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Differences between Grice’s Theory of Conversation and Relevance Theory

1.0 Introduction

The theory of conversation by Grice and relevance theory by Sperber and Wilson are the most interesting inferential theory ever put forward in pragmatics. This essay focuses on the differences between Grice’s theory of Conversation and Relevance Theory. In the first section, the essay will provide a detailed description of the theories. Relevance theory and conversation theory are essentially the most inferential and exciting theories to be proposed in the field of pragmatics (Mortensen, 2008, pg 45). These two theories bear some differences in the way they approach the essential features of verbal and non-verbal communication. Mortensen clarified that, from a reasonable analysis it is possible to find the limits the relevance theory possesses over the Grice conversational theory; even though relevance theory is normally seen as an improvement of the Grice’s approach.

2.0 Differences between the theories

The differences between Grice conversation theory and relevance theory are normally based on inferential model, irony, context, explicature, and implicature. Grice first embraced the inferential model such that he disregarded the model of codes. According to  Grice, the recognition and expression of intentions is characteristic of most human communication, be it verbal or non-verbal. Largely, intentions of a communicator are determined by the inference. For instance, when you remove your keys and present them in front of a locked door with preoccupied hands, the person with you should obviously think that you are asking him/her to open the door. On the contrary, the code model and the inferential model are reconcilable, as Wilson and Sperber explain. According to the two scholars, when communicating verbally, the model of codes is indispensable. In case the analysis of the codes is inadequate, then the inference shall be impossible (Crowley, 1994).

Secondly, Grice believes that inference is a reasoning process that is extremely discursive, or rather described as rationality as well as, and conscious. As Wilson explains, it is impossible to hold the belief that adults also go through such conscious forms of reasoning in interpretation of utterances in their ordinary form. Relevance theorists share Grice’s point that utterances share expectations of relevance  and the central claim is that the expectations of relevance contribute to how they may contribute to the empirically plausible account of comprehension; thus, the inferential processes are believed to be instantaneous and unconsciously automatic (Crowley, 1994).

Thirdly, the inferential model’s base of argument is remarkably distinct and apart. According to Grice, communication should not only be considered as a matter of encoding and decoding but it also entails inference. Propositions made by Wilson and Sperber are that it is the peoples’ cognitive nature which absorbs them within their process of inferences. Claims made by relevance theory are that humanity has this automatic tendency of maximizing their relevance. This is not because they have a series of choices in a matter they rarely do, but due to the manner in which their cognitive system evolves in the recent past. The cognitive system of humans is developed in a way that the mechanisms of perception automatically pick out stimuli appearing to be potentially relevant (Crowley, 1994).

Consequently, the mechanisms of memory retrieval tend to automatically activate assumptions that are potentially relevant. The inferential mechanisms process these assumptions in a highly productive way (Crowley, 1994). Therefore, while we are normally likely to listen to a glass break in our environment, it is most probable that we will concentrate more on the sound and internalize it. However, in conversational theory, Grice explains that it is the propensity in obeying the maxims and the cooperative principle that actually drives people in the same process (Levinson, 2000).

The contextual idea is essentially beneficial in linguistics. According to the Grice’s inferential model, a context is normally involved as a presupposition in the process of inference. Therefore, it presets as static or invariable. Furthermore, it is only when the cooperative principle and context are decided, that listeners can assess whether communication upholds or defies the main four maxims, and then conjecture its conversational implicature or linguistic meaning to the treatment of the very maxims (Levinson, 2000).

Take, for instance, the following dialogue:

Peter: He has not recovered his lost laptop, has he?

Rose: He has been to Washington severally.

The response by Rose in the conversation can easily be understood. Based on the Grice’s theory, we can figure out the conversational implicature. However, Grice could not account what drove the audience to actually choosing the implicature above instead of the rest through the guidance of cooperative principle. On the contrary, the relevance theory has a context that is psychological. It represents person’s world assumptions at varied moments and places. This essentially includes information such as the logical inferences and rules that are salient in context and which allow reasoning. There is also the encyclopaedic information that is about properties and objects. The lexical information actually creates understanding of our natural language sentences and utterances (Lavrenko, 2009).

