contextual effects for the amount of processing effort invested, the audience can stop processing and assume that it has arrived at the intended interpretation. It need not look any further.


With regard to context selection this also means that the audience will use the contextual information most highly accessible to them first before spending more processing effort on going further afield. In other words, if someone starts talking to you about 'Phil', and what is said about this individual has adequate contextual effects on the assumption that it is your brother, then you will simply assume that this is indeed the Phil he means. Occasionally it happens that the communicator was actually thinking of another person; in that case what he says about that individual will - sooner or later - cease to yield adequate contextual effects with the information you have about that individual. This lack of adequate contextual effects makes itself felt as 'not making sense': things don't seem to link up in the right way. In this way relevance theory offers an account of the notion of 'making sense' and of its importance in communication.


2.2.           The role of logical connectives


Since the nature of communication is seen to involve the inferential combination of what is said with certain contextual pieces of information, it is not difficult to see that connectives that establish logical relationships can be of great value in communication.[8] Let us illustrate this point briefly with an English example, and let us take the famous example from Grice (1975): “He is an Englishman; he is, therefore, brave.” (p. 161)


This example is discussed from a relevance theoretic point of view in Blakemore (1987). She proposes that English 'therefore' is used to "introduce a proposition that is derived as output to a synthetic inference rule" (1987, p. 82). This means that it instructs the audience to treat the proposition marked by 'therefore' as the conclusion to an argument in which a synthetic inference rule has applied. What is a synthetic inference rule? It is simply an inference rule that "... takes two separate assumptions as input" (Sperber and Wilson 1986, p. 104).


This means, the speaker expects the hearer to construe an argument of the following kind that has at least two separate premises and yields the assumption 'he is brave' as a conclusion.


(1)                      Premise 1:   ?

          Premise 2:   ?


      Conclusion: He is brave.


The task of the hearer is to find highly accessible contextual assumptions that will complete this argument.


One of the most highly accessible contextual assumptions is, of course, the one just processed: 'He is an Englishman'; so it would be an obvious candidate for serving as one of the premises:


(2)                      Premise 1: He is an Englishman.

          Premise 2: ?


        Conclusion: He is brave.


But what about premise 2? This is not difficult to supply either: a very simple assumption that yields 'He is brave' as a valid conclusion is: All Englishmen are brave.


So, the completed argument would be:


(3)                      Premise 1: He is an Englishman.

          Premise 2: All Englishmen are brave.


        Conclusion: He is brave.


What is the point of using 'therefore' here? By explicitly instructing the audience to construe 'he is brave' as the conclusion to an argument in the context of the proposition 'he is an Englishman', the speaker narrows down or constrains the various ways in which the utterance could have been related to contextual assumptions; in other words, it imposes a constraint on the relevance of the utterance.[9] Thus by using 'therefore', the speaker strongly suggests to the audience to supply premise 2 'All Englishmen are brave' as a contextual assumption, because there are hardly any other, highly accessible assumptions that could fill that part of the argument. This means that the speaker is strongly implicating the truth of premise 2, in addition to that of the premise 1 and the conclusion. Such particular assumptions which the hearer is expected to supply in order to arrive at the speaker-intended interpretation are called strong implicatures. (In this case we are dealing with an 'implicated premise'.)


Consider by contrast what would have happened if the speaker had omitted 'therefore', saying simply: He is an Englishman; he is brave.


Here the audience would have no clear guidance as to how these two propositions are to be treated. It can, of course, treat them as premise and conclusion of an argument; however, this is not a necessary interpretation of the evidence; if, for example, it did not seem likely to the audience that the speaker actually believes 'All Englishmen are brave', then the audience would be entitled to look for a different interpretation. Thus it could simply be part of a listing of characteristics, without any intended implication that the bravery is seen as a consequence of being English. Perhaps that interpretation might still come to the mind of the audience; however, given that the speaker has given no indication that the utterance should be interpreted in this particular way, and given that other contextual assumptions lead to adequate contextual effects, the evidence that the communicator intended the audience to use this particular assumption is very weak. Such assumptions are therefore referred to as weak implicatures.


This is another important feature of relevance theory: it does not necessarily expect that propositions are either communicated or not communicated, but it assumes that they can be communicated with varying degrees of strength: the more essential a particular assumption is to establishing the optimal relevance of an utterance, the more strongly that particular assumption is communicated or implicated. The less essential it is to the interpretation process, the less strongly it is implicated. In other words: implicatures can differ in degree of strength. Thus we can see that the use of logical connectives is well-motivated for guiding the audience to the speaker-intended interpretation: not only do they help the audience to access the speaker-intended context, but they also enable the communicator to strongly communicate particular contextual assumptions without having to spell them out.


