The Challenges of Explicit and Implicit Communication

A Relevance-Theoretic Approach

by Maria Jodłowiec (Author)
©2015 Monographs 192 Pages


Relevance Theory provides an original theoretical framework to capture the complex nature and intricacies of the processes underlying ostensive communication. The model has been in constant development for the last 30 years, and this study attempts to contribute to it by challenging free enrichment as an important explicature-generation procedure. The mechanisms underlying the recovery of explicitly and implicitly communicated meanings are explored in this book. They show that by approaching communication as a creative process, Relevance Theory offers a coherent explanation not only of communication in which what is conveyed is relatively straightforward and easy to identify, but also of cases in which what is communicated is partly precise and partly vague.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Relevance Theory: a cognitive model of communication
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Cognitive goals and relevance
  • 1.3 The mind’s massive modularity
  • 1.4 Cognitive effects and relevance
  • 1.5 Ostension, cognitive environment, manifestness and the Communicative Principle of Relevance
  • 1.6 RT and intentions
  • 1.7 How ostensive-inferential communication works in practice
  • 1.8 Inference to the intended interprétation and context construction
  • 1.9 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 2: Explicatures: how far do interpreters go?
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 The explicit-implicit divide: the relevance-theoretic approach
  • 2.3 The nature of explicatures
  • 2.4 Problems with free enrichment
  • 2.5 The enrichment fallacy?
  • 2.6 Contextual cognitive fix instead of free enrichment
  • 2.7 How contextual cognitive fix works
  • 2.8 Shallower interprétations
  • 2.9 Contextual cognitive fix and ad hoc concepts
  • 2.10 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 3: Within and beyond implicature
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Implicature: a relevance-theoretic construal
  • 3.3 Implications vs. implicatures
  • 3.4 Underdeterminacy vs. indeterminacy
  • 3.5 From strong to weak communication or the other way round?
  • 3.6 Poetic effects: the case of aphorisms
  • 3.7 Implicit communication: whose meaning is it?
  • 3.8 From communication to parallel (though diverse) thinking
  • 3.9 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 4: Relevance and the miracle of communication
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 RT, contextualism and pragmaticism
  • 4.3 The miracle of communication argument
  • 4.4 Inferencing and modularity
  • 4.5 Communication and mind-reading
  • 4.6 The miracle worker: the relevance-theoretic compréhension module
  • 4.7 Personal vs. subpersonal levels in pragmatics
  • 4.8 Contextual cognitive fix: compréhension efficiency revisited
  • 4.9 Concluding remarks
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Index


This project would have never come to completion if I had not received invaluable feedback, intellectual stimulation and constant support over more than the last decade from Professor Deirdre Wilson. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Deidre Wilson for all her constructive advice, immense kindness and genuine concern she has not spared me over the years. Her insightful comments and improvements on chapter 2 were more than important.

I would like to thank the Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków for the financial assistance which made this publication possible.

My special thanks go to the two reviewers, Professor Anna Niżegorodcew and Professor Magdalena Charzyńska-Wójcik, for their critical remarks on the manuscript. Professor Anna Niżegorodcew helped in correcting some mistakes that even a native-speaker’s eye did not notice. Professor Magdalena Charzyńska-Wójcik’s perceptive comments, penetrating questions and interesting suggestions towards improvement are greatly appreciated. The responsibility for all the flaws remains my own, so the usual disclaimer holds.

I would like to extend heartfelt thanks to Professor Ewa Willim both in her capacity of the Head of the Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and of a very close friend. Ewa’s genuine concern, constant encouragement and spiritual support cannot be overestimated.

I received a lot of support from many colleagues at the Institute. Professor Elżbieta Chrzanowska-Kluczewska, Head of the Department of Applied Language and EFL Teaching, which I am part, of and one of the editors of the series within which this book is published, provided a lot of assistance and useful advice.

I would like to give my warm thanks to Professor Elżbieta Mańczak-Wohlfeld for her expert advice, generous help and consolation in times of crisis.