In the conversational theory by Grice, the perception of the verbal irony actually parallels the perception of hyperbole and metaphor. Grice describes irony as an explicit defamation of truthful axioms. This differs from hyperbole and metaphor only in the type of implicature conveyed. He further indicates that metaphor normally associates with simile from the actual words said, hyperbole connects weakening effect of the said, and the irony brings out the reverse of the said (Levinson, 2000). On the contrary, the relevance theory does not only reject the irony analysis by Grice, but also the assumption that hyperbole, irony, and metaphor should be assumed parallel (Lavrenko, 2009). In addition, the examination of paradox by Grice as an explicit destruction of the axiom of truth is actually a modification of the view of irony, which is classical and rhetorical, as literally portraying a thing and figuratively having the opposite meaning (Sperber & Wilson, 1992). In the conversation theory, Grice has epitomized the co-operative axiom and principle mainly in association with the implicature recovery. He actually seems to think that they have no substantial role in the overt side rather than the opposite side. The reference assignment and disambiguation interpretations by Grice, which appeared as falling on the overt side rather than on the opposite side, implies thinking of them as sentence meaning determinants and contextual factors, only without referring to the principles of pragmatics (Levinson, 2000).

On the contrary, the relevance theory perceives identification of overt contents as being equally inferential; thus, they are propelled by the relevance principle to communication, and as the implicature recovery. The relevance practice of theoretic comprehension applies similarly to the linguistics’ resolution under determinacy at both implicit and explicit levels. The listener’s goal is usually to develop a supposition about the orator’s connotation satisfying the assumption of importance the utterance expresses (Lavrenko, 2009). The Grice conversational theory and relevance theory normally reveal different perspectives towards implicatures and explicatures. For instance, when person X asks Y, “why are you hanging around in the street alone?” Y responds that visiting families is exasperating. According to Grice context, person Y utterances deliberately violate the axiom of relation, therefore raising the conversational implicature. Y possibly meant that it is the distress and disturbance from family relatives that made him to decide to take a march in the street in order to be away from the relatives’ disruptiveness. Such kind of explanation normally appears to be reasonable but essentially oversimplified (Bultinck, 2005). Given that X is aware that Y holds strange eccentricity and essentially appreciates being with relatives, but pathetically dislikes going over to visit other relatives, in this case, the elucidation of person Y utterances will actually change radically. As an alternative, he might be meaning that he disliked the idea of wanting to visit family relatives together with his parents; therefore, he chooses to walk across the street. From Grice’s perspective, it is extremely likely that X is capable of making the accurate elucidation. Nevertheless, he actually overlooks an extraordinarily imperative fact that it is explicatures that are essential for him to elucidate appropriately (Bultinck, 2005). In the relevance theory, Wilson disproves the Grice’s theory that truthfulness essentially governs communication. Grice actually considered anything that did not conform to the axiom of quality as a deviation. Relevance theory does not essentially conform to these axioms outlined by conversational theory (Carston, 1998). Furthermore, in relevance theory, listeners normally expect an orator to employ the best possible choice in terms of relevance in his/her utterances and to essentially facilitate the listener’s job at the other end of a communication act. In this sense, it falls within the responsibility of the speaker, and not the listener, to make the communication valid.

In addition, relevance theory pays significant attention to other items that are left unsolved by the Grice’s axioms such as time and methods, which govern the construction of the dialogue. Time normally has direct impact on the significance attached to specific utterances (Carston, 1998). Even though, relevance theory normally covers various works related to social sciences, it mainly focuses on an Intra-discussion relationship. It actually fails to pay a considerable attention to language use based on external customs and resolution. Subsequently, this model has also been criticized because it omits social aspects of communication that are normally emphasized by the Grice’s conversational theory.