3.     Toward understanding pragmatic connectives in Silt'i


3.1.           Preliminaries


As mentioned above, the examples I want to look at are taken from the Silt'i language. Some of the examples are dealt with in more detail in the paper "Toward an analysis of pragmatic connectives in Silt'i" (Gutt 1988) presented at the Eighth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies in 1985. That study was exploratory rather than exhaustive, and I have not been able to do much more in this area since then. So the results presented here should be taken as preliminary rather than final. I think the analysis proposed is a reasonable one, but I am more interested in demonstrating the approach than arguing particular, language-specific points.


3.2.           The problem


In Silt'i there is an affix, -m, whose meaning seems to be rather hard to pin down. In many instances it seems to make little difference to the meaning, and seems to be translated best by "and". In other instances, its influence can be felt more strongly, and seems to correspond to something like "either" or "neither" in English. Sometimes it seems to convey the meaning of "also" or "too." At other times again it seems much stronger, amounting to something like "even", sometimes acquiring almost a concessive sense, especially in conditional clauses.


Since the purpose of this presentation is not to argue for a particular analysis, but to make some basic points, I will not go into all these different uses here, but will deal only with the first two. So for now I will just briefly illustrate the first two uses - those that seem to correspond to English "and" on the one hand, and something like "either" on the other.


The first passage is part of a fable where a mouse has just given birth to nine little mice, and the cat comes to convey her good wishes on the delivery. The cat opens the conversation.


(4)                      Illustration 1


5. "mayraam tashiillima    taawt'aash"            baateet.        

    Mary    you-being-well may-she-bring-you-out she-said-to-her.


6. ufrimte     "aaw, ashnam maayraam taanbirash"          

   the-mouse-m yes,  you-m  Mary     may-she-make-you-live


baateet.         7. adanimteenga     abbi luufrite    

she-said-to-her. 7. the-cat-m-again then to-the-mouse


"bay,    inde, yesh, innate ayb  sici; 

come-on, o.k., here, this   milk drink;


waldamii       ihe liinzinsh"          baateet.        

the-children-m I   let-me-hold-for-you she-said-to-her.


Free rendering:


5. "May Mary make you well," she (=the cat) said to her. 6. And the mouse said, "Yes, and may Mary make you live/prolong your life." 7. And then the cat said again to the mouse, "Okay, come on, here drink this milk; and let me hold the children for you." (SA, SITA03.TXT)


The other sample passage is part of one of the various fables where the hyena (thought of as male) tricks the donkey (thought of as female). In this particular fable, the hyena challenges the donkey to a fight. Since the donkey is much stronger she throws the hyena down twice. Each time the donkey gets off the hyena, letting him get up. However, the hyena cunningly claims that he had actually let himself drop to the ground voluntarily for the donkey. On these grounds he demands that the donkey, too, should let herself drop to the ground for the hyena. The stupid donkey does so - but the hyena doesn't let her get up again and eats her instead.


The part we are interested in is the final argument: the donkey is being held down by the hyena, but argues that the hyena should get off since she herself got off twice from the hyena. The hyena rejects this demand:


(5)                      Illustration 2


"... tee,   jigg  bay;    aabbeemee   bagadala

     you(f) quiet say(f); my-father-m when-he-threw-down


alnak'aan"         baalaane    inkitkit ashaane baleet    

he-did-not-get-off he-said-and tearing  up      he-ate-her





".... Shut up, you! my father didn't get up either when he threw someone down!" he (=the hyena) said, tore her (=the donkey) to pieces and ate her, they say. (SB, SITA01.TXT)


3.3.3                     Formulating a hypothesis


Just dealing with these two uses now, the tempting solution would be to say either that there are two homophonous suffixes -m or that the suffix -m has two distinct senses, one marking a conjunctive relationship, and the other something like an alternative relationship. However, Ivan Lowe pointed out in his introductory lectures that it is not the most helpful way to begin one's analysis: by assuming a complex solution from the start one may miss a possible simpler solution. In fact, my analysis started from the minimal assumption that there is only one -m which has only one meaning, and this meaning corresponds to the inferential properties of "^" (logical "and").[10] In the interpretation process it amounts to an instruction to the audience to conjoin the proposition marked by -m with another proposition.[11]


In the course of the analysis I came to postulate in addition the following syntactic properties: -m is suffixed to the leftmost subconstituent of the focused constituent of a sentence or to the sentence as a whole.[12]


3.2.2                     Testing the hypothesis in context


One way to test such a hypothesis within the framework of relevance theory is to check whether the hypothesis allows for an interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance for passages containing -m.


