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Sociophonetics, semantics, and intention

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 January 2022

Department of English Language & Literature Eastern Michigan University 612 Pray-Harrold, Ypsilanti, MI48197,


Kathryn Campbell-Kibler observes that the role of speaker intention seems to differ in the meanings of primary interest in variationist sociolinguistics on one hand and semantics and pragmatics on the other. Taking this observation as its point of departure, the central goal of the present work is to clarify the nature of intention-attribution in general and, at the same time, the nature of these two types of meaning. I submit general principles by which observers determine whether to attribute a particular intention to an agent – principles grounded in observers’ estimation of the agent’s beliefs, preferences, and assessment of alternative actions. These principles and the attendant discussion clarify the role of alternatives, common ground, and perceptions of naturalness in intention-attribution, illuminate public discourses about agents’ intentions, point to challenges for game-theoretic models of interpretation that assume cooperativity, and elucidate the nature of the types of meaning of interest. Examining the role of intention vis-à-vis findings and insights from variationist research and the formally explicit game-theoretic models just mentioned foregrounds important differences and similarities between the two types of meaning of interest and lays bare the contingent nature of all meaning in practice.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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My thanks to Sara Acton, John Acton, John Cadell, Penny Eckert, Phil Huyck, Chris Potts and audiences at Stanford’s SemFest 20, Meaning and Indexicality Across Subfields and Theories, and Agency and Intentions in Language 1. I am also very grateful to the article’s three anonymous referees and the editors of the journal, whose feedback greatly improved this work.


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