Professor Marta Dąbrowska shared with me invaluable insights about some technical procedures, which I am very grateful for.

Ramon Schindler proofread parts of the text.

I profited a lot from the discussions and work on some joint projects with Agnieszka Piskorska from Warsaw University – thanks Agnieszka!

Many friends kept their fingers crossed (for quite a long time) for me and provided lots of moral support. In particular, I would like to thank: Alicia Feitzinger, Laura and Maz Mazur, Per van der Wijst and Jerzy Wójcik – each of them helped ← 9 | 10 → in their own, very special and much appreciated way. I would like to thank also His Eminence Cardinal Marian Jaworski for his invaluable spiritual backing.

Last, but not least, I would like to thank my loving family, my husband Bogusław, my son Kamil and his girlfriend Ula, and my brother Józef. While it may sound strange to say that an academic book is written for anybody, there is a very real sense in which writing this book only made sense because of them and my late parents, Wanda and Julian, who were always there for me. ← 10 | 11 →


The present research falls within the field of pragmatic studies. Despite various attempts at delineating the scope of pragmatics adequately, the dispute as to what pragmatic investigations embrace and what kind of division of labour there should be across such linguistic disciplines as grammar, semantics and pragmatics has been going on for decades now (cf. Ariel 2010, 2012; Bianchi 2004; Carston 2008; Horn 2006; Jaszczolt 2012, among others). It is not my intention to contribute to this dispute, as my aims are entirely different and much more modest. For the present purposes, a rather broad definition of pragmatics is adopted. It is treated as a study of general principles underlying the production and comprehension of utterances, that is, coded or non-coded signals intentionally used to convey meaning.

My major goal is to show how to account for various aspects of utterance interpretation within Relevance Theory, one of the leading pragmatic models of the present time. So this research is confined to verbal communication. There are three major focal points in the present study that have to do with: (a) how Relevance Theory accounts for explicature generation, (b) how it explains the implicit layer of communication, and (c) how the model rises to the challenge of elucidating the immense complexity and the extraordinary efficiency of human communication.

An in-depth investigation into the nature of explicatures, as envisaged in the relevance-theoretic framework, and certain doubts and controversies surrounding the so-called free enrichment mechanism, brought me to explore the nature of the processes involved. Fully endorsing the semantic underdeterminacy thesis, relevance theorists assume that bridging the gap between the decoded logical form and the speaker-intended meaning is accomplished via inferencing. Apart from such linguistically mandated pragmatic processes as saturation of contextual variables, resolution of ambiguities, reconstruction of the ellipted material, etc., Relevance Theory admits the process of free enrichment, which is not linguistically sanctioned. According to Carston (2004a: 819), free enrichment is “the incorporation of conceptual material that is wholly pragmatically inferred, on the basis of considerations of rational communicative behavior.” Undeniably, getting the occasion-specific meaning may call for zeroing in on the precise content which is not linguistically licensed in any sense. However, if the process responsible for this adds conceptual elements to the representation, it appears suspicious. In the first place, if such a process is in operation, there may be different ways in which “gaps” in the decoded logical form can be filled in with supplementary ← 11 | 12 → concepts, so, in effect, potentially different explicatures will surface for exactly the same utterance with manifestly the same speaker-intended specific meaning. This is a problem for the theory. Besides, this type of conceptual enhancement of the decoded logical form is cognitively strenuous and creates an unnecessary cognitive burden for the interpreter. In an attempt to overcome these problems a new mechanism is put forward here. The contextual cognitive fix procedure, postulated as part of the relevance-oriented comprehension heuristic, appears to avoid these complications and makes explicature recovery more efficient and more appealing in my estimation. My aim in this book is to argue for this slight amendment to the model and suggest that Relevance Theory can benefit from replacing the controversial free enrichment procedure with the contextual cognitive fix mechanism.

