Imprecision, personae, and pragmatic reasoning

Andrea Beltrama, Florian Schwarz


Recent work at the interface of semantics and sociolinguistics showed that listeners reason about the semantic/pragmatic properties of linguistic utterances to draw social inferences about the speaker (Acton and Potts 2014; Beltrama 2018; Jeong 2021). These findings raise the question of whether reverse effects exist as well, i.e., whether (and how) social meanings can also impact the interpretation of semantic/pragmatic meanings. Using (im)precision as a case study, we provide experimental evidence that (i) numerals receive stricter interpretations when utteredbyNerdy(vs. Chill) speakers; and that (ii) this effect is stronger for comprehenders who don’t (strongly) identify with the speaker, suggesting that pragmatic reasoning is crucially shaped by social information about both the speaker and the comprehender. These findings suggest that different layers of meanings inform one another in a bi-directional fashion – i.e., semantic information can invite social inferences, and Misocial information can guide meaning interpretation.

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