The use illustrated by illustration 1 is not all that exciting: it seems that the -m in all cases is syntactically associated with the sentence as a whole, and adds the proposition expressed to the information processed previously. In logic, the conjunction of two propositions in logic by "and" entitles one to infer that both of the conjuncts are true. This may not seem very significant at this point, but it does have pragmatic value, as we shall see below.


Illustration 2 is more interesting. It seems that here -m is associated with a focused constituent, i.e. abbee 'my father'. It would go too far to present the relevance-theoretical account of focus here in detail. What is important here is that the distinction between focus and background makes a difference as to how the respective pieces of information contribute to relevance: the focused constituent pinpoints that piece of information that makes for relevance, i.e. that is intended to have contextual effects. The background, by contrast, has no contextual effects of its own but contributes to relevance by making more accessible contextual assumptions needed for interpreting the utterance.


Technically, a background entailment of an utterance with focus is obtained by substituting the focused constituent by a semantic variable. Now the sentence we want to concentrate on in our example is this:


(6)                      aabbeemee   bagadala                      alnak'aan

          my-father-m when-he-threw-down (a victim) he-did-not-get-off


If the focused constituent is aabbeemee, then the next background entailment is:


 [ X ] bagadala                     alnak'aan

         X   when-throws-down (a victim)  X-not-get-off


where "X" represents a semantic variable that can range over individuals, perhaps best represented by English "someone". Note that the background is not itself a complete proposition: firstly because of the variable X, and secondly because time reference has not been assigned yet, so that a better paraphrase in English might be: 'when someone throws (a victim) down he (does not) get off'.[13]


Now by definition the background entailment does not achieve relevance in its own right. But why, then, is it there at all? As will be recalled, relevance depends not only on the contextual effects achieved, but also on the amount of processing effort spent. It is this second factor that is operational here: the background entailment contributes to the overall relevance of the utterance by making some of the contextual information more accessible, and hence by reducing the processing effort.


And this is how it works: though not a complete proposition in itself, the background entailment does provide a schema or 'blue print' which the audience can complete to fully propositional form with comparative ease.


As we said above, essentially two pieces of information are missing from the entailment: firstly, the variable must be replaced by a referent. One of the most highly accessible referents is, of course, the hyena, so it becomes the most obvious candidate. With regard to time reference, since the hyena has just got the donkey on the ground at the time of speaking, the most accessible time reference is that of the time of speaking. So the proposition can easily be completed into:


  When the hyena throws (a victim) down he does not get off.


With the conjunction in effect, we get the following partial interpretation:


      (When the hyena throws (a victim) down he does not get off) and (when the hyena's father got (a victim) down he did not get off)


The fact that aabbee is focused furthermore means that it is the relevance-establishing part of the utterance, and so the audience will concentrate on this concept for contextual effects. One important feature of mental concepts in the relevance-theoretical framework is that they are assumed to be associated with different 'entries' in memory, one of which is the so-called 'encyclopaedic entry'. The encyclopaedic entry of a concept contains all sorts of information a person has come to collect about the referent to which it refers, and when a concept is being thought about (mentally represented), the encyclopaedic entry is opened up and the information contained there becomes available for use. Now it seems that one assumption associated with the concept 'father' in Silt'i seems to be something like 'Like father, like son', or more formally: 'If father does X, then son does X.'


So now the following set of propositions is available:


(7)                      Utterance:            When the hyena's father threw (a

                                victim) down he did not get off


          Contextual assumption 1:  and when the hyena throws (a

                                      victim) down he does not get off


          Contextual assumption 2:  If the father did X, then the son

                                   does X.


As can be seen, contextual assumption 2 and the proposition expressed in the utterance constitute an inferential argument of the following form:


(8)                      Premise 1: If father did X, then son does X.

          Premise 2: The father did not get off when he threw down (a victim).


        The son does not get off when he throws down (a victim). 


Now this is all very well - but what reason would an audience who derived this interpretation have to believe that it had found the right, i.e. speaker-intended, interpretation?


The answer is that it is entitled to assume this if this interpretation is the first one that comes to mind and seems consistent with the principle of relevance.


As far as coming to mind first is concerned, the interpretation suggested seems to be a good candidate in that it involves only assumptions that can be assumed to be highly accessible to a Silt'i audience.


To be consistent with the principle of relevance, the interpretation has to yield adequate contextual effects. What contextual effects does this interpretation achieve? To answer this question, we need to have a closer look at contextual effects.


Contextual effects can be of three kinds: they can consist in the addition of contextual implications, they can consist in the cancellation of contextual assumptions, and they can consist in the strengthening of contextual assumptions. Contextual implications are defined as implications that are not derivable from the utterance alone, nor from the context alone, but only from an inference that uses premises from both. Put in less technical terms, the contextual implications of an utterance lead to new insights that are, however, related to what one already knew.


