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My Dinner with Rodney

As Seana enters, she sees Rodney seated at the sushi bar and heads across the restaurant to join him. He rises to greet her with a kiss, and helps her out of her coat.

``It's so good to see you!'' she says, sitting down next to him. They order drinks and chat about their respective Christmases. Seana gives an enthusiastic review of her brief stay in the wintery midwest. ``Of course it's nice to be back in California, but ice skating on the lake, with snow everywhere - it was amazing.''

``Sounds fantastic! Actually, I had a pretty good time, too,'' says Rodney. ``Me and my brother dusted off our surfboards and headed down to the beach.''

``Excellent,'' says Seana. Turning her attention to the sushi bar, she says, ``Hey, Hiro, what's that you're making?''

The story so far is pretty simple, but already its complexity exceeds the capacity of most comprehension models. As in the example above, the story here is about going to a restaurant, and consequently recruits information from general knowledge of restaurants, as well as more specific information about Japanese restaurants. But besides the dinner, this is a story about two people on a date, a story about two people discussing their Christmas vacations, and, to a lesser extent, a story about what happened on those Christmas vacations. Though the different storylines aren't all of equal importance, there's a sense in which they really are all part of the story.

In the space structuring model, meaning construction involves partitioning the information in the message-level representation into different mental spaces. One of the things that creates the need for partitioning is the fact that different subsets of knowledge are necessary for understanding different storylines. For instance, while knowledge about surfing is important for understanding what Rodney and his brother did when they went to the beach, it's not important for understanding why Rodney kisses Seana as she enters the restaurant. Moreover, while some of the same characters crop up in the different stories, they do not have equal significance in all of them. Hiro, for example, is a central character in the dinner story, but a peripheral one in the story about the couple's date.

To understand this story, we need one space for the dinner, which recruits structure from the restaurant script, and one space for the date, which recruits structure from knowledge about dating practices. Because it is primarily a story about a date, the dinner space is embedded in the date space. As information comes in, it is added to spaces in which it applies. Comprehension is aimed at establishing links between counterpart elements in active spaces, and mapping structure from space to space. For example, the kiss is part of the greeting in the dinner space, and is a show of intimacy in the date space. The frozen lake in Seana's vacation story is represented by an element in her vacation space, (a space which is itself embedded as a conversation topic in the dinner space), but has no counterpart in the outer spaces. Seana's exclamation ``Excellent!'' is a reaction to structure set up in the vacation space, but gets its relevance from the date space, where it signifies her appreciation of Rodney's story.

However, in turning her attention from Rodney to Hiro, Seana shifts the focus from the date space to the dinner space by asking Hiro what he is making.

``Spicy tuna roll,'' answers Hiro.

Seana looks at Rodney and says, ``Spicy tuna roll?''

Rodney looks at Hiro and says, ``Spicy tuna roll.''

As we have seen, language motivates the construction of utterance meaning but does not definitively determine it. In the excerpt above, the definition of ``spicy tuna roll,'' is necessary for a complete understanding of the meaning of these utterances, but it is far from sufficient. Here ``spicy tuna roll,'' means ``I'm making a spicy tuna roll,'' ``Would you like a spicy tuna roll?'' and ``Please make me a spicy tuna roll.'' Moreover, this is only what the utterances convey in the dinner space. In the date space, ``spicy tuna roll'' means ``I would like a spicy tuna roll and I want to know if you share my desire,'' as well as ``I share your desire (for a spicy tuna roll) and I want to make you happy by fulfilling it.''

Because understandings evoked by particular utterances are far richer and often quite different from the understanding of expressions in a null context, conventional word meanings have limited utility for the on-line construction of utterance meaning. On the space structuring model, meaning construction involves the integration of linguistic, contextual, and background knowledge to create the cognitive models speakers use to participate in the on-going activity. Given the contextuality of utterances, perhaps a context-sensitive retrieval mechanism would be useful for explaining why the same word can mean different things in different contexts, as well as why the same utterance can mean different things in different social interactions. These sorts of considerations collapse locutionary and illocutionary force, and suggest the same sorts of cognitive processes subserve them both.

Going back to their conversation about the holidays, Seana asks Rodney how his older brother's doing.

``Oh, he's doing great as usual. This fall he started a fellowship in cardio-thoracic surgery, and my parents think he can do no wrong. Me, on the other hand ...''

``Come on, Rodney,'' she reassures him, ``I'm sure your parents love you both!''

``No,'' he says, ``My parents always hated me. When I was a kid, my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.''

Seana bursts into laughter.

