Although I have been sort of away from theoretical semantics and philosophy of language for quite a while, some fascinating phenomena of human language use in this area still attract me now and then, which always leads me back to the time when I was still considering how people talk on different occasions. This time the story started when I was watching a Japanese news programme the other day (for those who are curious, it is the Monday version of News Zero by Nippon TV, and the newscaster is Sho Sakurai). I was a fan of that newscaster even before I started watching the programme; to give some brief background information, he grew up in Tokyo, speaking Standard Japanese and is now in his thirties. I have previously watched some interviews with him as well as some TV programmes his group host, in which he usually uses boku and ore talking to the senior hosts and other members of the group, respectively. Considering the delicate system of Japanese first person pronouns (Ide 1982), I would say that the two first person pronouns are very common for a person of his age: when talking to seniors, boku is usually used to show humbleness and politeness, while ore is often used to juniors and people around the same age, in order to emphasise intimacy as well as masculinity.

Therefore, I was somehow shocked when I heard Mr. Sakurai using watashi referring to himself in the news programme – both in the VCR section as a narrator, and in the news programme as a commentator. Compared with boku and ore, watashi is a rather formal pronoun with a gender neutral feature, and I never expected him to utter this pronoun on TV. What is more surprising, after the news programme finished, I found a clip of a radio programme by JAL (an in-flight music programme) recorded by the group in 2014, in which he introduced himself to the audience using watakushi, one of the most formal pronouns, usually characterised by its use by the Royal members and noble celebrities. In a short period of time, the same person made use of four different first person pronouns, and it seems that the most significant trigger of these usages is the occasion of broadcasting – and to use the technical term, the context.

This being one of the longstanding topics in pragmatics and the philosophy of language, a number of definitions of “context” have been proposed and debates have continued for decades, the different definitions emphasising different things in the analysis of utterance meaning. Indexicals, the linguistic elements whose referent may change in accordance with changes in the surrounding environment, were a major aspect in the initial discussions of context. To give a simple example, the meaning of “I am here today” will change when it is said by different people, at different locations, or at different moments. For an utterance containing indexical expressions, before we proceed to understand the meaning of the utterance, we must resolve what the referents of the indexical expressions are, and this is where context starts to talk.

One of the most influential works on indexicals and context, David Kaplan’s Demonstratives (1989), suggests that the context of utterances can be reduced to a set of parameters. Each parameter provides a specific part of information to construct the referent of an indexical expression; for instance, a time parameter provides information for temporal indexicals like “now” and “today”, a location parameter assigns a referent to “here”, and an agent parameter helps fix the referent of “I”. All the indexical expressions have fixed characters (for the distinction between character and content in the sense of Kaplan’s argument, please see here), and one major role of context is to select the correct referent in the context according to the characters of the indexical expressions. The rest of the semantic composition and the derivation of implicature all rely on the first step, so context begins its work even before we understand the meaning of an utterance.

Kaplan provides a metaphysical view of context with a clear illustration of one of the most important roles of context. That does not mean that context can only resolve the problem of indexicals, though. In real language use, context can affect aspects of utterance meanings and manners other than the reference of indexical terms, and, if we take into consideration all the influences contexts have on utterance meanings and manners, the content of context will not be limited to the parametric framework of context promoted by Kaplan. In other words, Kaplan’s framework is not sufficient to cover all the contextual influence on language, in spite that it is a rather comprehensive and well-organised framework. We can observe this influence in the case I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which is a typical example of context influencing honorifics (for a brief introduction to cross-linguistic honorifics, please see section 2.2.5 of Levinson 1983): all the four versions of Japanese first person pronouns are used by one single person, and their referents are all the same when they are interpreted as indexicals in Kaplan’s framework, but the different surrounding environments lead to various choices of pronouns. It seems that the contextual parameters about the speaker, time and location of the utterances do not play an important role here, but inevitably the different choices of first person pronoun comes from the context; to be more specific, the occasion of the utterance. Although on different occasions the audience will be slightly different, which indeed affects the parameter of interlocutor, we can still imagine the following scene: when talking to his colleagues and mentioning himself in the news programme, Mr. Sakurai will use watashi, but after the news finishes, he will switch to boku again – and I actually noticed such switches when one of his senior colleagues was invited to his TV show. The choice of different honorific and the general selection of lexical items takes place also when a topic is presented in different genres (e.g. spoken vs. written, literary vs. non-literary). The occasion of utterance, as an essential part of conversational context, hovers above our heads and controls the words we use.

It is not only first person pronouns, or even the choice of lexical items, that can be influenced by the general context. We can compute different implicatures (the “hidden meaning” of an utterance) in different contexts even if the same sentence is uttered, and in some extreme cases, an explicit meaning can even be cancelled. Although Kaplan’s parametric framework may fail to account for these phenomena, we can see the pervasive influence of context. I recorded an example on metaphor when I was still working on the theory of metaphor: in the tribe of Brazilian Bororo Indians, the male participants of a ritual uttered pa e-do nabure (“we are parrots”) while they were dressed in colourful feathers, and when they were interviewed it seemed that the tribe members believed they were parrots at that time (for a comprehensive discussion of the case study, please see chapter 1 of Leezenberg 2001). This example was once used by Durkheim and Mauss (1963) to argue that members of a primitive culture are not able to distinguish between men and animals, nor between literal and figurative languages. The logic is as follows: generally, the meanings derived from metaphorical utterances are explicit and not cancellable, and there should not be any obstacle for a language user to accept a metaphorical interpretation if there is one available; therefore, if a language user does not accept the metaphorical interpretation, s/he lacks the ability to understand metaphors. However, if we take the special occasion of the utterance into consideration, the conflict simply disappears between accepting “we are parrots” as a literal utterance and the ability of understanding figurative language: one can still hold the two beliefs together, and the only motivation for interpreting “we are parrots” in a literal way is the scene of the ritual, which “de-metaphorises” the whole utterance at that particular moment.

If we make a comprehensive list of the different layers of contextual information, we will find that more components are involved in language processing and the derivation of utterance meanings. Even if the information encoded in the utterance is not sufficient for us to derive the statement made by the speaker, we can still borrow information from the context: from information in our memory, from the co-text that was uttered by the speaker a moment ago, from the environment in which we hold the conversation, from the culture in which we form the behaviour of conversation, and so on. If one extracts a piece of sentence out of the context, it may be confusing and even misleading; in fact, this is a widely used trick by some tabloids to attract readers’ attention. When we are speaking to each other, it is not only us who are talking, but the context is talking too, silently.


For more information, please check the following articles:

Durkheim, Emile, and Marcel Mauss. 1963. Primitive Classification, trans. by Rodney Needham (Routledge)

Ide, Sachiko. 1982. ‘Japanese Sociolinguistics Politeness and Women’s Language’, Lingua, 57.2: 357–85

Kaplan, David. 1989. ‘Demonstratives’, in Themes from Kaplan, ed. by Joseph Almog, John Perry and Howard Wettstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 481–563

Leezenberg, Michel. 2001. Contexts of Metaphor (Amsterdam: Elsevier)

Levinson, Stephen C. 1983. Pragmatics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)