Cancellation of contextual assumptions results when there is a contradiction between two assumptions, then one of them may get erased from memory. Put simply, this accounts for our intuition that it is relevant to discover where one has been wrong.


The effect of strengthening existing contextual assumptions has to do with the fact that we do not just believe or not believe certain propositions to be true, but we can hold them true with varying degrees of confidence, or strength. Thus we are fully convinced of the truth of some assumptions, e.g. that there is a sun, but we may be less confident about the truth of the statement that early man had a lower intelligence than modern man. Therefore, one way of context modification lies in the possibility of altering the strength with which assumptions are held to be true.


Our example here seems to involve both the cancellation of one contextual assumption and the strengthening of another. When the donkey agreed to drop to the ground for the hyena, it did so no doubt on the assumption that the hyena would let her get up again. So at that point she entertained a thought, that is a contextual assumption, like:


 "The hyena will get off me."


However, when the hyena gave no indication that he would get off the donkey, another thought was likely to enter the donkey's mind:


 "The hyena will not get off me."


Thus the donkey would have come to entertain two mutually contradictory assumptions. What happens in such cases? Relevance theory proposes that in this case our mind compares the relative strength of the two contradictory assumptions, and if one of them is weaker than the other, then it will be erased from the mind, and so the contradiction will be resolved.


What, then, about the comparative strength of the two assumptions involved in our example? As the donkey's request indicates, her belief that the hyena would get up was based, rather naively, on a notion of fairness: since the donkey got off, so would or should the hyena.


The assumption implicated by the hyena, however, seems much stronger because it is not simply asserted, but presented as the conclusion of an argument the premises of which seem to be quite strong: there would be little doubt that the hyena's father never let a victim go of a good will, and the truth of the idea 'like father, like son' would certainly not be doubted either.[14] So the likely result is the erasure of the contextual assumption: 'The hyena will get off' - in other words the hyena's reply is designed to remove any doubt in the donkey's mind about its intentions: it is certainly not going to get off - the fate of the donkey is sealed.


At the same time, contextual assumption that the hyena would not get off him - probably not really fully believed by the donkey at first - would now be considerably strengthened, again because of the argument structure and the strength of the premises on which it is built.


Thus the interpretation we arrived at would at least have the two contextual effects of cancelling one contextual assumption and strengthening another. In this way it would at least satisfy the minimum requirement for relevance.


So it seems that we have arrived at a fairly plausible interpretation of this utterance, assuming nothing more about -m than that its meaning corresponds to that of logical 'and', and that syntactically it can be associated with focus.[15]


3.3.3                     Interpretation and rhetorical relationships


As you will have noticed, we have proposed an analysis of the speaker-intended interpretation of this utterance without any reference to "rhetorical" or "interpropositional" relationships. How then does relevance theory relate to these notions? After all, we do have intuitions about them. For example, the way we just analysed the story seems to suggest a hereditary, almost causal, relationship: sons inherit their fathers' nature - so the hyena's behaviour is causally conditioned by its natural traits, it actually couldn't behave otherwise. In other words, the thrust of the argument might be seen to be, "How can I help eating you up - I am simply acting in accordance with the nature I inherited from my father."


However, this might not be the only possible interpretation. Perhaps we might feel that the hyena is giving some kind of moral justification: it is right to follow one's father's example, therefore it is morally justifiable for the hyena to eat the donkey.


Since we can and do have such intuitions - where do they come from and how can we account for them in the relevance theory framework?


The answer seems to be that these intuitions simply reflect what particular contextual assumptions we use in the interpretation process. Let us begin with the intuition that there is a 'cause-effect relationship'. One of the contextual assumptions we assumed to be involved here was the following (contextual assumption 2 in (7):


 If the father did X, then the son does X.


We first assumed this assumption to simply reflect a popular belief, as expressed in our proverb 'Like father, like son.' It is, however, possible that more is involved; it is possible that people believe more specifically that heredity is involved here, that is, that the son inherits the nature and behaviour of the father:


      If the father did X, then by the laws of heredity the son will do X.


This belief assumes that the father's nature is the natural cause of the son's nature, and it is this assumption that gives rise to the impression that a "cause-effect relationship" might be involved here.


What about the impression of a justificatory relationship? This would have arisen if, in addition perhaps to the assumption of natural cause, the following assumption was also highly accessible:


      If the father did X, then it is right for the son to do X.


Together with the other propositions already introduced, this would allow the conclusion 'It was right for the hyena not to get off from the donkey.' Which of these various assumptions would be implicated and with what strength would be determined by consistency with the principle of relevance against the context envisaged by the communicator.


