Cooperative Principle and the Success of an Uncoded Communication

By Irfan Nugroho

A.    Introduction
It is interesting to scrutinize how two Javanese people – a satay seller and a satay lover – spoke each other by employing two sentences that are disconnected. One day, the satay lover came to the satay seller. The satay seller alone was a warmth and smiling seller, and therefore he said, “Jenengan nopo, Mas?” (What do you do, Sir?) after knowing the satay lover came to his shop. Then, the satay lover answered, “Kulo dibakar,” (I am/was burnt).

The above conversation, at the surface, was disconnected one from another because there was no relevant answer from the satay lover towards the satay seller’s question. The satay lover should properly answer the satay seller by saying, “Kulo buruh pabrik puniko,” (I am an employee of that company) or any other answer that are best addressed to question “What do you do, Sir?” Likewise, the satay seller’s question, “What do you do, Sir?” was not properly addressed to the satay lover because knowing one’s job will not influence the taste of satay, indeed.

However, both the satay seller and the satay lover ‘cooperatively’ understood the conversation for the context they were undergoing. If lengthened, the question “What do you do, Sir?” in Javanese then means “What kind of satay do you want?; while, the answer “I am/was burnt” means “I want the usual satay” – because all the satay is roasted/ burnt. In the other words, there are some grammatical features that were not ‘encoded’; hence, it becomes ‘uncoded communication.’

In the study of linguistics, such a phenomenon is then called cooperative principle, conversational implicature (Griffiths, 2006: 134), maxim of conversation (Cruse, 2006: 40), or the logic of conversation (Grice in Aronoff and Rees-Miller Ed., 2002: 252). Under the sub-study of linguistics called pragmatics – first introduced in the 1930s, the ‘cooperative principle’ (CP) governs any conversation ‘because speakers are rational individuals and share common goals’ (Barron, 2001: 15). The CP – as its founder Paul Grice states – says:

“Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose of direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged,” (Grice in Collinge, 1990: 98).

This paper was written to explain briefly about the cooperative principle, including its four main features such as Maxim of Quality, Maxim of Quantity, Maxim of Manner, and Maxim of Relation. The explanation will begin with the distinction of Pragmatics from Semantics. The discussion of the two objects will be concerned with sentence and utterance. It is aimed at giving basic understanding on what the subject of Pragmatics is, and what the subject of Semantics is.

Then, the main focus of discussion on this paper is about the four maxims as proposed by the pioneer of cooperative principle, Paul Grice. The four are Maxim of Quality, Maxim of Quantity, Maxim of Manner, and Maxim of Relation. Explanation will also include some examples of conversation either in Javanese and English.   

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B.    Semantics Vs. Pragmatics
Historically, semantics is older than pragmatics. Semantics alone was first introduced and developed early by those ‘logician language philosophers like Frege, Russell, Carnap, and Tarski’ (Horn and Ward, 2005). Semantics, as those pioneers defines, is the study of ‘the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences that is always focused on what the words conventionally mean, rather than what an individual speaker might want them to mean’ (Yule, 2006: 100). In more simple words, Griffiths (2006: 1) states that semantics is ‘the study of the toolkit for meaning; knowledge encoded in the vocabulary of the language and in its patterns for building more elaborated meanings, up to the level of sentence meanings.

Pragmatics, then, is viewed as the development of semantics. Pragmatics is ‘about the interaction of semantic knowledge with our knowledge of the world, taking into account context of use’ (Griffiths, 2006: 1). From the field of concrete sentence in semantics, then in pragmatics, efforts to get meanings broaden from the mere sentence – including its grammatical features – to the context of its use.

Therefore, Griffiths (2006: 6) further distinguished semantics from pragmatics as stating that:

“Pragmatics is about the study of utterance meaning; while, semantics is the study of sentence meaning and word meaning.”

At this point then it becomes apparent that to grasp the literal meaning of a sentence is merely based on the ‘semantic information gained from the knowledge of English’ inside the human’s brain (Griffiths, 2006: 7). Meanwhile, to grasp the ‘invisible meaning’ (Yule, 2006: 112) then speakers or writers ‘must be able to depend on a lot of shared assumptions and expectation providing speakers or writer with some insights into how more is always being communicated than is said’ (Yule, 2006: 113).

Finally, it can now be concluded that semantics grapples with the meaning of a sentence meaning or word meaning by scrutinizing its grammatical feature. Pragmatics, further, deals with the meaning of utterance meaning by scrutinizing its grammatical features and more importantly, the context of its use.

To make a communication successful, a speaker usually depends on his/her addressee’s ability to make inference from the speaker’s sentence meaning (semantic information), or its grammatical features materialized in sentences. However, there are some times the speaker uses uncoded (unmarked) semantic features in the form of utterance, and therefore requires the addressee to make inference from the context rather than the grammar. In the latter case, both the speaker and the addressee bear cooperative principle, a subject of study in the field of pragmatics that was pioneered by Paul Grice in the 1960s.

