Events / ILST seminar: Socio-semantics-pragmatics mini talks

ILST seminar: Socio-semantics-pragmatics mini talks

March 22, 2024
1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

3401 Walnut Street, Room 401B, 3401 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104

Joyce He – “It’s not just Imprecision: Stereotypes guide Vagueness Resolution in Implicit Comparisons”


Stereotype-based information has been shown to guide language comprehension. For example, comprehenders interpret numerals more precisely when uttered by Nerdy speakers vs. Chill speakers: they are less likely to select a price of $207 as the referent of “The price is $200” with the former persona than the latter (Beltrama & Schwarz, in press). The exact sources of this effect, yet, are still under-explored; two alternative hypotheses are that Nerdy speakers, compared to Chill speakers, are perceived as more attentive to literal meaning, hence committed to avoiding loose talk; or that they are detail-oriented towards the world, i.e. attuned to pick up on minute details of objects, and represent them in their descriptions. While these possibilities make the same predictions with numerals, they crucially generate divergent ones in implicit comparisons involving vague adjectives. We test these hypotheses by using a binary choice task adapted from Beltrama and Schwarz’ “Covered Screen Task’. Our results show that, in the presence of minimally different objects, neither hypothesis is fully supported: implicit comparisons by both Nerdy and Chill speakers are accepted at a higher rate than implicit comparisons uttered by speakers whose social identity is unspecified. We explain this result by suggesting that comprehenders recruit social information to accept the statement-to-scenario pairing in the context in whatever way is consistent with the specific stereotype – by perceiving Nerdy speakers as especially detail-oriented, and of Chill speakers as inclined to be looser with the truth-conditions of implicit comparisons. In sum, our findings shed novel light on the interface between social and pragmatic reasoning by suggesting that the interplay between stereotypes and interpretation, besides imprecision, is also observed in vagueness resolution — another domain central to meaning interpretation. What remains to be seen, raising an intriguing question for future work, is why respondents track social information differently when resolving the meaning of numerals vs. adjectives. 



Mikaela Belle Martin – “What’s in a nerd?: A brief overview of persona formation and the interaction between race and personae”


Previous studies of personae discuss personae as the complex interweavings of both character performance (e.g. Johnstone, 2017) and identity management (e.g. D’Onofrio, 2020; Eckert, 2008). Eckert (2008) and Podesva (2008) suggest that personae are amalgamations of socially-salient features into identities that serve, at different timepoints, to establish oneself within a social context as the embodiment of the chosen persona. The focus of this upcoming work is the so-called Nerdy persona, which previous work has found to be closely related to perceptions of hypermasculinity and whiteness (e.g. Bucholtz, 2001; Kendall, 1999). The Nerdy persona has also been found to elicit social expectations of pragmatic precision and reliability, specifically when in contrast with a Chill persona, which does not carry these same expectations (e.g. Beltrama & Schwarz 2022). Additional work proposes that the Black Nerdy persona conveys a marked non-threatening, race-neutrality in the target individual (e.g. Gillota, 2013). This, combined with stereotypes of Black individuals- mainly Black men- as inarticulate (e.g. Crandell 1997) and dangerous (e.g. Brooms & Perry 2016; Kumah-Abiwu, 2020; Lipsedge, 1994), may present a contradiction between the capacity to hold onto both one’s (Black) Nerdy persona and one’s Black identity. This upcoming work, inspired by that of Beltrama and Schwarz (2021), seeks to challenge racial restrictions on the Nerdy persona and investigate perceptions of precision when racial variation is introduced. In doing so, it may be possible to evaluate whether or not  incongruence between a Nerdy persona and Black identity elicits lower ratings of precision, when compared to the more stereotypical white nerd, or if one’s nerdiness effectively cancels out potential disparities caused by differences in racial identity.



Sophie Faircloth – “Sarcasm Socially Contextualized: How Socio-Indexical Information Modulates the Evaluation of Pragmatic Behavior”


Humans commonly rely on pragmatic reasoning to infer information about their interlocutors’ identity and personality (Acton & Potts 2014; Beltrama 2020; Glass 2015). Yet, much remains to be seen on how these inferences are shaped by the social information that is already available in the context, independent of the speaker’s linguistic behavior. We address this question by focusing on the social perception of sarcasm. Sarcastic Insults (SIs) –– e.g., uttering “great job” to comment on someone’s poor performance – feature two distinctive components: (i) an intention to threaten the interlocutor’s face (Gibbs 1986); (ii) doing so by flouting the Quality Maxim, which requires a non-literal interpretation (Grice 1975). In Experiment 1, we explore how comprehenders perceive speakers making sarcastic vs. literal insults in the absence of further social information; we find that speakers who use sarcastic insults are rated significantly higher in Warmth (e.g, friendly, likable, sympathetic, cool) than speakers who use literal insults, replicating and expanding on results from the prior literature (Mauchand et al., 2020; Panzeri & Giustolisi, XPRAG 2023). In Experiment 2, we investigate how these perceptions are modulated by the speaker identity–and in particular–by whether the speaker independently embodies a Nerdy persona (see Bucholtz 2001; Kendall 1993; Kinney 1993) or not. While our results confirm the overall evaluative boost in Warmth associated with sarcasm, the social perception ratings are only selectively affected by the speaker’s identity: while Nerdy sarcastic speakers are evaluated higher on the dimension of Coolness than non-Nerdy ones when using sarcasm, no effect of social identity is observed for friendly, likable, and sympathetic. We ascribe this effect to the unexpectedness of SIs coming from Nerdy speakers: because this pragmatic maneuver diverges from Nerds’ stereotypical linguistic practices (i.e., commitment to literal language) and social characteristics (i.e., projecting Competence over Warmth), its social significance comes off as especially salient. What remains to be seen is why this modulation isn’t observed for the other Warmth traits we tested — a question that we aim to investigate in future research.