On the availability of 'literal' meaning: Evidence from courtroom interaction

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    It has traditionally been assumed that the distinction between 'literal' vs context-induced meaning is relevant to drawing the semantics/pragmatics boundary. In recent years, however, some scholars have argued that what is 'said' or 'communicated explicitly', as opposed to what is 'meant' or 'communicated implicitly', cannot be determined bottom-up, from the linguistic input supplemented by disambiguation and referential saturation of variables alone, and that putatively 'literal' meanings are not even consciously available to language users (e.g. Gibbs and Moise, 1997; Recanati, 2001, 2004; Carston, 2002). Others have already taken issue with these claims (e.g. Bach, 2001, 2005; Cappelen and Lepore, 2005a,b; García-Carpintero, 2001, 2006; Martínez-Manrique and Vicente, 2004; Taylor, 2001), but it is striking that none of the participants in this otherwise fascinating debate appear to have looked even briefly at data obtained by means other than introspection. The hypothesis of the present paper is that literal meanings are, in fact, available to 'ordinary' (i.e. non-linguistically trained) language users, and that this is empirically attestable. I show that, even if literal meanings may standardly be ignored in everyday cooperative conversation whenever hearers have reason to assume that speakers actually mean something more elaborate, they are fairly regularly exploited in other, more marked, types of settings. One such setting is courtroom interaction, from which the primary data for this paper are drawn. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1392-1410
    Number of pages18
    JournalJournal of Pragmatics
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - Aug 2008


    • Courtroom interaction
    • Explicitness
    • Implicature
    • Literal meaning
    • Semantic/pragmatics interface
    • Speaker's meaning


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