Relevance theory is normally viewed as trying to build foundations on the work and details of Grice’s theory central propositions: that the most indispensable aspect of communication in human is recognition and expression of meanings. Grice is credited with setting of the inferential model of communication fundaments, which is essentially a substitute to the traditional code model. With regard to the code model, an orator normally encrypts his/her intended meaning into a sign, which is actually decrypted by the listeners using a matching code (Bornedal, 2006). In the inferential model, an orator normally provides proof of his/her intent to deliver a particular message that is essentially deduced by the listeners with regard to the proof provided (Bultinck, 2005).  This stresses on the essentiality of proof composed of pieces that are linguistically coded, for the verbal understanding to involve elements of deciphering. Nonetheless, the etymological meaning that is normally recovered through interpreting is usually one of the non-expressive contributions interpretation processes and one that produces an understanding of the orator’s meaning.

The main objective of inference pragmatics is normally to explain the way a listener gets the orator’s message with regard to the proof provided. In his theory, Grice claims that the exclamation automatically creates expectations, which normally guide the listener towards the speaker’s meaning (Bornedal, 2006). Grice further describes these expectations in terms of co-operative principle and axioms of quality, quantity, truthfulness, clarity, and relevance, which speakers are essentially expected to observe. Grice emphasizes that the understanding of a cogent listener should be decided on; this pre-eminently gratifies those prospects. Nevertheless, there is a probability that those expectations are deliberately suspended. Grice demonstrates that, in such instances, conversational implicatures are normally triggered. These are also the fundamental aspects of communication on which relevance theory has built its proposition.

For instance, reiterations like ‘boys are boys’ and ‘war is war’ are an example in which the first quantity axiom is undervalued. At a shallow level, they may actually be uninformative, but at a deeper level, they may be informative (Bornedal, 2006). They may actually convey meaning such as boys are mischievous and naughty, or there is no need of lamenting the tragedies of war since terrible things normally happen. Relevance theory, which is a proposition of Wilson, normally shares the Grice perception that expressions raise expectations of the relevance. Its central claim is that the prospects of relevance that are usually outstretched by an expression are essentially precise and sufficiently foreseeable to guide the listeners towards the message of an orator (Carston, 1998). The theory states that every act of perceived communication communicates the assumption of its own optimal relevance. This theory also agrees with Grice that communication also involves inference and should not be viewed as a matter of encoding and decoding (Bornedal, 2006). Therefore, from the communicative side, communication should essentially be seen as an act of making speaker’s intentions manifest; thus, the complete characterization of communication is usually ostensive-inferential.

3.0 Conclusion

Grice has essentially attempted to explain the variability and complexity that is normally evident in the human communication, both verbal and non-verbal, using a sequence of tangible instructions and axioms, but only to find the rules, which are too many to enlist (Bornedal, 2006). In the understanding of statements, conversational theory can essentially be replaced by relevance theory. This is because in relevance theory, axioms or rules for a communicator to uphold are normally absent (Wilson, 1992). It essentially describes the people’s reasoning processes characteristics: a listener needs to understand the sentence meaning that is linguistically encrypted using the path that is most efficient. A person should enrich the path at the overt level and supplement it at inherent level till the ensuing understanding satisfies his/her prospects of relevance (Wilson, 1992). The most valuable advantage held by the relevance theory essentially makes the study in the pragmatic field to be methodical since there is only one principle of relevance.

However, no single theory is flawless or impeccable. In the relevance theory, the main drawback is normally the in-determinacy of this theory’s significance. Furthermore, the current relevance theory strives to replace the Grice’s conversational theory; it actually neglects the social conventions and norms that are usually emphasized by the Grice’s framework (Wilson, 1992). However, the replacement of Grice’s conversational theory by the relevance theory normally indicates that relevance theory can essentially explain most of the phenomena mentioned in the Grice’s theory.

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