The Role of the context in interpretation
The context of an idea or event is the
general situation that relates to it, and
which helps it to be understood
(Collins Co-build Dictionary, 1995)
Discourse analyst has to take account of the
context in which a piece of discourse occur.
Linguistic elements which require contextual
e.g here, now, I, you, then and that
The discourse analyst is investigating the use
of the language in context by a speaker/
The relationship between the speaker and
the utterance, on the particular occasion of
use, tan with he potential relationship of one
sentence to another, regardless of their use.
Interpreting reference, presupposition,
implicature and inference
A: my uncle's coming home from Canada on
Sunday + he's due in
B: how long has he been away for or has he
just been away?
A: Oh no they lived in Canada eh he was
married to my mother's sister + + well she's
been dead for a number of years now +
the notion of presupposition required in
discourse analysis is pragmatic
presupposition, that is, 'defined in terms
of assumptions the speaker makes about
what the hearer is likely to accept without
challenge' (Givbn, 1979a: 50)
Keenan (1971) A sentence S logically
presupposes a sentence S' just in case S
logically implies St and the negation of S, -
S, also logically implies S
a. My uncle is coming home from Canada.
b. My uncle isn't coming home from Canada.
c. I have an uncle.
However, it seems rather unnecessary to
introduce the negative sentence (b) into a
consideration of the relationship between (a)
The introduction of the negative sentence into a
consideration of creates an additional problem.
For example, it has been suggested ( Kempson,
1975) that a sentence such as (d) is a perfectly
reasonable sentence of English and undermines
the argument for logical presupposition, as it is
(d) My uncle isn't coming home from Canada
because I don't have an uncle.
The speakers, we may suggest, would have
different presuppositions, in the two
‘Implied meaning’ which is indicating truth.
The term 'implicature' is used by Grice (1975)
to account for what a speaker can imply,
suggest, or mean, as distinct from what the
speaker literally says.
conventional implicatures which are,
according to Grice, determined by 'the
conventional meaning of the words used'
He is an Englishman, he is, therefore, brave.
Conversational implicature which is derived
from a general principle of conversation plus
a number of maxims which speakers
The general principle is called the
Cooperative Principle: "Make your
contribution such as it is required, at the
stage at which it occurs, by the accepted
purpose or direction of the talk exchange in
which you are engaged.“ (Grice)
Listeners and speakers must speak
cooperatively and mutually accept one
another to be understood in a particular way.
The cooperative principle describes how
effective communication in conversation is
achieved in common social situations.
Quantity: Make your contribution as informative
as is required (for the current purposes of the
exchange). Do not make your contribution more
informative than is required.
Quality: Do not say what you believe to be
false. DO not say that for which you lack
Relation: Be relevant.
Manner: Be perspicuous. Avoid obscurity of
expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid
unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.
by providing a description of the norms
speakers operate with in conversation, Grice
makes it possible to describe what types of
meaning a speaker can convey by 'flouting'
one of these maxims.
This flouting of a maxim results in the
speaker conveying, in addition to the literal
meaning of his utterance, an additional
meaning, which is a conversational
A: I am out of petrol.
B: There is a garage round the corner.
A discourse analyst would like to emphasise the
fact that implicatures are pragmatic aspects of
meaning and have certain identifiable
characteristics. They are partially derived from
the conventional or literal meaning of an
utterance, produced in a specific context which
is shared by the speaker and the hearer, and
depend on a recognition by the speaker and the
hearer of the Cooperative Principle and its
Since the discourse analyst, like the hearer,
has no direct access to a speaker's intended
meaning in producing an utterance, he often
has to rely on a process of inference to
arrive at an interpretation for utterances or
for the connections between utterances.
a. If it's sunny, it's warm.
b. It's sunny.
c. So, it's warm.
A discourse analyst seem to prefer to make
inferences which have some likelihood of
John was on his way to school.
a. Someone was on his way to school.
b. John was on his way to somewhere.
c. Someone was on his way to somewhere
Some inferences are based on socio-cultural
speaker: a young mother, hearer: her
mother-in-law, place: park, by a duckpond,
time: sunny afternoon in September 1962.
They are watching the young mother's two-
year-old son chasing ducks and the mother-
in-law has just remarked that her son, the
child's father, was rather backward at this
age. The young mother says:
I do think Adam's quick
we shall simplistically assume that the
referents of I and Adam are fixed by spatio-
temporal co-ordinates. This 'Adam' is being
compared (or contrasted), favourably, with
his father. Quick, may be interpreted, in the
context of backward, as meaning something
like 'quick in developing'.
speaker: a student, hearers: a set of
students, place: sitting round a coffee table
in the refectory, time: evening in March
1980. John, one of the group, has just told a
joke. Everyone laughs except Adam. Then
Adam laughs. One of the students says:
I do think Adam's quick
different referents for I and Adam are fixed
spatio-temporally. This 'Adam' is being
compared (or contrasted) not with his father
and favourably, but with the set of other
students unfavourably. In this case quick
must be interpreted as meaning something
like 'quick to understand I react I see the
intending to tell an untruth, but to be
implicating the opposite of what is said.
Context: ‘someone speaking to someone
Firth’s outline of context contains the
A. The relevant features of participants:
(i) The verbal action of the participants.
(ii) The non-verbal action of the participants.
B. The relevant objects.
C. The effect of the verbal action.
an ethnographic view of communicative
events within communities
The use of a linguistic form identifies a range
of meanings. A context can support a range
of meanings. When a form is used in a
context it eliminates the meanings possible
to that context other than those the form
can signal: the context eliminates from
consideration the meanings possible to the
form other than those the context can
Participants: Speaker and audience (adressor, addressee)
Message form (different ways of speaking for
Topic: Message content (topic of text or
Setting (where the communication takes place)
Channel: Medium of communication (spoken or
Code: dialect, langauge, style
Message form: chat, debate, sermon, poetry,
The key (the tone: formal/informal)
Event: The genre (type of text) A sermon or prayer
may be a part of the church
The norms of interaction (conventions governing
certain speech acts – turn taking, politeness forms,
Hymes' features constitute essentially a
checklist to check off the detail of the
nature of the communicative event.