Often, the ultimate meaning of an utterance differs from its literal, direct meaning.
For instance, the utterance Can you pass me the salt? looks like a question, but can be used as a request.
The study of indirectness allows us to investigate the contributions of linguistic structure, cultural convention,
and inference to the ultimate use of utterances.
Languages often provide speakers with ways of signalling the ultimate meaning of an utterance to their hearers. These special clues to the speaker's meaning include the structure of the utterance (clause type), its intonation, as well as various words or phrases that can be attached to the utterance. We use the way that speech acts, clause types, and utterance modifiers can open a window into understanding indirectness in language in our study of clause-types, tag questions, and rising intonation in English, clause types and a discourse particle in Mandarin, requests in English, Russian, and Heritage Russian, and the politeness marker please in English and Russian.
Early work in pragmatics often lacked the precision and falsifiability that come with using a formal framework. More recent efforts have sought to integrate pragmatic factors into a more comprehensive formal theory of natural language interpretation. We extend this new line of research, contributing to a principled account of the interdependence of the context and truth-conditions of natural language expressions and to the development of new formal tools for investigating issues in the interaction of semantics and pragmatics. Specifically, we use Decision and Game theory to model underspecification in English definite plurals, and indirect speech acts.
Research of language meaning and use must be based on data that allows researchers to see linguistic structure, meaning, and context.
Moreover, pragmatic phenomena such as indirectness emerge most clearly in spoken interaction.
As research in other subfields of linguistics has shown, large collections of language data
annotated with information about linguistic structure can bring about major advances.
For instance, parsed corpora of historical English (Kroch & Taylor 1999, Taylor et al. 2003, Kroch et al. 2004)
led to groundbreaking discoveries about the processes that defined the shape of English today
and allowed linguists to gain a greater understanding of the very nature of language change.
The need for similar resources geared towards the study of semantics and pragmatics has become urgent. We are conducting methodological studies and building a corpus of the speech of bilingual and monolingual Russian children and their families (the BiRCh corpus), as well as corpora of spoken Russian narratives, a corpus of spoken Heritage Russian, and a corpus of spoken Hindi-Urdu.