C.    Cooperative Principle

Any uncoded communication would be successful because of the existence of cooperative principle (CP). The CP refers to ‘meanings that a speaker intends to conveys, but does not explicitly express’ (Cruse, 2006: 3). The CP believes that both speaker and hearer are interacting ‘rationally and cooperatively to reach a common goal’ (Horn and Ward, 2005). The principle underlying the rational and cooperative here is:
“Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose of direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice in Collinge, 1990: 98).

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The conversation between the satay seller and the satay lover is one example of how an uncoded communication happened in a successful way. The satay lover understood the context of the satay lover’s utterance as well as the seller assumed that the satay lover was being cooperative.

Another example:
John: Coming down to the punk rock show tonight?
Ann: I’ve got to finish my pragmatics paper.
Ann’s reply looks to be irrelevant to John’s simple question. Instead of answering, “No, I can’t”, Ann preferred to say, “I’ve got to finish my pragmatics paper” that indicates Ann would not come to the punk rock show that night. Hence, to make such an uncoded communication successful, there are four sub-principles that of quantity, quality, manner, and relation.
C.1. Maxim of Quality
This kind of maxim is also called ‘supermaxim’ (Malmkjaer, 2006: 478). Maxim of quality upholds the principle, “Try to make your contribution one that is true.” In the other words, this maxim deals with ‘truth-telling’ (Cruse, 2006: 101). There are two considerations that need to be taken into account when making an uncoded communication using this maxim. They are:

“Do not say what you believe to be false,
 Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” (Malmkjaer, 2006: 479).

More often than not, Maxim of Quality tends not to be obeyed, especially in the case of politeness. When a husband tastes his wife’s cooking, for example, he would of course say, “This is delicious” even though the food is actually not delicious. It is willy-nilly done to prevent disappointment in the side of the wife indeed.

When this maxim is broken, it will result in negative assumption amongst the speaker and the addressee. Take one example, someone says, “Did you see my purse?” then the addressee answered, “It wasn’t me, I swear.” Such an answer came out as the addressee knew that the speaker had just lost his/her purse, or it was stolen. As the speaker spoke something that is lack adequate evidence, and hence it breaks the principle of maxim of quality, or supermaxim.

C.2. Maxim of Quantity
Maxim of Quantity deals with the amount of information presented (Cruse, 2006: 101). Two considerations in this kind of maxim are;

“- Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the talk exchange in which you are engaged
   – Do not make your contribution more informative than is required,” (Cruse, 2006: 101).

Have a look at the conversation below:
Agus: Lho, kok ruangane reget banget? (Why is the room too dirty?)
Budi: Penjaganipun nembe gerah, Pak. Sampun seminggu mboten mlebet kerjo. (The room’s cleaner is getting disease, Sir. It’s been a week he doesn’t come to work).

The conversation breaks the principle of maxim of quantity as Budi provided more information than was required by his boss, Agus. It should be enough to tell that the room’s cleaner is getting sick because knowing how long the cleaner sick is not important.

C.3. Maxim of Manner
Maxim of Manner requires four considerations. They are:

“- Avoid obscurity,
 – Avoid ambiguity (ambiguity in context)
 – Avoid unnecessary prolixity (i.e. excessive wordlines)
 – Be orderly (this means that if time relations are not explicitly expressed, events should be related in the order in which they occur)” (Cruse, 2006: 102)

One example of this maxim is below:
Paijo: Kowe wingi tuku iwak. Nggo opo? (You bought fish yesterday. What for? / By what mean?)
Semprol: Lha nek kowe tuku iwak kae nggo opo? (Just the same as you, you bought fish by means of what? / what for?)

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The above conversation has of course broken the maxim of manner. The clause, “Nggo opo?” in those sentences means either “what will you do with the fish,” or “what kind of medium you used to buy the fish?”

C.4. Maxim of Relation
The last kind of maxim under the cooperative principle is the Maxim of Relation. The other terms for this maxim are ‘simple and straight forward’ (Cruse, 2006: 102). One consideration in this maxim is, “Be relevant.” The concept behind this is that ‘the truth of a statement is no guarantee that it is an appropriate contribution to a conversation: it must also connect suitably with the rest of the conversation’ (Cruse, 2006: 103).

The conversation between the satay seller and the satay lover above is one example of conversation that breaks the principle of maxim of relation. Also, when someone smelt his/her friend’s odour – because his/her friend is falling in sick – then he/she said (in Javanese), “Kene cedak kandang jaran, ta?” (Horse cage is nearby here, isn’t it?). Realizing that sentence, the sick person answered, “Sudah tiga hari saya jatuh sakit,” (It’s been three days I get sick), which also means that the sick person has been three days not taking bath.

D.    Conclusion
Finally, there are some considerations need to be taken into account when a conversation takes place. Sometimes, depending greatly on the understanding of mere semantic information in a sentence is insufficient to get the ‘invisible meaning,’ or what is meant by saying that sentence. That is why; understanding on the context of an utterance is important to get the invisible meaning that is not expressed in the sentence’s grammar. In the study of pragmatics, such a phenomenon is called “cooperative principle.” It upholds four principles that are named with Maxim of Quality, Maxim of Quantity, Maxim of Manner, and Maxim of Relation. To make an uncoded communication successful, the above considerations are obligatory.


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Irfan Nugroho

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