This account is significant for our discussion in a number of respects. Firstly, it brings out that the interpropositional 'relationships' that we intuitively felt to be there are not semantic clues that help us to find the intended interpretation; rather they are possible abstractions we can make about the interpretation itself once we have found it. In other words, the 'interpropositional relationships' do not determine the meaning of the utterance, but can be derived from it.


Secondly, these 'relationships' were not signalled or encoded by the connective itself. Rather, they follow from an interpretation that arose from the complex interaction of the proposition expressed by the utterance, the constraint on relevance imposed by the connective -m, and certain contextual assumptions - all interacting under the criterion of consistency with the principle of relevance.


This is not to say that languages cannot ever use connectives to encode such specific relationships. There is no reason why they should not. However, this is a language-specific, lexical matter rather than one of concern for a general theory of either semantics or communication.


And this brings us to the third point: there is no need to assume that there is a closed set of interpropositional relationships, either for one language or universally for all languages, that allows us to adequately describe how the various units of texts relate to each other. As we saw in our example, the link between the propositions is achieved inferentially by specific contextual assumptions. This, in fact, explains why relationship typologies find it so difficult to provide adequate categories: there is no reason why contextual assumptions should fall into such categories.


Fourthly, relational typologies fall short of bringing out the intended interpretation; they focus on general abstractions but do not reconstruct the interpretation with its specific contextual assumptions. Consider the following typical relationship-based analysis of the utterance 'The car is clean, so John must have washed it':


(9)                      Grounds:       The car is clean,


Conclusion:    (so I conclude that) John must have washed it.


                        (Larson 1984, p. 306)


This analysis does not show a valid inference: the proposition 'the car is clean' by itself does not entail that 'John must have washed it'. Rather what is minimally needed is another premise like:[16]


 If the car is clean, John must have washed it.


When an assumption like premise 1 is supplied, the inference becomes valid:


(10)                   Premise 1:     The car is clean.

          Premise 2:     If the car is clean, John must have washed it.

          Conclusion:    John must have washed the car.


However, it seems somewhat implausible that premise 2 would be available as a ready-made contextual assumption. It is more likely that there is another complex argument in the place of premise 2, that starts from the general, obvious assumption:


      If the car is clean, someone must have washed it.


On the basis of other contextual information the speaker inferred that the individual 'someone' was John rather than anybody else. Perhaps the speaker knew that John was the only person around who could have washed the car, or he saw John's watch lying besides the implements that had been used for washing the car and so forth. The use of the modal 'must' indicates that this assumption goes back to inference rather than direct observation.


The importance of reconstructing these implicit inferences can be seen when we try to explain why one cannot simply link up any two propositions by 'so' to create a 'grounds-conclusion relationship'. Consider the following example:


A meteorite exploded, so my baby brother must have dirtied his nappies again.


Though nonsensical, this example could easily be analysed in terms of relationships:


      Relationship analysis


(11)                   Grounds:       A meteorite exploded,

    Conclusion:    (so I conclude that) my baby brother must have dirtied his nappies again.


The analysis does not show up in any way that this interpretation is implausible.


However, if we try to approach it inferentially, we see that it minimally implicates something like the following argument:


(12)                   Premise 1:     Whenever a meteorite explodes, my baby

                       brother dirties his nappies.

          Premise 2:     A meteorite exploded.

          Conclusion:    My baby brother must have dirtied his

                        nappies again.


Now according to relevance theory, by inducing the hearer to construct this argument, he expects him to supply the implicated premise 1 or a set of inferentially equivalent assumptions; however, at least with our cultural background, premise 1 itself is not a plausible assumption, nor does there seem to be a plausible argument that would be inferentially equivalent to it. Thus the reason why we find it implausible, is that we are unable to supply plausible assumptions that would be necessary to interpret the utterance along the lines indicated by the speaker. Thus relevance theory can help us to distinguish between plausible and implausible interpretations: implausible interpretations involve implausible assumptions.


If all this is correct, then what the analysis of connectives requires is not the development of a set of relationships; rather we need to discover what semantic, and perhaps also syntactic, properties these connectives have and how they contribute to an interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance, against the contextual knowledge of the audience.[17]


In the next two sections I want to draw attention to three practical ways of testing hypotheses about the properties of connectives.



3.3.           Testing hypotheses about connectives


3.3.3                     Testing hypotheses in texts


We have just looked at one way of testing one's hypothesis about the meaning of a logical connective: that was to apply the hypothesis to some given text or text-portion, and see if it allows for an interpretation that is arguably consistent with the principle of relevance, making use only of the notions supplied by the theoretical framework. If no such interpretation can be proposed, then the assumed meaning of the connective may be wrong.


