A new look at literal meaning in understanding what is said and implicated

Author(s): Gibbs Jr RW


What role does literal meaning play in language comprehension? This question has been vigorously debated in research on figurative language understanding. The standard pragmatic view proposes that people must analyze the complete literal meaning of indirect and figurative utterances before pragmatic information is consulted to infer speakers’ nonliteral messages. Most of the psycholinguistic research shows, however, that given sufficient context people understand nonliteralmeanings without first analyzing the complete literal meaning of an expression (i.e., the direct access view). Several lines of research have recently attempted to demonstrate that people still analyze aspects of literal meaning when understanding metaphors, irony, idioms, and proverbs. I critically evaluate this new work and suggest that it does not contribute sufficient evidence against the direct access view. Nonetheless, I argue that other research suggests how people analyze aspects of what speakers say as part of inferring what speakers implicate. This conclusion has several implications for specifying the role of pragmatics in ordinary utterance interpretation.

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