When is relevance? On the role of salience in utterance interpretation

Rachel Giora


Relevance Theory assumes different processing models for similar utterances without motivating the discrepancy (see Giora, 1998). On some occasions (e.g., Sperber and Wilson, 1986/95: 237), it seems to assume a direct access model upon which the contextually appropriate interpretation (e.g., the figurative interpretation of metaphor) is accessed directly without having to process a contextually inappropriate interpretation, (e.g., the literal meaning of metaphor). On other occasions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/95: 242), it seems to assume a special sequential model upon which the contextually inappropriate meaning or structure is involved in deriving the intended meaning. The graded salience hypothesis (Giora, 1997) may help reconcile the inconsistency. According to the graded salience hypothesis, salient (i.e., coded) meanings of words or expressions (whose degree of salience is affected by e.g., frequency, familiarity, conventionality) and salient (e.g., frequent) structures should always be accessed and always first, regardless of contextual bias or speaker's intent. According to the graded salience hypothesis, direct process should apply when salient information is intended, i.e., when salient information is compatible with contextual information. Sequential process should be induced when less salient meanings are intended (e.g., the literal meaning of conventional idioms). On such occasions, salient meanings would not be bypassed; Rather, they would be activated first, rejected as the intended meaning and reinterpreted in consistency with the Principle of Relevance. Given the graded salience hypothesis, processes consistent with the Principle of Relevance may apply at different temporal moments of understanding, depending on the salience status of the discourse components involved.


Teoría de la relevancia; Pragmática; Metáfora; Conceptos teóricos

DOI: https://doi.org/10.14198/raei.1998.11.08

Copyright (c) 1998 Rachel Giora

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