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Friday, August 11, 2006

Adverb-ly speaking

Lewis famously argued that 'strictly speaking' is an index-shifting operator just like 'it was the case that' and 'it is possible that'. But there are dozens of operators of the form: ADVERB + 'speaking'. Consider, for instance:

Roughly speaking
Literally speaking
Figuratively speaking
Ideally speaking
Less than ideally speaking
Frankly speaking
Relatively speaking
Seriously speaking
Generally speaking
Graphically speaking

What role do these prefixes and the corresponding adverbs play in the semantics and/or pragmatics? Are they simply tools for indicating the speaker's intentions when the speaker's intentions are less than clear? Or do they function as index-shifting operators, as Lewis thought? My guess is that it will depend on the adverb in question. Some operators (e.g., 'literally speaking' and 'frankly speaking') and the corresponding adverbs are probably just tools for making one's assertive intentions clear to the hearer. Other operators (e.g., 'generally speaking' and 'ideally speaking') and the corresponding adverbs seem to function as index shifting operators of sorts. Consider, for instance:

(1) Ideally, all books would be water proof.

In (1), 'ideally' seems to shift the world in the index to some world where things are ideal.

But if there are two sorts of ADVERB + 'speaking' , then the question arises, was Lewis right that 'strictly speaking' is an index-shifting operator? Or should 'strictly speaking' be treated as a discourse marker of sorts?


CK said...

Seems like 'ideally speaking', as you say, could be replaced with 'in an ideal world' with the meaning intact. But 'frankly speaking' modifies the way the speaker is delivering his statement--describes the illocutionary force. So yes, I think it's contextual. I wonder if trying to replace the adverb with a phrase along the lines of 'in an ideal world' would get at which case is which.

Leo Iacono said...

This is not responding to the central issues in your post, but as I read it I noticed that some of these prefixes are followed by a sentence that could itself be used to talk about the actual world, now, whereas other prefixes are followed by a sentence that contains an element indicating that it is talking about a different time or world, and which could therefore not itself be used to talk about the actual world, now. "It is possible that I have cancer" and "Literally speaking, I am not just skin and bones" fall into the first camp, whereas "Ideally, all books would be waterproof" and "It was the case that France was occupied by Germany" fall into the second camp. Could this difference reflect some difference in the semantics of the prefixes?

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Colleen,
I think you're right that the test you are offering would help us with the distinction between 'ideally speaking' and certain other forms like 'frankly speaking'. But I am not sure it can help us with all of these prefixes, unless, of course, all of the other prefixes are not semantically significant. Maybe they are not. I am just not fully convinced that they are not.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Leo,
I think you're right that some of the prefixes are operators on possible worlds (including 'ideally speaking'), but setting aside operators on possible worlds, I think there is still a distinction to be drawn between operators on features of the indices (or circumstances of evaluation) and pragmatic discourse markers.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic. I think the difference is whether the ADVERB is intended to modify the predicates of what follows, or the speaker. Thus, the "frank" in "frankly speaking" (and "serious", "graphic") is intended as describing the speaker. Whereas "literal" "figurative" "general" "ideal" are descriptions or modifications of the predicates in the following sentence.
On this view, "strict" is a modification of the predicate, since it doesn't make much sense as a description of the speaker.

Brit Brogaard said...

That seems right but it is still an open question whether all of these "operators" and adverbial phrases indicate the speaker's intentions or play a role in the semantics. I am beginning to think that they cannot play a role in the semantics. 'Strictly speaking' is the most natural candidate for being a sentential operator, but the hypothesis that it is one seems less attractive in cases of the following sort: "Mary would not be a good referee. She has too many axes to grind, even though, strictly speaking, she does not have any axes to grind".