on language - grice (2008)

Does Grice show how the meaning of words and sentences can be explained in terms of the intentions of speakers?

Many Philosophers have commented on language as a mode to express our intentions. Our communication is successful if the listener can correctly encode the speaker’s intention. Leibniz commented on forms which words use, but it is generally dismissed as the reason why a word has a meaning cannot really have an answer. Saussure commented on language as being the relationship between the signifier (purpose) and signified (concept), but it was not until Paul Grice that intentions were really focused on in further depth.

Various complications with meaning lead Grice to identify two types of meaning, firstly “natural meaning”, that is to say,

““Foetid breath means tooth decay”, “means” is roughly synonymous with “is a reliable sign of””

            “Devitt, [2], pg 119.”

And the second form of “meaning” is “non-natural meaning”, that is to say, something that corresponds with another in a pre-existing system:

“…a thug as “so primitive that he could regenerate missing limbs”. The literal meaning… is of course a falsehood… but what the speaker means by the utterance is true, for what he means is that the thug is exceptionally stupid.”

            “Devitt, [2], pg 120.”

And so, the non-natural meaning is something that intends to signify something. I might point out the window in intention that you to look outside, or I might open a door for you intending that you walk in first, or I might draw a man and woman on a piece of paper and intend to say they are married.

According to Grice, it is the belief that by doing such particular actions, you will decode this belief and understand my intention. There is a distinction to be made here however, by opening the door for you, it is in hope not that you see an open door. It is not my intention that you see an open door, but rather that you understand that I am opening it for you to walk through. In contrast, if one draws a man and a woman on paper, unless the intention is specifically made clear their relation with one another, then there is no likelihood that the person will understand that they are married.  

“…the mechanism of getting the audience to have the belief involves… the audience recognising that this is what is intended.”

            “Blackburn, [1], Chapter 4, pg 111.”

It is fundamentally down to using our shared language to transmit our beliefs and the pursuit of getting others to understand our intentions. Another example could be that of a sign. If a sign is pointing a certain direction with the label “New York” and one wanted to go to New York, one has to decode the intention of the sign, believing that the pointed direction will lead me to where I want to go. If one does not understand the intention of the sign, and cannot connect the direction with the place name, then one is unable to get to his destination. This example highlights the importance of interaction with another’s intention in order for you to get what you want.

From these above examples we see Grice’s analysis of language boils down to two factors: belief and intention. Birth to meaning of a word comes from the belief of using that word to convey a particular intention. But what about metaphor? This has no direct natural meaning, it relies on non-natural meaning; the hope that the listener will understand the intention and thus, the intended meaning of the metaphor.

“When we say to someone, “You didn’t say what you meant”, we are usually indicating such a divergence (of meaning)”

            “Devitt, [2], pg 120.”

It therefore stands crucially important for the listener to understand the meaning of the metaphor, else it renders itself useless. A metaphor’s use is not to confuse or disillusion.

Grice is known for his introduction of maxims of conversational cooperation. In order to look at this with the intentions of the speaker, the example is given:

“A. Can I borrow £5?

B. My purse is in the hall.

Implicature: Yes.”

            “Saeed, [4], pg. 205.”

So in this case, the meaning of “my purse is in the hall” conveys the intention that you may borrow £5. It is also worth pointing out that the existence of the implied meaning is as a result of the context it is in.  

These implied meaning and intentions are based on individual understanding of such intentions:

“Grice drew attention to a feature that seems to be characteristic of human linguistic communication, that we can “mean more that we say” (or less than we say).”

            “Cameron, [5], pg. 48”

And really, anything can be a possibility for how we interpret something, but it’s the corresponding interpretation of the speaker’s intention that is important in communication.

A problem with Grice’s theories is that, all the given examples, and the nature of looking at language in itself, is all based around one particular language: the English language. But what about the others? Can “natural meaning” and “non natural meaning” be used in the same way in languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Spanish? We can intentionally mean “is reliable to” in English (natural meaning), but does such conveyance exist in Arabic, and if not, does not the whole perspective on Grice’s thinking of language change?

It can be said however, that even though languages differ, intentions are universal. And so regardless of what language is spoken, belief and intention are important across the board. I can point out a window and intend you to look outside it: language is not even necessary, it does not matter what language you speak.

But if we think in language, surely this language will influence our thinking? The particular language carries its own rules of what can and cannot be said. If we as people are attached to this language, are we not restricted in our intentions as a result? For what I cannot think of (through limitation of language) I cannot intend.

The confusion of problems arise here in evaluating and analysing the effectiveness of a language. There is no set structure for how to measure, test and compare a language’s coherence.

Grice does give an effective account of language in particular to the intentions of speakers, but Grice does not seem a concern here: Grice’s points are clear and understandable; birth of meaning does seem to come from the intention to which we give it. It question lies rather, in the study of language and intention itself, and the limitations to how we can extend our thinking in conjunction with the existence of other, equally valid but individually different languages.  


[1] Simon Blackburn                            Spreading The Word, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1984

[2] Michael Devitt & Kim Sterelny      Language And Reality, Blackwell Publishers, 1987

[3] Siobhan Chapman                        Philosophy for Linguistics, Routledge, 2000.

[4] John I. Saeed                                Semantics, Blackwell Publishers, 1997

[5] Deborah Cameron                        Working With Spoken Discourse, Sage Publications 2001.