In the excerpt above, Rodney shifts subtly from talking about his real parents' feelings towards him and his brother, to a joke about childhood bathtoys. Because it is a joke, Rodney's utterance is not understood as conveying information about events in his own childhood. The ``I'' in this utterance refers primarily to Rodney's counterpart in the joke space, and there's no implication that Rodney's real parents tried to kill him as a child by letting him play with electrical appliances in the tub. However, Rodney really is telling a joke, and the fact that he's telling a joke has ramifications in the date space as an attempt to amuse Seana. Since her laughter is an inappropriate response to the events that occur within the imaginary world of the joke, it triggers a shift in focus to the date space where it signals Seana's assent to Rodney's attempt to amuse her.

The demands of meaning construction at this level involve taking information evoked by each of the character's actions and utterances and assimilating it to relevant structure in the dinner and date spaces. Though the content of those utterances is clearly related to their significance in the various spaces, the precise relationship between the two is quite complex. Further, just as each of the speakers' utterances are related to one another via integration with structure being built at higher levels, people attempt to integrate sentences within a single speaker's utterance. Consequently, when Rodney follows, ``My parents always hated me,'' with ``When I was a kid, my bath toys were a toaster and a radio,'' the listener attempts to construct a model consistent with the content of both sentences.

Moreover, the same sorts of coherence-establishing processes that seem to be needed to establish the relationship between sentences in a text, are also needed to relate the elements in a single sentence. For instance, understanding the punchline in Rodney's joke requires the integration of information about baths and bath-toys with information about electrical appliances. While cognitive scientists have long realized the importance of background knowledge for understanding such leaps, most models have not adequately addressed the way in which knowledge is brought to bear. In most models, knowledge is instantiated by binding contextual elements to preexisting data structures, in a way which grossly underestimates the extent to which filling a slot - in this case binding toaster to bath toy - involves imaginative work.

For one thing, it's unlikely that we have a preexisting representation either for electronic-bath-toys, or, for ways-you-know-your-parents-hate-you. So, rather than instantiating a high-level schema, the speaker must construct one by integrating information from several different domains. Most importantly, models of how children generally play with bathtoys are blended with the particular elements proposed in the joke: a childhood Rodney counterpart, one or more of Rodney's parents, a bathtub, a toaster, and a radio. Elaboration via the cultural model in which human actions are caused by the intention to produce their consequences can yield an integrated model of the cause of the bathtub scenario, as well as its intended consequences for Rodney. On any account, the comprehension of Rodney's joke requires activation of the knowledge that electrical appliances submerged in water can cause electrocution. Conceptual integration theory suggests that this knowledge operates by animating an imaginary scenario in which one of Rodney's parents hand him an electrical appliance to play with in the tub.

``Actually,'' says Rodney, ``The best time I had this weekend was going for sushi with my brother and his girlfriend.''

``Oh?'' says Seana.

``Sushi virgin,'' says Rodney with a knowing smile.

``So, did you get her to try to sea urchin?'' asks Seana laughing.

``Oh, please, we couldn't even get her to try the cucumber roll! We started out slow, ordering cucumber roll and shrimp - you know, thinking she might ease into it,'' he chuckles. ``But then when she wouldn't try the tame stuff, we took turns ordering everything from octopus, to monk fish liver, to Ikura and quail egg yolk.''

With the utterance, ``we couldn't even get her to try the cucumber roll,'' Rodney employs scalar implicature to accentuate his brother's girlfriend's culinary temerity. In doing so, he makes use of a scale shared by himself, his brother, and Seana, of exotic sushi. The scale begins with cucumber roll and shrimp and proceeds out to octopus, monk fish liver, and sea urchin. So, by denying the sushi virgin's willingness to try an item close to the origin (cucumber roll), Rodney implicates, and indeed emphasizes, her fear of all things sushi. In contrast to the semanticist's isolated expression meanings, utterances are always interpreted against a rich background of shared frames and scales that speakers can strategically exploit.

In fact, the sushi scale structures much of this excerpt. Because sea urchin occurs at an extreme point on the scale, it makes Seana's question a potentially informative one. Though a straightforward negative answer would not be particularly informative, a positive answer would suggest Rodney's brother's girlfriend tried everything they offered her. Scalar implicatures are set up by single sentences, as well as by combinations of sentences in a discourse. Moreover, the sushi scale can even be seen to structure the way Rodney and his brother order - starting with items close to the origin and working their way out.

Giggling, Seana says, ``Rodney, you're making me hungry!''

Rodney turns to the chef and says, ``Hirosan, how about one of your famous Shogun TNT rolls?''

