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

Chi-He Elder, Michael Haugh

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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 formalisation 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 thus 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 all 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 endeavour of complex inferential work.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)593-625
Number of pages32
JournalIntercultural Pragmatics
Issue number5
Early online date30 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2018


  • speaker meaning
  • interactional achievement
  • conversational inference
  • semantic contextualism
  • miscommunication
  • negotiation of meaning

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