Relevance, imagined audiences, and third-party utterances

Scott, Kate (2022) Relevance, imagined audiences, and third-party utterances. In: Tenth International Symposium on Intercultural, Cognitive and Social Pragmatics (EPICS X); 23-25 May 2022, Seville, Spain. (In Press)


Relevance theory offers a hearer-oriented framework for understanding utterance interpretation. The relevance of an utterance is assessed from the perspective of the hearer, and the speaker will aim to make her utterance optimally relevant for the addressee. This raises interesting issues for the study of online and digital communication where the audience is often unknown, undefined, and 'imagined' (Marwick and boyd, 2011). How does a hearer-oriented theory of pragmatics cope when there is no determinate hearer? Sperber and Wilson briefly consider this issue in a short passage in Relevance: Communication and Cognition (1995: 158). They claim that '[i]n broadcast communication, a stimulus can even be addressed to whoever finds it relevant. The communicator is then communicating her presumption of relevance to whoever is willing to entertain it'. In this paper, I examine the processes that are involved in the interpretation of those acts of digital communication for which there is no determinate addressee. While clearly relevant in these cases, Sperber and Wilson's claim about the relevance of broadcast communication may, at first glance, appear circular. I argue that this is not the case. We can and do interpret utterances that are not directly addressed to us all the time (both in online and offline discourse contexts). Such utterances may not be relevant to us, but we can interpret them because we can take the perspective of the intended addressee, even if that addressee is imagined. In this paper, I work through several examples to demonstrate how this works in practice, and in doing so, I unpack what it means for an utterances to be addressed to 'whoever finds it relevant'. These discussions have implications not only for how we understand the interpretation of digital communication, but also for the analysis of media communications (TV, radio, newspapers), and for our understanding of the interpretation of third-party utterances more generally.

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