Suppose, for example, that we found occurrences of -m where no interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance could be construed on the assumption that the meaning of -m corresponded to that of logical 'and'. This would naturally suggest that our hypothesis is inaccurate, and we would have to look for a better one instead.


3.3.3                     Testing the context-accessing function


However, relevance theory allows us to test our hypotheses in another way, too, and this is by exploiting the fact that a connective may have a context-accessing function. Thus according to our analysis in its focal use -m should suggest a certain kind of context to the audience.


Here is a little experiment that I did that seems to corroborate the hypothesis that -m is focus-associated. In this experiment I gave the following sentences one by one to three native Silt'i speakers:


(13)                   a. wut'at ayaam laam liyookb   ulbaarag heeda.

            Monday day   cow  he-to-buy Ulbarag  he-went

            'On Monday he went to Ulbarag to buy a cow.'


          b. wut'atim ayaam laam liyookb   ulbaarag heeda.

            Monday-m day   cow  he-to-buy Ulbarag  he-went

            'Also on Monday he went to U. to buy a cow.'


   c. wut'at ayaam laamim  liyookb   ulbaarag heeda.

            Monday day   cow-m   he-to-buy Ulbarag  he-went.

     'On Monday he went to U. to buy also a cow.'


   d. wut'at ayaam laam liyookbim    ulbaarag heeda.

            Monday day   cow  he-to-buy-m  Ulbarag  he-went

     'On Monday he went to U. also to buy a cow.'


   e. wut'at ayaam laam liyookb   ulbaaragim heeda.

            Monday day   cow  he-to-buy Ulbarag-m  he-went

     'On Monday he went also to U. to buy a cow.'    


I did not provide them with any contextual information, but rather as we considered each sentence, I asked the test person whether it communicated to him anything beyond what was actually said, and if so, what. Their answers, given independently of one another, are summarized in the following display:


(14)       a'. (No interpretation given beyond the information expressed in        (13a).)


          b'. He seems to have gone previously.


c'. He wanted to buy something else besides a cow or he had gone previously and now went again to also buy a cow. 


          d'. He has also other business. (The K'ibbat dialect speaker inadvertently used (c) when referring to (d), and one other speaker said that he preferred (c) instead of (d).)


e'. The K'ibbat dialect speaker rejected (e). The other informants interpreted it as suggesting that he had gone elsewhere before.                


Now it is not hard to see that the answers differ according to the position of the suffix -m, and as I try to show in my paper (Gutt 1988), the differences correlate well with the predictions of relevance theory with regard to the focus-background distinction. Thus, in (b) -m marked the time phrase wut'at ayaam 'on Monday' and in (b') we find this replaced by another time phrase: 'previously'. In (c) -m marked the direct object laam 'cow', and in (c') we find the substitution 'something else besides a cow', and so forth.


To briefly examine just one of these examples, (b) could have the following underlying structure:


      [wut'at-m ayaam]  laam liyookb ulbaarag heeda.


Here the focused constituent would be the time phrase wut'at ayaam 'on Monday', with the -m suffixed to its leftmost subconstituent wut'at 'Monday'. Variable substitution at the focus yields the background entailment:


      [ X ]  laam liyookb ulbaarag heeda.


The X is meant to indicate an appropriate semantic variable, ranging in this case over time expressions. By using the focused sentence (b), the speaker induces the hearer to look for a contextual proposition corresponding closely to the background entailment, but with some value of X substituted at the focus. This seems to be borne out by the fact that in our example the informants suggested that the person had gone 'previously'.


This brief sketch may suffice here to give an idea of how one can test whether or not a connective constrains the use of contextual assumptions in a particular way. For further discussion of the data itself the reader is referred to Gutt (1988).


3.3.3                     Testing by predicted failure of communication


Relevance theory accounts not only for 'regular', 'normal' communication, but it explains communication breakdowns as well. In accordance with this, I tried to think of an utterance where the presence of -m would be predicted to lead to a breakdown of communication.


What sort of case could that be?


According to relevance theory, the focused constituent must be the relevance-establishing part of the utterance. But suppose one construed an example where the focused information is already highly accessible in the context. In that case the focal use of -m should be felt to be inappropriate. If this prediction turned out to be true, it could be taken as supporting evidence that the analysis is likely to be true.


I used the following utterances to test the hypothesis.


(15)                   (a)      safiiya 'saalo araashin;    irasoot   ishlaan' baat.

                  Safiiya  Salo  farmer-he-is to-plough he-can   she-said

                  'Safiya said, "Salo is a farmer; he can plough."


          (b)      safiiya 'saalo araashin;    irasootam   ishlaan' baat.

