Pragmatics is a systematic way of explaining language use in context. It seeks to explain aspects of meaning which cannot be found in the plain sense of words or structures, as explained by semantics. As a field of language study, pragmatics is fairly new. Its origins lie in philosophy of language and the American philosophical school of pragmatism. As a discipline within language science, its roots lie in the work of (Herbert) Paul Grice on conversational implicature and the cooperative principle, and on the work of Stephen Levinson, Penelope Brown and Geoff Leech on politeness.
We use language all the time to make things happen. We ask someone to pass the salt or marry us - not, usually at the same time. We order a pizza or make a dental appointment. Speech acts include asking for a glass of beer, promising to drink the beer, threatening to drink more beer, ordering someone else to drink some beer, and so on. Some special people can do extraordinary things with words, like baptizing a baby, declaring war, awarding a penalty kick to Arsenal FC or sentencing a convict.
Linguists have called these things “speech acts” - and developed a theory (called, unsurprisingly, “speech act theory”) to explain how they work. Some of this is rooted in common sense and stating the obvious - as with felicity conditions. These explain that merely saying the words does not accomplish the act. Judges (unless they are also referees) cannot award penalty kicks to Arsenal, and football referees (unless they are also heads of state) cannot declare war.
Speech act theory is not the whole of pragmatics, but is perhaps currently the most important established part of the subject. Contemporary debate in pragmatics often focuses on its relations with semantics. Since semantics is the study of meaning in language, why add a new field of study to look at meaning from a novel viewpoint?
This is an elementary confusion. Clearly linguists could develop a model of semantics that included pragmatics. Or they could produce a model for each, which allows for some exploration and explanation of the boundary between them - but distinguishes them as in some way different kinds of activity. However, there is a consensus view that pragmatics as a separate study is necessary because it explains meanings that semantics overlooks.
What does pragmatics include?
The lack of a clear consensus appears in the way that no two published accounts list the same categories of pragmatics in quite the same order. But among the things you should know about are:
- Speech act theory
- Felicity conditions
- Conversational implicature
- The cooperative principle
- Conversational maxims
- Phatic tokens
The philosopher J.L. Austin (1911-1960) claims that many utterances (things people say) are equivalent to actions. When someone says: “I name this ship” or “I now pronounce you man and wife”, the utterance creates a new social or psychological reality. Speech act theory broadly explains these utterances as having three parts or aspects: locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.
- Locutionary acts are simply the speech acts that have taken place.
- Illocutionary acts are the real actions which are performed by the utterance, where saying equals doing, as in betting, plighting one's troth, welcoming and warning.
- Perlocutionary acts are the effects of the utterance on the listener, who accepts the bet or pledge of marriage, is welcomed or warned.
Some linguists have attempted to classify illocutionary acts into a number of categories or types. David Crystal, quoting J.R. Searle, gives five such categories: representatives, directives, commissives, expressives and declarations. (Perhaps he would have preferred declaratives, but this term was already taken as a description of a kind of sentence that expresses a statement.)
- Representatives: here the speaker asserts a proposition to be true, using such verbs as: affirm, believe, conclude, deny, report.
- Directives: here the speaker tries to make the hearer do something, with such words as: ask, beg, challenge, command, dare, invite, insist, request.
- Commissives: here the speaker commits himself (or herself) to a (future) course of action, with verbs such as: guarantee, pledge, promise, swear, vow, undertake, warrant.
- Expressives: the speaker expresses an attitude to or about a state of affairs, using such verbs as: apologize, appreciate, congratulate, deplore, detest, regret, thank, welcome.
- Declarations the speaker alters the external status or condition of an object or situation, solely by making the utterance: I now pronounce you man and wife, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you be dead, I name this ship...
These are speech acts of a special kind where the utterance of the right words by the right person in the right situation effectively is (or accomplishes) the social act. In some cases, the speech must be accompanied by a ceremonial or ritual action. Whether the speaker in fact has the social or legal (or other kind of) standing to accomplish the act depends on some things beyond the mere speaking of the words. These are felicity conditions, which we can also explain by the “hereby” test. But let's look, first, at some examples.
