Inferentialist semantics for lexicalized social meanings

Synthese 200 (5):1-22 (2022)
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Abstract

This paper offers a general model of the semantics of lexicalized social meanings, i.e. semiotic properties of certain expressions in a socio-political context. Examples include slurs, problematically charged expressions such as inner city, as well as terms such as mother, which also carry implicit ideological associations. Insofar as their linguistic properties are concerned, social meanings can be construed as context-structuring devices: without introducing specific at-issue contents, they evoke background assumptions which shape the context of conversation. An inferentialist model of discourse is developed to account for this effect, in which the discursive significance of an utterance is defined as the set of inferences it licenses relative to a discursive context. A discursive context is a set of propositions that can serve as auxiliary premises in material inferences, together with a salience ranking that makes some of these propositions more readily available and therefore more relevant to determining discursive significance. Social meanings are defined as functions on discursive contexts that modify the salience ranking, increasing the salience of certain assumptions and stereotypes. As a result, they impact the discursive significance of utterances indirectly and independently of at-issue contents. They are also largely independent of speaker intentions in virtue of the ideological nature of discursive contexts.

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Leopold Hess
Jagiellonian University

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