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How to be orderly: “Natural order” and trivial pursuits

Dr. Laurence R. Horn

Tuesday, March 22, 2016, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

Yale University, Department of Linguistics

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The field of pragmatics was initiated by Morris and Carnap in the 1930s. Within their semiotic trichotomy, syntax addresses the formal relations of signs to one another, semantics the relation of signs to what they denote, and pragmatics the relation of signs to their users. But forty years earlier, Peirce (1897) had already depicted the semiotic trichotomy of “pure grammar”/“logic proper”/“pure rhetoric” as the modern trivium, alluding to the trivium of grammar/logic/rhetoric forming the core curriculum of the medieval European university. Modern pragmatics can be seen as a natural (if un­acknowledged) offspring of the rhetorical branch of the trivium.

The 4th century rhetorician Donatus explored figures of speech in which we say less and mean more—minus dicimus et plus significamus—foreshadowing Grice’s contrast between what is said and what is meant, while Quintilian’s precept of “not saying less, but not saying more than the context requires” prefigures Grice’s quantity maxim enjoining the speaker to be as informative as, but no more informative than, is required. 

Our focus, however, will be on Grice’s maxim of manner and its “Be orderly” submaxim. Grice’s invocation of this maxim to explain the temporally distinct understandings of They got married and had a baby and They had a baby and got married is a rediscovery of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s (1st c. BCE) “natural” but context-defeasible principle stipulating that “events earlier in time are mentioned earlier in the order of words than those which occurred later.” For Quintilian (1st c. CE) too, naturalis ordo—while quite general—can be overridden. I will trace the reflexes of “natural order” principles represented by both clausal and nominal conjunction, by the argumentative asymmetry of p but q, and by the age-graded argument structure shift in substitute X for Y.

Dr. Laurence R. Horn