                  Safiiya  Salo  farmer-he-is to-plough-m he-can   she-said


As can be seen, the two utterances differ only in the occurrence of -m in the (b) utterance. Yet the three informants to whom the data were presented independently of each other rejected the (b) utterance while accepting the (a) utterance. This seems to confirm our prediction, and can be accounted for along the following lines.



Interpreting -m as focally-used, we obtain the underlying representation and the background:


underlying: [irasoota-m]  ishlaan.


background: [ X ]   ishlaan.


According to focus theory and by consistency with the principle of relevance, the increment of information that one needs to add to the background in order to obtain the underlying representation must be the main point, i.e. the context modifying element, of the utterance. However, as the example has been construed, the underlying representation is immediately preceded by:


      saalo araashin.

      Salo  he-is-farmer


In Silt'i culture this would normally entail very obviously that Salo is able to plough - this is a stereotyped assumption stored in the encyclopaedic entry of araashi 'farmer'. Furthermore, according to relevance theory, the content of the immediately preceding utterance constitutes a highly accessible context for the utterance under consideration. Taken together this means that there is a highly accessible context for the underlying representation that contains what is supposed to be the main point. In other words, the focused part, which should establish its relevance, is, in fact, already a highly accessible contextual assumption. Under these conditions, the audience would find it difficult to arrive at an interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance, and it is this difficulty which can be taken as the underlying cause of the informants' rejection of this example.[18]


4.     Conclusion


In summary, we see that relevance theory offers us a cognition-based framework that can help us to arrive at a relevance-based reconstruction of the speaker-intended meaning. Any such reconstruction is open to falsification by the criterion of consistency with the principle of relevance. These reconstructions of the speaker-intended meaning allow us to test hypotheses about the semantic (and other) linguistic properties of connectives, both in running text and by experimentation. There is no need to look for or develop a set of interpropositional relationships in order to spell out how the various utterances of a text relate to each other.




Ballard, D. Lee, Robert J. Conrad, and R. E. Longacre 1971 'The deep and surface grammar of interclausal relations' Foundations of Language, 7, 70-118


Beekman, John and John Callow 1974 Translating the word of God, Zondervan, Grand Rapids


Blakemore, Diane 1987 Semantic constraints on relevance Blackwell, Oxford


Blass, Regina forthcoming Relevance relations in discourse: A study with special reference to Sissala, Cambridge University Press


Callow, John 1982 A semantic structure analysis of Second Thessalonians, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas


Callow, Kathleen forthcoming Man and message


Grice, Paul 1975 'Logic and conversation' in Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan (eds) Syntax and Semantics, v. 3, Academic Press, New York, pp. 41-58; quoted from reprint in Aloysius P. Martinich (ed.) The Philosophy of language, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1985, pp. 159-170


Gutt, Ernst-August 1988 'Toward an analysis of pragmatic connectives in Silt'i' in Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa 26-30 November 1984, ELM Publications, Huntingdon vol. 1, pp. 665-678


Larson, Mildred L. 1984 Meaning-based translation: A guide to cross-language equivalence, University Press of America, Lanham


Longacre, Robert A. 1983 The grammar of discourse, Plenum Press, New York


Mann, William C. and Sandra A. Thompson 1986 Rhetorical structure theory: Description and construction of text structures, Information Sciences Institute Reprint Series ISI/RS-86-174, University of Southern California, Marina del Rey


Mann, William C. and Sandra A. Thompson 1987 Rhetorical structure theory: A theory of text organization Information Sciences Institute Reprint Series ISI/RS-87-190, University of Southern California, Marina del Rey


Pike, Kenneth L. and Evelyn G. Pike 1977 Grammatical Analysis, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas, and The University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington


Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson 1986 Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Blackwell, Oxford


(E.-A. Gutt, October 18, 1989)

[1] Excerpt from Eugene Loos' letter of invitation dated June 15, 1987.

[2] For a very insightful treatment and much broader treatment of discourse connectives in general from a relevance-theoretic point of view see Blakemore (1987) with data from English, and Blass (forthcoming) with data from a Ghanaian and other languages.

[3] As you will notice quite soon, relevance theory approaches communication from a somewhat different perspective from what many of us are used to. It may seem tempting to "translate" the concepts of relevance theory into your own framework. However, as I know from my own experience, this is not a straightforward matter, and you may be better off by first of all concentrating on understanding relevance theory on its own terms, and then try to relate it to other models later on.

[4] If the utterances mentioned are intended to convey the message that it is time to go, then they would constitute what has come to be known "indirect speech acts". However, this does not mean that inference plays a role only in indirect speech acts. Rather, as Sperber and Wilson (1986) have shown, inference is basic to all verbal and non-verbal instances of human communication.

