Pragmatic Language Interpretation as Probabilistic Inference

Trends Cogn Sci. 2016 Nov;20(11):818-829. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.08.005. Epub 2016 Sep 28.


Understanding language requires more than the use of fixed conventions and more than decoding combinatorial structure. Instead, comprehenders make exquisitely sensitive inferences about what utterances mean given their knowledge of the speaker, language, and context. Building on developments in game theory and probabilistic modeling, we describe the rational speech act (RSA) framework for pragmatic reasoning. RSA models provide a principled way to formalize inferences about meaning in context; they have been used to make successful quantitative predictions about human behavior in a variety of different tasks and situations, and they explain why complex phenomena, such as hyperbole and vagueness, occur. More generally, they provide a computational framework for integrating linguistic structure, world knowledge, and context in pragmatic language understanding.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Comprehension*
  • Humans
  • Knowledge
  • Language*
  • Linguistics
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Problem Solving