The Importance of Context Within Communication. An Application of Relevance Theory to Femi Osofisan's Play "Morotoundun"

Academic Paper, 2018

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Background to Relevance Theory (RT)

2. Communication and Relevance

3. Ostensive-inferential Model of Communication
3.1 Dynamic Context

4. An Overview of the Play

5. Literature Review
5.1 The Place of Women in African Literature
5.2 Theatre as a Tool of Proletariatan Revolution

6. Application of Relevance Theory to Morotoundun

7. Conclusion

8. References


In Pragmatics, context is paramount. In other words, an audience is constrained to understand the speaker’s intention taking cognisance of the context in which utterances are uttered. One of those pragmatic theories of context interpretations is Relevance Theory (RT). Within the purview of RT, the cognitive domain of the audience/listener is taken under advisement. In other words, to understand utterances of a speaker/communicator from their contexts, the audience has to make use of their cognition in order to achieve optimal communicative relevance. Therefore, RT was applied to Osofisan’s Moroutodun by analysing the dialogues/conversations of the characters in the texts based on their contexts. The analyses established that the characters’ dialogues achieved communicative relevance by the cognitive ability of the critic/audience/reader to process contextual utterances.

Keywords: pragmatics, utterance, context, relevance theory, cognition, and cognitive environment

1.Background to Relevance Theory (RT)

H. P. Grice developed four maxims of Quantity (informativeness), Quality (well-foundness), Relevance (relation) and Manner (clarity). For Grice, communication takes place when and only when speakers’ utterances satisfy these maxims. However, Sperber and Wilson (1995) argue that a single maxim is enough to explain the process of utterance understanding. Hence, they developed Relevance Theory. The thrust of RT is that the key element in human communication is the recognition of speaker’s intentions from the available contexts. The interpretation of speaker’s intention is guided by the hearer’s cognitive inferential ability. RT is premised on the assumption that communication is not achieved only by mere decoding of linguistic stimuli.

For Allot (2010:3), the two key assumptions of RT are based on cognition in general and communication, utterance interpretation.

Relevance Theory and Cognition

RT is premised upon the assumption that the human cognitive system is capable of assigning efforts to inputs (utterances), processing them and expecting relevance in return. Under Relevance Theory and Cognitions, the following issues are raised:

Cognitive Principle of Relevance

Human cognition tends to be geared towards the maximisation of relevance (Sperber and Uilson, 1995: 260). Relevance in this context is the key of inputs to cognitive processes. Inputs here could mean utterances, thoughts, memories, actions, sounds, sights, smell etc. An input is more relevant the more cognitive effects it yields, and less relevant the more mental effort it takes to process. Therefore, an input is relevant to an individual based on processing effort and cognitive effect. So,

a) Other things being equal, the greater the positive cognitive effects achieved by processing an input, the greater the relevance of the input to the individual at that time.
b) Other things being equal, the greater the processing effort expended, the lower the relevance of the input to the individual at that time.

From the above, when an utterance is understood with less effort, then it should be more relevant; when the effect of the listener’s understanding is greater, then the utterance is more relevant. Contextual effects are achieved when new information interacts with a context made up of old information. The processing effort required depends on the effort the listener consumes to form a proper context to understand the utterance in the listener’s mind. So, the listener should try to get an understanding that satisfies his expectation of optimal relevance.

2.Communication and Relevance

Every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance (Sperber and Wilson, (1995: 260)

An utterance gets its optimal relevance when it is relevant enough to be worth working on it, and moreover, when it is the most relevant utterance that the speaker is willing and able to produce. That is the explanation of optimal relevance. A speaker expects optimal relevance when he talks to others. The listener should try all his best to get an interpretation that satisfies this expectation of optimal relevance. This principle which governs hearer’s interpretations of utterances is described by a two comprehensive procedure (which is known as the Relevance-theoretic procedure):

a. Follow a path of least effort in computing cognitive effects: test interpretive hypotheses (disambiguations, reference resolutions, implicatures, etc.) in order to get accessibility.
b. Stop when your expectations of relevance are satisfied (or abandoned)

Relevance theory is built on one of the Gricean claims: an essential feature of human communication is the expression and recognition of intentions. So, for there o be a successful communication, a speaker’s intention should be understood by a hearer. When a speaker makes a deliberate and open communication, we have ‘ostensive-inferential’ communication. Therefore, when a speaker says something, he has ‘nested intentions’ (Allot). First of these intentions is to produce a certain response in the hearer. In relevance theory, this entails modifying the hearer’s mental representation of the world by providing the hearer with information about the speaker’s representation of the world. For instance, if A says to B, ‘It is dark in that room’, the former expects the latter to come to think that it is dark. A speaker can have a second intention, that is, to make his first intention to be recognised. For instance, Mr D’s wife leaves an empty tin of milk on his breakfast table. She has indirectly informed him that the milk has finished.

