Learning to Distinguish Between Literal and Contextual Meaning [Study]

When a speaker makes a truthful statement that implies an untruth, what do listeners hear? Are they able to see beyond the false implications and uncover the unvarnished truth? Can people divorce themselves from the context of a statement well enough to hear what is really being said, or do some words carry such strong implications that people cannot see past them?

These are questions that researchers have been asking for decades. Ironically, research that has attempted to answer these questions has been hampered by difficulties in communication. Researchers have had difficulty explaining to participants what is meant by their questions and what they want participants to do. They have also had a hard time figuring out what people mean by their answers. A new study published in the journal Language not only answers some questions about how people interpret certain types of statements but also provides a new tool for helping participants understand what researchers expect of them.

The research focuses on a new technique for studying how participants distinguish between what a speaker says and what a speaker implies. The new study, authored by a group of language scholars from Northwestern University, introduces the concept of Literal Lucy, a fictional character who brings to life the elusive meaning of the traditional question used by researchers, “What is said?” The second question asked in such research, “What is meant?” can now be more easily explained by contrasting it with the interpretation Literal Lucy would make.

Typically, linguists look for semantic meaning, derived from the meaning of the actual words used, and pragmatic meaning, derived from the common usage of words and the context in which they are used. Over the last ten years, as greater emphasis has been placed upon empirical research in the social sciences, research has dramatically increased in the field of linguistics, and the ability to distinguish these two types of meaning has been heavily studied.

However, a lack of understanding regarding the conditions necessary for people to distinguish semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning has presented obstacles to research. Combined with confusion resulting from problems making participants understand what researchers are asking, this lack of understanding has sometimes made it difficult to interpret researchers’ findings.

The Northwestern researchers created a paradigm shift by instructing participants to assess questions from the viewpoint of Literal Lucy, who is only able to understand the semantic meaning of the words she encounters. When participants tried to take on the role of Literal Lucy, they were able to show researchers an accurate picture of their ability to distinguish semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning. The investigators determined that participants’ ability to do so was strongly related to the type of phrase featured in the example.

By nailing down a method of making participants understand what is being asked of them, the Northwestern researchers may have enabled future researchers to examine more deeply the way people communicate. The revelation that different types of phrases are more difficult for participants to analyze suggests that current theories are not complete and offers suggestions for future research.

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