The semi-opaque character of phrases like ``Shogun TNT roll,'' (and, to a lesser extent, ``sushi virgin'') present a serious challenge for traditional approaches to meaning construction. On such approaches, the lexicon supplies atomic components of meaning which are combined via syntactic instructions. However, in this case, the meanings in the lexicon do not combine in any straightforward way. A Shogun was the title given to military governors in Japan prior to the revolution of 1867, TNT is a flammable toxic compound, and a roll can be any number of things - though in this context it is a cylindrical food item composed of vinegared rice, fish, and vegetables. But, even specifying the sushi-related context, the speaker unfamiliar with the meaning of ``Shogun TNT roll'' is highly unlikely to deduce that it is a piece of raw tuna, surrounded by rice, wrapped in Nori (seaweed), and topped with a very hot, red pepper paste.

Since we could not produce the description of the referent on the basis of the linguistic information alone, it is clear that the relationship between Shogun TNT roll and the individual meanings of Shogun, TNT, and roll, is not compositional. However, nor is it random. Presumably, a competent speaker could pick a Shogun TNT roll out of a sushi lineup without too much difficulty. In Langacker's (1987) terminology, this noun phrase is analyzable in that the meaning of the whole can be related to the meanings of its component parts. In particular, its analyzability lies in its appeal to a number of mappings that organize the integration, especially between information evoked by TNT and the contextually relevant sense of roll.

Besides the chemical trinitrotoluene, TNT is often used to refer to sticks of dynamite. Though perceptually the roll differs substantially in size and color from a stick of dynamite, their roughly cylindrical shape is apparently enough to establish a mapping between the two. Dynamite is used for its explosive properties, and though the Shogun TNT roll does not literally explode, when the red peppers activate the eater's pain receptors, she will experience a sudden sensation which can be mapped onto the explosion of dynamite. This yields a further mapping between the dynamite's wick and the pepper paste, as each can be construed as potentially triggering the explosion.

Shogun refers metonymically to Japan, and provides a context - albeit an implausible one from a historical standpoint - for interpreting TNT. While it's unlikely that any Shogun ever used TNT (or dynamite), it's conceivable that a warlord might want to make use of an explosive device. The two-word combination Shogun TNT triggers the sort of blending often used in creative category extensions, like the French Watergate, the poor man's opera. In Turner's (1990) example, ``Sex is the poor man's opera,'' the listener is invited to map between two spaces, one with a poor man and sex, the other with a rich man and opera, and to infer analogically shared structure. Similarly, here, the listener is invited to map between a space with a Shogun and a sushi roll, and a modern warrior with TNT.

In fact, in context, a speaker might easily understand this phrase without knowing the exact definitions of either Shogun or TNT. In the space structuring model, conceptual structure recruited for meaning construction consists of partial cognitive models which, though built from frames in long-term memory, are not identical to them (see Barsalou, 1993; Glenberg et al., 1994 for similar suggestions). Because cognitive models are constructed for particular contexts, and for particular goal-directed activities, the role of background knowledge is to constrain the elaboration of the idealized models speakers construct. The nature of meaning construction, then, is such that it allows for the formal composition of meanings, as well as for the more creative concept combination often prompted by modified noun phrases.

In their study of children's novel word acquisition, Smith & Jones argue that observed productivity does not primarily reflect structures in long-term memory, but rather ``real-time, real-task processes that flexibly adjust attention to find the most likely referent of a specific utterance of some unknown word,'' (Smith & Jones, 1993: 184). We have seen that the establishment of various sorts of pragmatic mappings provide a key component of the meaning construction in these cases. Moreover, while background and contextual knowledge are clearly recruited by these real-time processes their role appears to be far more extensive than supposed by compositional approaches to meaning. Background knowledge is not called upon primarly to fill an informational gap, and nor is contextual knowledge being recruited to disambiguate between preexistent interpretations. Rather, speakers selectively recruit and integrate contextual information with selective aspects of background knowledge from three different domains. It is this integration that enables our protagonists to comprehend the connection between the noun phrase ``Shogun TNT roll,'' and Hiro's spicy concoction.

``So Hiro,'' says Seana, ``How's life treating you.''

As he skillfully rolls the rice into the Nori, Hiro shakes his head and says, ``Oh not so good, guys. Last week, I came home early from work and saw a guy jogging naked. So I go, 'Why are you doing that?' And he says, `Because you came home early.'''

Almost in unison, Seana and Rodney groan in appreciation of Hiro's joke.

In this joke, Hiro begins by setting the scene, locating it temporally with respect to the present, and contextualizes it as something that happened when he came home early from work. In this minimal context, a guy jogging naked is something out of the ordinary, and presents itself as something in need of an explanation. The line, ``Because you came home early,'' prompts the listeners to construct an explanation, as well as triggering frame-shifting. As we have seen, frame-shifting is the dramatic reanalysis that occurs when the frame being used to structure interpretation of a given strip of activity proves to be inadequate.