[5] In her presentation of "Man and Message", Kathleen Callow referred to this metaphorically by saying that the new information needs 'to plug into an existing frame'. Relevance theory spells out that this 'plugging in' is done inferentially.

[6] As Sperber and Wilson (1986) show, this single principle takes care of all that the four maxims suggested by Grice (1975) were meant to do.

[7] In the literature it is sometimes said that communicators do not express information already known to the audience because this is unnecessary. Relevance theory shows it is not only unnecessary but detrimental to the success of the communication act: it makes the audience spend processing effort without increasing the contextual effects, and hence reduces the overall relevance of the utterance. This explains our feeling of irrelevance when someone starts cluing us in about a person who is actually well-known to us. (Often we tend to cut such introductions short by saying, "Oh, I know Phil.") On the other hand, expressing known information is not always inappropriate, reminders being an obvious example. Relevance theory can account for these cases as well: it can be consistent with the principle of relevance to express known information if, for example, it would cost the audience more effort to find that information in memory than to derive it from a verbal reminder. For further discussion see Sperber and Wilson (1986), pp. 149ff.

[8] I use the term 'logical' here with some reservations since it can easily be misunderstood as referring to matters of standard logics only. It would perhaps be better to use the wider term 'inferential' here, but since the workshop referred to them as 'logical' connectives, it seems best to follow that terminology here. Cf. also note 17 below.

[9] Note that the term 'constraint on relevance' does not refer to a lessening of the degree of relevance; on the contrary, constraints on relevance can be seen as increasing the relevance of an utterance in that they aid the audience in finding the intended interpretation. For an extensive treatment of this notion see Blakemore (1987).

[10] This is not to suggest that connectives always must have one sense nor that there cannot be homophones. However, as will become clearer below, there is reason to suspect that relationship-based accounts involve unnecessary multiplicity of meaning.

[11] As Blakemore (1987) and Blass (forthcoming) have shown, connectives and particles tend to work by imposing such constraints on the relevance, hence on the interpretation of utterances.

[12] I am not entirely satisfied with the formulation of these syntactic conditions yet. Thus it may be possible to eliminate the disjunction here if one assumes that the "focus" can extend to the sentence as a whole. Furthermore, there is some evidence that -m is not attached to the leftmost constituent when the focus is on a whole subordinate clause. However, since these syntactic details do not affect the thrust of the general argument, I will not pursue them now.

[13] This follows from the assumption that the logical form of an utterance is incomplete in a number of ways, including the exact time reference; thus a sentence in the simple past tense can refer to virtually any point of time in the past. The time appropriate to that particular utterance is worked out pragmatically by consistency with the principle of relevance. Since the background is an entailment of logical form, it also has no fixed time reference yet.

[14] Relevance theory assumes that the strength of the conclusion of an argument depends on the strength of its weakest premise.

[15] It should be noted that in our discussion we have interpreted the hyena's utterance from the point of view of his audience, i.e. of the donkey. If we continued to interpret it from the perspective of the storyteller's audience we would find further contextual effects; thus the naiveté of the donkey in assuming that the hyena would let her go would almost certainly have the effect of strengthening and solidifying the cultural assumption that donkeys are stupid, and conversely that hyenas are clever.

[16] The qualification "minimally needed" means that by this one assumption the argument could be completed. However, as I point out below, this assumption itself is more likely the conclusion to another sequence of inferences.

[17] It may be objected that my own analysis of -m relies on an interpropositional relationship - that is, the logical relationship established by 'and'. Hence are we not just reducing the number of interpropositional relationships to a smaller, more basic set, perhaps equivalent to the basic operations of standard logics? Firstly, Sperber and Wilson do not assume that there is a "radical distinction between concepts such as and, if ... then, and or, which are regarded as proper logical concepts, and concepts such as when, know, run, bachelor, which are considered non-logical. Following another tradition, we regard these other concepts as also determining logical implications. Which concepts do or do not have logical entries, which rules these contain, ... are all matters for empirical investigation." (1986, p. 87) Thus relevance theory does not assume there to be a small set of logical relationships in the first place.


Secondly, some argumentative connectives do not encode a logical or inferential relationship at all. For example, Blakemore shows that anyway can indicate "that the proposition it introduces is relevant in a context that does not include the immediately preceding remark" (Blakemore 1987, p. 141). This 'meaning' is not reducible to any more basic, logical relationship, and there is no reason why it should be. As pointed out already, the meaning of such connectives is largely a matter of language-specific semantics.

[18] The test results need not be as straightforward as this; in fact, in a second test the informant reactions seemed to disagree. However, this disagreement, too, provided valuable clues about the interpretation process and could be accounted for in terms of relevance theory. For details see Gutt (1988).