Preparatory conditions | conditions for execution | sincerity conditions
These are conditions necessary to the success of a speech act. They take their name from a Latin root - “felix” or “happy”. They are conditions needed for success or achievement of a performative. Only certain people are qualified to declare war, baptize people or sentence convicted felons. In some cases, the speaker must be sincere (as in apologizing or vowing). And external circumstances must be suitable: “Can you give me a lift?” requires that the hearer has a motor vehicle, is able to drive it somewhere and that the speaker has a reason for the request. It may be that the utterance is meant as a joke or sarcasm, in which case a different interpretation is in order. Loosely speaking, felicity conditions are of three kinds: preparatory conditions, conditions for execution and sincerity conditions.
Preparatory conditions include the status or authority of the speaker to perform the speech act, the situation of other parties and so on.
So, in order to confirm a candidate, the speaker must be a bishop; but a mere priest can baptize people, while various ministers of religion and registrars may solemnize marriages (in England). In the case of marrying, there are other conditions - that neither of the couple is already married, that they make their own speech acts, and so on. We sometimes speculate about the status of people (otherwise free to marry) who act out a wedding scene in a play or film - are they somehow, really, married? In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has no worries, because the words of the ceremony are not spoken on stage, and, anyway, Juliet's part is played by a boy. (Though this may make the wedding scene seem blasphemous to some in the audience.)
In the UK only the monarch can dissolve parliament. A qualified referee can caution a player, if he or she is officiating in a match. The referee's assistant (who, in the higher leagues, is also a qualified referee) cannot do this.
In a series of lectures at Harvard University in 1967, the English language philosopher H.P. (Paul) Grice outlined an approach to what he termed conversational implicature - how hearers manage to work out the complete message when speakers mean more than they say. An example of what Grice meant by conversational implicature is the utterance:
“Have you got any cash on you?”
where the speaker really wants the hearer to understand the meaning:
“Can you lend me some money? I don't have much on me.”
The conversational implicature is a message that is not found in the plain sense of the sentence. The speaker implies it. The hearer is able to infer (work out, read between the lines) this message in the utterance, by appealing to the rules governing successful conversational interaction. Grice proposed that implicatures like the second sentence can be calculated from the first, by understanding three things:
- The usual linguistic meaning of what is said.
- Contextual information (shared or general knowledge).
- The assumption that the speaker is obeying what Grice calls the cooperative principle.
Conversational maxims and the cooperative principle
The success of a conversation depends upon the various speakers' approach to the interaction. The way in which people try to make conversations work is sometimes called the cooperative principle. We can understand it partly by noting those people who are exceptions to the rule, and are not capable of making the conversation work. We may also, sometimes, find it useful deliberately to infringe or disregard it - as when we receive an unwelcome call from a telephone salesperson, or where we are being interviewed by a police officer on suspicion of some terrible crime.
Paul Grice proposes that in ordinary conversation, speakers and hearers share a cooperative principle. Speakers shape their utterances to be understood by hearers. The principle can be explained by four underlying rules or maxims. (David Crystal calls them conversational maxims. They are also sometimes named Grice's or Gricean maxims.)
They are the maxims of quality, quantity, relevance and manner.
- Quality: speakers should be truthful. They should not say what they think is false, or make statements for which they have no evidence.
- Quantity: a contribution should be as informative as is required for the conversation to proceed. It should be neither too little, nor too much. (It is not clear how one can decide what quantity of information satisfies the maxim in a given case.)
- Relevance: speakers' contributions should relate clearly to the purpose of the exchange.
- Manner: speakers' contributions should be perspicuous: clear, orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.
