Electrical Engineering
      and Computer Sciences

Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences

COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING

UC Berkeley

Primal Content and Actual Content: An Antidote to Literal Meaning

Robert Wilensky

EECS Department
University of California, Berkeley
Technical Report No. UCB/CSD-87-365
July 1987

http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/Pubs/TechRpts/1987/CSD-87-365.pdf

It has generally been assumed that, since the term "literal" distinguishes productive uses of words from idiomatic uses, non-metaphoric from metaphoric, and direct from indirect, that literal meanings must be the same as sentence meanings, i.e., that they could be computed from knowledge of the words and core grammar rules of the language.

However, this widespread presupposition appears to be false. In particular, literal interpretations of a sentence, even out of context, generally make recourse to extra-linguistic knowledge, while some non-literal interpretations are purely linguistic in nature. Furthermore, the semantic content derivable from purely grammatical and lexical knowledge may not even be a possible interpretation of a sentence.

Since these distinctions are hopelessly misleading, a new set is proposed based on a very different organization of knowledge. "Primal content" refers to the interpretation we can assign to a sentence based on lexical and grammatical knowledge, broadly construed. "Actual content" refers to the specific meanings speakers encode into utterances and extract out of utterances, generally making liberal use of extralinguistic facts. The resulting dichotomy is meant to provide a firmer basis for theorizing about meaning.


BibTeX citation:

@techreport{Wilensky:CSD-87-365,
    Author = {Wilensky, Robert},
    Title = {Primal Content and Actual Content: An Antidote to Literal Meaning},
    Institution = {EECS Department, University of California, Berkeley},
    Year = {1987},
    Month = {Jul},
    URL = {http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/Pubs/TechRpts/1987/6227.html},
    Number = {UCB/CSD-87-365},
    Abstract = {It has generally been assumed that, since the term "literal" distinguishes productive uses of words from idiomatic uses, non-metaphoric from metaphoric, and direct from indirect, that literal meanings must be the same as sentence meanings, i.e., that they could be computed from knowledge of the words and core grammar rules of the language. <p>However, this widespread presupposition appears to be false. In particular, literal interpretations of a sentence, even out of context, generally make recourse to extra-linguistic knowledge, while some non-literal interpretations are purely linguistic in nature. Furthermore, the semantic content derivable from purely grammatical and lexical knowledge may not even be a possible interpretation of a sentence. <p>Since these distinctions are hopelessly misleading, a new set is proposed based on a very different organization of knowledge. "Primal content" refers to the interpretation we can assign to a sentence based on lexical and grammatical knowledge, broadly construed. "Actual content" refers to the specific meanings speakers encode into utterances and extract out of utterances, generally making liberal use of extralinguistic facts. The resulting dichotomy is meant to provide a firmer basis for theorizing about meaning.}
}

EndNote citation:

%0 Report
%A Wilensky, Robert
%T Primal Content and Actual Content: An Antidote to Literal Meaning
%I EECS Department, University of California, Berkeley
%D 1987
%@ UCB/CSD-87-365
%U http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/Pubs/TechRpts/1987/6227.html
%F Wilensky:CSD-87-365