Speech As Communication

For most people (unless there is something seriously wrong with them) speech nearly always occurs as conversation in a social context. Grice (1967) argued that the key to successful communication is the Cooperative Principle, according to which speakers and listeners must try to be co-operative.

In addition to the Co-operative Principle, Grice proposed four maxims that the speaker should heed:

• Maxim of quantity: the speaker should be as informative as necessary, but not more so.

• Maxim of quality: the speaker should be truthful.

• Maxim of relation: the speaker should say things that are relevant to the situation.

• Maxim of manner: the speaker should make his or her contribution easy to understand.

What needs to be said (maxim of quantity) depends on what the speaker wishes to describe (often called the referent). It is also necessary to know the objects from which the referent must be differentiated. It is sufficient to say, "The boy is good at football", if the other players are all men, but not if some of them are also boys. In the latter case, it is necessary to be more specific (e.g., "The boy with red hair is good at football").

Common ground

According to Clark and Carlson (1981), the speaker must take account of what they called the "common ground". The common ground between two people consists of their mutual beliefs, expectations, and knowledge. Clark (1994) proposed a distinction between communal common ground and personal common ground. Communal common ground refers to all the knowledge and beliefs universally held in the communities to which the two people belong, whereas personal common ground refers to the mutual knowledge and beliefs that two people have inferred from their dealings with each other. If you overhear a conversation between two friends on a bus or train, it can be very hard to follow, because you lack the personal common ground that they share.

Horton and Keysar (1996) distinguished between two theoretical positions:

1. The initial design model: this is based on the principle of optimal design, in which "the speaker intends each addressee to base his inferences not on just any knowledge or beliefs he may have, but only on their mutual knowledge or beliefs—their common ground (Clark, 1992, p. 81). Thus, the initial plan for an utterance takes account of the common ground with the listener.

2. The monitoring and adjustment model: according to this model, speakers plan their utterances initially on the basis of information available to them without considering the listener's perspective. These plans are then monitored and corrected to take account of the common ground.

Horton and Keysar (1996) tested these models. Their participants were given the task of describing moving objects so the listener (a confederate of the experimenter) could identify them. These descriptions had to be produced either rapidly (speeded condition) or slowly (unspeeded condition). There was a shared-context condition in which the participants knew that the listener could see the same additional objects that they could see. There was also a non-shared-context condition, in which the participants knew the listener could not see the other objects. If participants made use of the common ground, they should have used contextual information in their descriptions in the shared-context condition, but not in the non-shared-context condition.

The key findings are shown in Figure 13.1. Participants in the unspeeded condition incorporated common ground with the listener in their descriptions. However, participants in the speeded condition were as likely to include contextual information in their descriptions when it was inappropriate (non-shared-context condition) as when it was appropriate (shared-context condition). These findings fit the predictions of the monitoring and adjustment model better than those of the initial design model. Presumably the common ground was not used properly in the speeded condition because there was insufficient time for the monitoring process to operate.

Would it not be better if we operated on the basis of the initial design model rather than the monitoring and adjustment model? One obvious advantage is that we would communicate more effectively with other people. However, the processing demands involved in always taking account of the listener's knowledge when planning utterances could be excessive. The information available to the speaker often happens to be shared with the listener, and so many utterances will be appropriate for the listener even though the speaker has not devoted processing resources to common ground knowledge.

A possible limitation with the study by Horton and Keysar (1996) is that the listener was a stranger to the participants. Speakers may take much more account of the common ground when they are speaking to friends rather than strangers.

Mean ratio of context-related adjectives of adjectives plus nouns in speeded vs. unspeeded conditions and shared vs. non-shared-context conditions. Adapted from Horton and Keysar (1996).

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