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Theoretical background

A socio-cognitive account of meaning

As the theoretical background for this analysis, we adopt a socio-cognitive, usage-based perspective on meaning, according to which meaning essentially resides in the intersubjective process of meaning coordination among interlocutors (Langacker 2001; Verhagen 2008; Brone 2010: 399; Langlotz 2011). In doing so, we move beyond the traditional cognitive linguistic, subject-centered account of meaning, in which aspects of mutual and joint interaction as described by, among others, Clark 1996 remain somewhat underfranchised.

Our account of intersubjectivity does not concern the interactive process of explicit meaning negotiation as it occurs among interlocutors and in which different opinions about a commonly focused topic are discussed. Instead, we define it as our cognitive ability to take other people’s perspective and to model the mental states of our interlocutors. This view is very much in line with the theory of mind (Whiten 1991; Givon 2005), which revolves around our ability to identify and differentiate the mental from the physical world and, more specifically, the ability to conceptualize thoughts, ideas, emotions, attitudes, beliefs etc. in other people’s mind (Brone 2010, 91-92). During interaction, both at the stage of interpretation and production, interlocutors imagine what they assume to be in the minds of their conversational partners and align their construal with it. Accordingly, conversation can be characterized as a process that requires constant alignment and negotiation among intersubjective viewpoints.

Linguistic expressions are cues for making inferences, and understanding thus not primarily

consists in decoding the precise content of the expression, but in making inferences that

lead to adequate next (cognitive, conversational, behavioral) moves. (Verhagen 2005, 22)

With regard to the impact of these perspectival aspects of intersubjective meaning coordination on everyday language use, Clark (1996) identifies the notion of layered meaning as a key concept of his theory of language use as a joint activity. He points out that in many so called staged communicative acts (1996, 368) like sarcasm, irony, lying, teasing and many others, participants do not necessarily act and communicate in line with the expectations and norms of that specific situation. Clark links this observation to the crucial insight that the experience of common ground does not have the status of an independent or inherent value in communication. Instead, “when [we] act on the basis of our common ground, we are in fact acting on our individual beliefs or assumptions about what is in our common ground” (96). Indeed, interlocutors may always exploit common ground for humorous, ironic or other communicative purposes (Veale et al. 2006). Clark describes the meaning in staged communicative acts in terms of different meaning layers, where the primary or basic layer corresponds to the concrete situation of the communication between speaker(s) and hearer(s) (the ground as Langacker calls it).[1] On top of this primary layer, interlocutors may decide to create another, secondary layer of meaning, which can only operate relative to and hence dependent on the primary layer of interpretation.

In their analysis of adversarial humor, Veale et al. (2006), Brone (2008; 2010) and Brone and Oben (2013) identify prominent patterns of layered meaning, through which interlocutors achieve a trump over their opponents by pretending and then elaborating a misunderstanding, in which (parts of) the expressions used by a previous interlocutor are recycled and successfully turned against their original users, as illustrated in (1).

(1) (our translation) Spectator shouting at Dutch politician H. Wiegel:

Son of a bitch!

H. Wiegel: How nice of you to introduce yourself; my name is Hans Wiegel.

In this brief dialogue, the second interlocutor creates a secondary layer of interpretation, involving a pretended misunderstanding, in which he activates an unanticipated alternative meaning, allowing him to achieve both verbal and social superiority over his opponent. On the basis of mutually assumed common ground, both speakers ‘know’ that the first speaker intended his utterance to be understood as an insult. Also on the basis of common ground, both speakers must conclude that the meaning construal in the reply of the second speaker will generally be regarded as superior compared to the initial insult by the first speaker.

  • [1] With this distinction, Clark relates his model to the work of Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin,but also to Relevance theory, several discourse models and more cognitively oriented paradigms;for an overview, see Brone (2012).
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