Usually prompted by violation of slot-filling constraints, frame-shifting proceeds by mapping information from the extant message-level representation into a new space structured by a different frame. Because the shifted interpretation requires blending models from the initial interpretation with the newly evoked frame, it can have dramatically different implications and assume new evaluative significance. In Hiro's joke, for instance, the narrator's early return from work is initially interpreted as part of the background for the story. However, in the shifted interpretation it assumes a causal role. Moreover, while Hiro's promotion to the cause of the naked jogger's behavior is explicitly cued by the language of the joke, the reader must construct for herself the precise understanding of how his early return from work could inspire naked jogging.

Although we don't have very many scripts with slots for naked joggers, there are at least two scenarios which involve naked people running, and which might conceivably be recruited to make sense of this utterance. One involves insanity, a common recourse for explaining events that don't fit into general patterns. Another involves an adulterer fleeing from his lover's husband. Integrating the latter model with the extant model of Hiro coming home from work early, suggests Hiro has a wife, his wife has a lover, and that he is a cuckold. Indeed part of the humor of this joke is that the shifted interpretation evokes a counterfactual space in which Hiro comes home from work on time, and the naked jogger gets his exercise in another way.

Rodney says, ``Yeah, I know what you mean. Last week I went to the doctor because I'd swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. My doctor told me to have a few drinks and get some rest.''

In Rodney's reply to Hiro's joke, we see again how background knowledge helps both to structure expectations and to revise them in light of incoming information. Moreover, the relationship which comprehension bears to contextual and background knowledge goes beyond disambiguation and the provision of missing information. The contextual knowledge that Hiro has just told a self-deprecating joke, for instance, helps us to understand the relationship between Rodney's narrative and the overall discourse scenario, but does not disambiguate between two preestablished interpretations. In fact, construal of the story as reflecting badly on the joke's protagonist requires the creative integration of information from a number of input domains.

For example, we see the influence of background knowledge about a general medical problem scenario, the particular medical problem of an overdose, and a model about the combined effect of sleeping pills and alcohol on the human. The general medical problem scenario appeals to a script-like model in which the narrator sees a doctor about the medical problem, and the doctor advises him to take medicine, and to get some rest. But, while the general model holds for many ordinary doctor visits, it doesn't work very well with the particular medical problem in question: an overdose. A normative model for treatment of an overdose is to pump the patient's stomach.

The event sequence specified in the joke, then, can be seen as the composition of two sequences which, relative to the joke, are counterfactual: the beginning of the overdose sequence, and the end of the medical problem sequence. But the joke does not concern the incompatibility of the general medical problem model with the particular demands of an overdose victim. Rather, the humor here turns on the way in which drinks fills the medication slot projected from the general medical problem model. This unorthodox role assignment is apparently enough to elicit a cognitive model of the combined effects of sleeping pills and alcohol.

Neither the combined effects model nor the mappings between this general model and the particulars of Rodney's scenario are cued grammatically. Nonetheless, integration and elaboration proceed naturally to yield the inference that the doctor's advice could kill the protagonist. Because of the action model, we assume the doctor wasn't just incompetent, but acted from the intention to kill. Moreover, the expectation that this might be self-deprecating humor suggests the nature of the motive for doctor's intention to kill. Once again, the emergent structure produced by conceptual blending does not primarily result from the instantiation of a higher-level schema to fill gaps in the narrative sequence. As in the bathtoys joke above, background knowledge animates the scenario set up in the blend.

As they all laugh, Seana reaches under the bar and touches Rodney's knee. ``How do you feel about unagi, Rod?'' Unagi, a freshwater eel that Rodney jokingly claims is an aphrodesiac, is usually the last thing the couple orders. Rodney takes the question as a private signal, saying, ``How about an order of unagi, Hirosan? And the check.''

The ease with which we construct the couple's private meaning for ``unagi,'' provides us with an emphatic demonstration that meaning is not specified determinately by the grammar. Moreover, it highlights an important limitation of the lexicon, a limitation which is more profound than the lack of a metaphoric or metonymic meaning. Because the utterance meaning appeals crucially to the couple's shared experiences and understandings, information associated with the lexical entry for ``unagi'' is almost useless.

In contrast, the space structuring approach attempts to account for the variability of utterance meaning by appealing to flexible initial activation of structure supplemented with the creative processes of cross-space mapping and conceptual integration. By invoking a constructivist paradigm for all cases of meaning construction, the model is aimed at providing a unified account of (i) straightforward, compositional, instances of meaning construction, (ii) the contextual variability of utterance meaning, (iii) the way that speakers adjust their expectations based on incoming information, and even (iv) nonconventional meanings like the one discussed above.

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