M&R Ch. 2. The mapping between the mental and the public lexicon

This is my colleague Chris Cocchiarella’s summary of the second chapter of Wilson and Sperber’s (2012) Meaning and Relevance. We previously posted a summary of the book’s preface, an intro to some of the terms and concepts of Relevance Theory, and a summary of Chapter 1. I also posted a claim that Relevance Theory matters to rhetoric and TC.

Concepts and Words

In Chapter 1, Sperber and Wilson explained how, in Relevance Theory (RT), words that are linguistically encoded (‘explicatures’) and concepts that are cognitively inferred (‘implicatures’) interact through parallel processing (‘mutual adjustment)’ to produce an interpretation about the meaning of a speaker’s intention.  RT is thus a cognitive and inferential, as opposed to merely linguistic and code, model of communication.

Using this inferential model as the starting point in Chapter 1, S&W ask in Chapter 2 how words interact with concepts[1] in RT: “What kind of mapping is there (if any) between mental concepts and public words?” (Wilson and Sperber, 2012, p. 31).  Basically, there are three possible answers to this question.

The first possibility is that there are more words in a language than concepts in a cognitive system—there are many words that correspond to a single concept.

The second possibility is that there is a one-to-one correspondence between nearly all concepts and words—every concept corresponds to a word in a language.

The third possibility is that there are more concepts than words—there are many concepts that correspond to a single word, so that the meaning of the word depends on context.

S&W lay out these three possibilities in detail:

1) Nearly all individual concepts are lexicalised, but many words encode complex conceptual structures rather than individual concepts.  So there are fewer concepts than words, and the mapping is partial mostly because many words do not map onto individual concepts.

2) Genuine synonyms, genuine homonyms, non-lexicalised concepts and words that do not encode concepts are all relatively rare, so there is roughly a one-to-one mapping between words and concepts.

3) The mapping is partial, and the main reason for this is that only a fraction of the conceptual repertoire is lexicalised.  Most mental concepts do not map onto words  (33).

Out of these three possibilities, S&W argue that the third is the most correct one.  Here’s why . . .

The first possibility (more words than concepts) falls short of explaining linguistic phenomena like polysemy, in which one word can mean many concepts.  Likewise, “there are words which do not encode concepts and concepts which are not encoded by words” (33).  For example, with synonyms, several words correspond to one concept; and with homonyms, several concepts correspond to one word.

The second possibility (one-to-one correspondence of concepts with words) was typically assumed in the code model of communication (particularly through Jerry Fodor’s influence).  However, as Chapter 1 explained, coded words require some context to interpret meaning that is both accessible and acceptable.

As a result, S&W say, “we have many more concepts than words,” since “the number of perceptual stimuli that human can discriminate is vastly greater than the number of words available to them” (35).  For example, if we try to think of a word for every grade of color available to the human senses, then it is clear that there are always more concepts than words to express those concepts.

S&W’s central point in Chapter 2 is that “there may be many non-lexicalised mental concepts” (41).  This fact squares nicely with RT, which makes sense of both words and non-lexical mental concepts by showing how “intended senses are inferred on the basis of encoded concepts and contextual information.”  To repeat, words and concepts are mutually adjusted in the inferential (and not merely code) processes of communicating and interpreting meaning.  S&W thus sum up their argument:

“given the inferential nature of comprehension, the words in a language can be used to convey not only the concepts they encode, but also indefinitely many other related concepts to which they might point in a given context.  We see this not as a mere theoretical possibility, but as a universal practice, suggesting that there are many times more concepts in our minds than words in our language” (33).

S&W conclude Chapter 2 by saying: “the concept communicated will only occasionally be the same as the one encoded.  Communication can succeed despite possible semantic discrepancies, as long as the word used in a given situation points the hearer in the direction intended by the speaker” (46).

Implications for rhetoric and technical communication

One practical application of S&W’s analysis of concepts and words is its resonance with knowledge management, especially the distinction between explicit and implicit or tacit knowledge.  The scientist Michael Polanyi was famous for making this distinction famous when he said, “we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966, 4).  S&W’s analysis of words and concepts, as well as implicatures and explicatures, can be seen as providing both a cognitive and a linguistic perspective on the management of explicit and tacit knowledge.


Wilson, Deirdre and Sperber, Dan.  (2012).  Meaning and Relevance.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] S&W define a concept as “an enduring elementary mental structure, which is capable of playing different discriminatory or inferential roles on different occasions in an individual’s mental life” (35).

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