Rachel Giora – The Defaultness Hypothesis

The Defaultness Hypothesis telaviv

Rachel Giora
Department of Linguistics
Tel Aviv University

You are not a pilot! When this is uttered by someone who is sitting in the back of the car, the driver may interpret the utterance as Stop driving so fast! But how do we know that this is the case, or under which circumstances such an interpretation prevails over other interpretations of the same utterance? My current research addresses these issues by focusing on a recent theory of defaultness, termed the Defaultness Hypothesis (Giora, Givoni, & Fein, 2015a).

Joining two theories
Responses to stimuli may depend on various factors, such as the degree of novelty, the degree of nonliteralness, the degree of negation, or the degree of context strength. According to the Defaultness Hypothesis, default responses will prevail, irrespective of such factors. The Defaultness Hypothesis is, in fact, an umbrella theory, allowing two seemingly irreconcilable theories – the Graded Salience Hypothesis and the View of Default Nonliteral Interpretations – to complement each other. The merger of these two theories results in the reconciliation of their inconsistencies. Let me explain.

The Graded Salience Hypothesis (Giora, 1997; 2003) assumes that default interpretations are salience-based. Salience-based interpretations are not coded. Instead, they are constructed compositionally, based on the default, coded and salient meanings of the utterance components, regardless of contextual support, negation, or degree of non-literalness. However, non-coded interpretations which, in addition, are not based on the default, salient meanings of the utterance components (such as novel, non-lexicalized sarcasm or metaphor), are non-salient. They are learnt or derived, mostly on the basis of contextual information. Hence, they are non-default.

According to the Graded Salience Hypothesis, default, salience-based interpretations will enjoy unconditional priority over non-default, non-salient, context-based interpretations. The interpretation of He is the most restrained person possible as He controls himself, for example, will enjoy unconditional priority over the sarcastic interpretation of the same utterance conveying He is rude. Likewise, the interpretation of You are a pilot as You are qualified to fly an aircraft will prevail over the metaphorical interpretation of the same utterance as You drive very fast.

In contrast, according to the View of Default Nonliteral Interpretations (Giora et al., 2013; 2014; 2015b), some non-salient interpretations are derived by default, regardless of contextual support or degree of non-salience. The utterance He is not the most restrained person possible, for instance, is interpreted as He is rude and the utterance You are not a pilot! conveys Stop driving so fast! These non-salient yet default interpretations will enjoy unconditional priority over non-default counterparts, even if these are salience-based, such as He is restrained but others are more restrained than him and You are not qualified to fly an aircraft.

Having experimentally established degree of defaultness of negative stimuli and affirmative counterparts, controlled for novelty and presented in isolation, Giora et al. (2013, 2015a) embedded them in equally strongly supportive contexts. Results attested to the superiority of defaultness. They show that default interpretations, such as Negative Sarcasm (He is not the most restrained person possible) and Affirmative Literalness (He is the most restrained person possible), were processed faster than their non-default counterparts – Affirmative Sarcasm and Negative Literalness – the latter involving in the process contextually inappropriate default interpretations (Giora et al., 2015a). They also show that, default Negative Metaphors (You are not a pilot) were read faster than their non-default, literally biased alternatives (Giora et al., 2013).

To conclude, whereas defaultness is speedy, non-defaultness is costly, irrespective the degree of context strength, negation, novelty, or non-literalness. Further research, however, indicates that non-defaultness may offset its costs by inducing pleasure (Giora, Givoni, & Fein, 2016). Although costly, non-defaultness is often more gratifying.

Giora, R. (1997). Understanding figurative and literal language: The graded salience hypothesis. Cognitive Linguistics, 8/3, 183-206.

Giora, R. (2003). On our mind: Salience, context, and figurative language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Giora, R. Drucker, A., & Fein, O. (2014). Resonating with default nonsalient interpretations: A corpus-based study of negative sarcasm. Belgian Journal of Linguistics, 28, 3-18.

Giora, R., Givoni, S., & Fein, O. (2015a). Defaultness reigns: The case of sarcasm. Metaphor and Symbol, 30(4), 290-313.

Giora, R., Drucker, A., Fein, O., & Mendelson, I. (2015b). Default sarcastic interpretations: On the priority of nonsalient interpretations. Discourse Processes, 52(3), 173–200.

Giora, R., Givoni, S., & Fein, O. (in preparation). Defaultness – Processing costs and pleasing effects: The optimal innovation hypothesis revisited.

Giora, R., Livnat, E., Fein, O., Barnea, A., Zeiman, R., & Berger, I. (2013). Negation generates nonliteral interpretations by default. Metaphor and Symbol, 28, 89–115.