Ideological ground and relevant interpretation in a cognitive semantics

Peter Grundy &Yiang Yan

In this paper, we use the figure / ground gestalt to show how discourse is interpreted in relation to background ideology. We argue that the relation of linguistic figure to contextual ground is indicated by discourse markers and other encodings of procedural meaning (Blakemore 1987). Such procedural forms are treated as space builders (Fauconnier 1984, 1997) which enable contextual ground to be modelled in a cognitive semantics. The data on which we draw are taken from Bill Clinton's national television address of 18 August 1998 following his testimony to the grand jury. Our analysis provides cognitive plausibility for the well motivated distinction made in relevance theory between conceptual and procedural meaning, and at the same time provides a clear way of showing how both linguistic expressions and non-linguistic pragmatic conditions (Fauconnier, 1997: 39) are represented in a single semantics.

The figure / ground gestalt in linguistic analysis

A number of accounts of linguistic phenomena have appealed to the figure / ground gestalt.

At the level of the word, Hanks (1992) argues that deictics uniquely capture the relation of figure to ground in a single linguistic expression.

For Langacker, figure designates the foregrounded entity in the trajector / landmark profile of a grammatical relation, such as that of subject and predicate (1991: 301). In this approach, figure and ground are, therefore, realised intra-sententially.

In Talmy's account of complex sentences, figure is seen as a variable (1978: 628ff) in relation to a ground provided in the subordinate clause. Thus clauses introduced by after and before, for example, and phrases introduced by during provide the ground, or presupposition, in relation to which the rest of the sentence is seen as a figure.

Wallace (1982) argues that languages have a range of grammatical forms (perfective / imperfective, eventive / non-eventive, etc.) which are predominantly oriented to expressing figure / ground relations. Wallace's use of the figure/ ground gestalt therefore explains discoursal phenomena: a speaker has the means at each point in a discourse to foreground some element of propositional meaning in relation to some other element.

These and other like accounts may be seen as demonstrations of the linguistic reflexes of a fundamental processing strategy in which salience is perceived as a relation of figure to ground. What is significant about these accounts is that ground is always represented as a co-textual phenomenon.

By way of contrast, Langacker also acknowledges contextual ground, which includes the "speech event, its participants, and its immediate circumstances (such as the time and place of speaking)" (1991: 318). In this paper we explore how the broader contextual, and particularly the ideological ground, is relevant in processing foregrounded linguistic phenomena.

Procedural and conceptual meaning

Specifically, we argue that contextual ground is invoked by metalinguistic and metapragmatic cues. Again, we build on existing studies, including work on maxim hedges in Gricean pragmatics, on meta-talk (Schiffrin, 1987), on reflexivity (Lucy, 1993), and most notably on the on-going study of discourse particles within the relevance theoretic framework. This last study has led to a recognition of the distinction between conceptual and procedural meaning (Blakemore, 1987). As Wilson and Sperber put it, utterances contain "information about the representations to be manipulated, and information about how to manipulate them" (1993: 2). This (latter) computational category is held to constrain the interpretation of conceptual meaning by limiting the available ground in relation to which it is interpreted.

Thus there is little (if anything) procedural about the utterance People have private lives. But when Bill Clinton says "Even presidents have private lives", even is taken to constrain the interpretation of Presidents have private lives by restricting the set of contexts which are called up. It is in relation to these contexts that Presidents have private lives is both one amongst a set of possible variables and a salient figure. In this way, procedural meaning relates a new notion, a variable figure, to an established context, the invariant ground. This ground may well be, and perhaps usually is, in part ideological. Given the obvious ideological context in which Clinton's conduct appears unacceptable, it's hardly surprising that his national television address of 18 August exhibits a very wide range of metalinguistic and metapragmatic procedural phenomena.

Cognitive semantics and the representation of non-linguistic pragmatic ground

Outside the cognitive paradigm, it's not at all clear how a semantic account of language can be constructed that accounts for both propositional meaning and the contextual knowledge which together determine the relevant understanding of this propositional meaning.

In cognitive semantics, Fauconnier's theory of mental spaces allows not only linguistic expressions but also non-linguistic pragmatic conditions to be represented in a single model. But in practice, the work of Fauconnier is largely concerned with showing only how linguistic expressions are represented in mental spaces. Grundy and Jiang (1988) have recently argued that the index associated with the use of a demonstrative may either attach to a co-textual item within the same focus space as itself (as in the case of anaphoric reference) or, where there is no such antecedent, float up to viewpoint space where it acts as a space builder for the non-linguistic pragmatic material necessary for a successful interpretation (as in the case of deictic reference).

Our paper extends this work to take account of the space building properties of a much wider class of procedural forms. Thus, a complete semantics for the utterance "Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong" would need to model at least the ideological contexts realised by the maxim hedges indeed and in fact, by emphatic did, by the higher level metalinguistic predicates not appropriate and wrong, by the restricted relative that was not appropriate, and by an utterance that glosses the preceding utterance. In this paper we attempt to model the way in which such metapragmatic features relate conceptual meaning to the background ideological context.


Existing accounts of how the figure / ground gestalt is linguistically realised have typically represented only conceptual meaning. This position is tantamount to treating communicating meaning as a simple matter of encoding and decoding rather than as causing a hearer to draw inferences from both decoded linguistic and inferred non-linguistic premises. To be interested in pragmatics is precisely to add this further dimension.

This paper is therefore about how a cognitive semantics models both linguistic and non-linguistic premises, which are treated as figure and ground respectively. In doing this, we demonstrate how cognitive semantics is uniquely able to represent in a single account phenomena treated (counter-intuitively and certainly non-cognitively) as either semantic or pragmatic in other theories.


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Grundy, Peter and Yan Jiang Cognitive semantics and deictic reference (unpub. paper under consideration)

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