3.Ostensive-inferential Model of Communication

Sperber and Wilson (1995) provided the concept of Ostensive-inferential Communication in order to put forward a full framework of communication and show the nature of communication. In communication, the task of a speaker is to produce a stimulus, either verbal or non-verbal, which makes his informative intention mutually manifest. So for the speaker, communication is an act of letting the speaker know his intention to express something, which is called ostension. It is the behaviour “to make manifest an intention or to make something manifest” (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 227). As mentioned, inference is related to the listener, and is the process of seeking relevance between utterances and contextual assumptions, so the listener’s task is to infer the intention from the evidence presented by the speaker. In this way, the dominant point of communication is Ostensive-Inferential. Communication involves the publication (ostention) and the recognition (inference) of intentions. The speaker’s intention would be known by the audience because they have common cognitive environment, which is a set of facts that are clear enough to an individual.

3.1 Dynamic Context

Relevance Theory is based on the assumption that contexts are not fixed independently of the comprehension process; they are retrieved on constructed assumptions during the interpretation process. Traditionally, context is understood both linguistically and extra-linguistically. The interpretation in the communicative process is based on the shared knowledge of the participants. And this context pre-exists in the communicators’ mind, and is fixed. However, in relevance theory, the notion of context of an utterance is “a psychological construct, a subset of the hearer’s assumptions about the world; more especially it is the set of premises used in interpreting utterance”(Sperber and Wilson ,1995). Under this definition, context does not only refer to people’s assumptions about the world or cognitive environment, but also includes any phenomenon that can enter the mind of the communicators.

This notion of context also includes the text surrounding an utterance, which has sometimes been called co-text. To interpret the meaning of an utterance, communicators need to form a context accordingly with information they selected. The selection is what they need to do because they must exclude some information to ensure the least consumption of the processing effort. In this, the size of context is not fixed. The context is not fixed but selected, constructed and needs to be supplemented and extended in some cases. The only thing given is relevance. A communicator usually first assumes the utterance he is processing is relevant or he will not take the trouble to process it. After that, he tries to form a context where the interpretation could be achieved. An important characteristic of context in relevant theory is that it is assumed to be organised, and that this organisation affects the accessibility of particular contextual information on a particular occasion. If the hearer wants to understand the communicative meaning, he needs to select, or indeed actively form the context that seems to be helpful for him to achieve his purpose with the least effort.

The context for interpreting an utterance is not known by participants in advance. It is a subset of all the assumptions that form the cognitive environment of the communicators. Sperber and Wilson (1995) hold that when the communicators start to process certain new items of information, in their minds, they form a context initially making up of the assumptions, some of which are left over in their memories; some of which are resulted from the deduction they made during the whole processing experience. After this, they find this context is not enough and must be enlarged in order to meet the requirement to interpret the information. Sperber and Wilson suggest three ways to enlarge the context:

(1). Put in the context more assumptions that had already been in their memories (most of them should be encylopaedic generalisations and facts);
(2). Put in the context more assumptions about observable environment.

The encyclopaedic entry plays a crucial role in accessing contextual assumptions for use during comprehension.

4. An Overview of the Play

This play is based on the legend of Moremi. It dramatises the Agbekoya peasant uprising in the Western Nigeria in 1969. This conflict is between a peasant community in revolt against an oppressive state authority.

Titubi, a spoilt child of Alhaja Kabirat (head of market women) volunteers to join the peasants in order to infiltrate them. She is doing this on the conviction of Superintendent Salami, the Deputy Superintendent of Police. The target is to crush the rebellion.

Morotoundun re-enacts the socio-political and economic realities of our time. It presents realities about class where the masses that produce the wealth starve and are deprived only to maintain an oppressive government. Osofisan’s advocacy for collectivism in this social revolution is symbolised in Titubi’s handing over the gun to Marshal with the hope of establishing a new alliance for the betterment of the masses for which they are fighting. At the end, there is a compromise agreement between the revolting farmers and the government.


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The Importance of Context Within Communication. An Application of Relevance Theory to Femi Osofisan's Play "Morotoundun"
University of Nigeria  (Department of English and Literary Studie)
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importance, context, within, communication, application, relevance, theory, femi, osofisan, play, morotoundun
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James Ede (Author), 2018, The Importance of Context Within Communication. An Application of Relevance Theory to Femi Osofisan's Play "Morotoundun", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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