Paul Grice – Patron Saint of June, 2019

It being the first weekend of a new month, time for another lovely little introduction to an influential linguist, whose work has had great impact on meaning.

Ladies and gents, let us introduce you to Paul Grice!

Professor Grice was born in Harborne, nowadays a suburb of Birmingham, in the UK. First attending school at Clifton College, he later attended Corpus Christ College, Oxford, and a bit later still, went back to Oxford, this time to St. John’s College, where he imparted his knowledge to students until 1967. After that, he moved to the States to take up a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught until his passing in 1988.

In the field of linguistics, Grice’s work greatly impacted the field of semantics (that is, meaning). What most budding linguists may think about when they think of Grice is his famous “Maxims”. Generally known simply as “Grice’s Maxims”, these belong to a broader principle that Grice named “the Cooperative principle”, which Grice meant that all speakers in a conversation generally follow.

But what does that mean?? Let’s quote the author: “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 26). To this principle, Grice added his Maxims that basically say:
1. The Maxim of information – make your contribution to the conversation as informative as possible but not more than what is necessary.
2. The Maxim of Quality – Basically: don’t lie. To be more specific: don’t say things you believe to be false, or things for which you lack adequate evidence.
3. The Maxim of relation – Be relevant, won’t you?
4. Maxim of Manner – avoid being unclear, ambiguous, overly chatty (be brief) and be orderly.

Obviously, these aren’t the only Maxims used in conversations, but they are the ones traditionally recognised as Grice’s Maxims. Also, obviously, not everyone plays by these rules – people lie, they say stuff that’s completely irrelevant to the conversation, and so on. BUT, according to Grice, conversational implicatures (that is, an implicit speech act: what is meant by the speaker rather than what is explicitly said) are possible because we all assume that the person we are talking to is actually obeying these Maxims: we assume that they’re telling the truth (mostly) and that what they’re saying is informative, relevant and clear (again, mostly). And when they don’t, like when they purposely say untrue things (think “Yeah, and I’m a monkey’s uncle”)? Well, you, and they, rely on these Maxims to reach an appropriate conclusion: you’re ignoring what the speaker is actually saying and instead infer the speaker’s meaning!

Isn’t that fun? If you want to know more about Professor Grice’s amazing work (‘cause obviously, there is so much more that it’s ridiculous), check it out by following this link. In the meantime, next time you have a conversation, try to think of what Maxim you’re relying on and send a thankful thought to Professor Grice for his long hard work that helped us understand so much more about what’s going on in every single conversation.

Have fun!

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