At the level of implicit import, the most interesting and innovative idea in the relevance-theoretic framework is that of weak communication. This notion is original and unique to Relevance Theory and offers interesting insights into what happens when the communicator’s goal is not so much to convey a determinate, explicit, well-defined and relatively precise meaning, but rather to affect the recipient’s thought processes, as a result of which the latter will arrive at a complex and rich interpretation, not necessarily fully endorsed by the communicator’s intention. Indeterminate intentions and impreciseness of the communicated content have their appeal, as will be shown in this book.

I have always been attracted by the challenge of the fundamental pragmatic question how human beings can communicate ever so efficiently. This is not a trivial query, considering the remote and putative nature of background information that needs to be brought to bear in the interpretation process, taking into account different degrees of familiarity (or complete unfamiliarity) of the interlocutors, thinking about idiosyncrasies in the linguistic competence of the speaker and the hearer, to mention just the most obvious factors that affect communication and prove insurmountable (at least as yet) for robots. Relevance Theory does suggest an answer to this question, but it somehow passes unnoticed. In asking and answering this Master Question (Neale forthcoming) I hope to bring to light the relevance-theoretic stance on the problem and demonstrate how it confronts the challenge.

The book has the following structure. In chapter 1, the relevance-theoretic model, its theoretical underpinnings and tenets are introduced. Basic conceptual apparatus of Relevance Theory is presented with a view to laying the foundation for the later discussion. In particular, The Cognitive and Communicative Principles of Relevance with the satellite notions are defined and briefly discussed. The cognitive bias of the theory is emphasized and its affinity with the modular view of the human mind is brought to the fore. Intentionality as approached in relevance ← 12 | 13 → theoretic terms is highlighted and the inferential nature of comprehension processes is underscored. Because of its aim and subject matter, this introductory part amounts to a survey of the theoretical skeleton of the model. This chapter then is a useful synopsis for the reader familiar with the theory and a worthwhile read for those who may not be fully acquainted with the framework.

Chapter 2 focuses on the relevance-theoretic account of explicit meaning. The notion of explicature developed by Sperber and Wilson (1986/96; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2004) is broader than the notion of what is said as conceived by Grice (1967/89). Relevance Theory views the process of explicature recovery as heavily inferential, with various types of semantic underdeterminacies getting resolved through inference, and the result is a fully-fledged proposition. Free enrichment, taken by many relevance theorists to be responsible for settling underdeterminacies, is critically approached in this chapter. In an attempt to eliminate some of its inadequacies, as hinted at above, the contextual cognitive fix mechanism is introduced. It is also argued that the relevance-driven search for the speaker-intended meaning may on certain occasions yield only a proposition schema and not necessarily a full proposition. Consequently, shallow interpretations at the level of explicature may frequently result – an effect predicted by the contextual cognitive fix construal postulated here.

The implicit layer of communication is the subject matter of chapter 3. Some vital concepts are discussed first, with the major focus on weak communication and poetic effects. To illustrate how the poetic effect is created, some examples of aphorisms are analysed. The main claim is that the role of poetic effects is to initiate the recipient on a certain interpretation path and he is encouraged to explore the meaning further on his own.

In chapter 4, the so-called miracle of communication problem is addressed from the perspective of Relevance Theory. The conception of the comprehension module with the in-built relevance-guided comprehension heuristic which ensures fast, frugal and automatic interpretation of ostensive stimuli is presented. It fits in with the massive modularity mental architecture, as is argued, and provides a plausible solution to the complexity vis-à-vis the efficiency of communication problem.

A summary of the major points raised in the study and suggestions for further research are presented in conclusion. ← 13 | 14 → ← 14 | 15 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Relevanztheorie Kommunikation Heuristik
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 192 pp.

Biographical notes

Maria Jodłowiec (Author)

Maria Jodłowiec is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She teaches courses in applied linguistics and TEFL. Her research interests concentrate on linguistic pragmatics and, in particular, on utterance comprehension mechanisms as analysed in the relevance-theoretic model.


Title: The Challenges of Explicit and Implicit Communication
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194 pages