Grice does not of course prescribe the use of such maxims. Nor does he (I hope) suggest that we use them artificially to construct conversations. But they are useful for analysing and interpreting conversation, and may reveal purposes of which (either as speaker or listener) we were not previously aware. Very often, we communicate particular non-literal meanings by appearing to “violate” or “flout” these maxims. If you were to hear someone described as having “one good eye”, you might well assume the person's other eye was defective, even though nothing had been said about it at all.
The politeness principle
The politeness principle is a series of maxims, which Geoff Leech has proposed as a way of explaining how politeness operates in conversational exchanges. Leech defines politeness as forms of behaviour that establish and maintain comity. That is the ability of participants in a social interaction to engage in interaction in an atmosphere of relative harmony. In stating his maxims Leech uses his own terms for two kinds of illocutionary acts. He calls representatives “assertives”, and calls directives “impositives”.
- Each maxim is accompanied by a sub-maxim (between square brackets), which is of less importance. These support the idea that negative politeness (avoidance of discord) is more important than positive politeness (seeking concord).
- Not all of the maxims are equally important. For instance, tact influences what we say more powerfully than does generosity, while approbation is more important than modesty.
- Note also that speakers may adhere to more than one maxim of politeness at the same time. Often one maxim is on the forefront of the utterance, with a second maxim being invoked by implication.
If politeness is not communicated, we can assume that the politeness attitude is absent.
- Tact maxim (in directives [impositives] and commissives): minimise cost to other; [maximise benefit to other]
- Generosity maxim (in directives and commissives): minimise benefit to self; [maximise cost to self]
- Approbation maxim (in expressives and representatives [assertives]): minimise dispraise of other; [maximise praise of other]
- Modesty maxim (in expressives and representatives): minimise praise of self; [maximise dispraise of self]
- Agreement maxim (in representatives): minimise disagreement between self and other; [maximise agreement between self and other]
- Sympathy maxim (in representatives): minimise antipathy between self and other; [maximise sympathy between self and other]
These are ways of showing status by orienting comments to oneself, to the other, or to the general or prevailing situation (in England this is usually the weather).
- Self-oriented phatic tokens are personal to the speaker: “I'm not up to this” or “My feet are killing me”.
- Other-oriented tokens are related to the hearer: “Do you work here?” or “You seem to know what you're doing”.
- A neutral token refers to the context or general state of affairs: “Cold, isn't it?” or “Lovely flowers”.
A superior shows consideration in an other-oriented token, as when the Queen says to the factory worker: “It must be jolly hard to make one of those”. The inferior might respond with a self-oriented token, like “Hard work, this”. On the surface, there is an exchange of information. In reality there is a suggestion and acceptance of a hierarchy of status. The factory worker would be unlikely to respond with, “Yes, but it's not half as hard as travelling the world, trooping the colour, making a speech at Christmas and dissolving Parliament.”
According to Stephen Levinson:
“Deixis concerns the ways in which languages encode...features of the context of utterance ... and thus also concerns ways in which the interpretation of utterances depends on the analysis of that context of utterance.”
Deixis is an important field of language study in its own right - and very important for learners of second languages. But it has some relevance to analysis of conversation and pragmatics. It is often and best described as “verbal pointing”, that is to say pointing by means of language. The linguistic forms of this pointing are called deictic expressions, deictic markers or deictic words; they are also sometimes called indexicals.
Deictic expressions include such lexemes as:
- Personal or possessive pronouns (I/you/mine/yours),
- Demonstrative pronouns (this/that),
- (Spatial/temporal) adverbs (here/there/now),
- Other pro-forms (so/do),
- Personal or possessive adjectives (my/your),
- Demonstrative adjectives (this/that),
- Articles (the).
Deixis refers to the world outside a text. Reference to the context surrounding an utterance is often referred to as primary deixis, exophoric deixis or simply deixis alone. Primary deixis is used to point to a situation outside a text (situational deixis) or to the speaker's and hearer's (shared) knowledge of the world (knowledge deixis).
Criticisms of pragmatics
Some of the criticisms directed at pragmatics include these:
- It does not have a clear-cut focus
- Its principles are vague and fuzzy
- It is redundant - semantics already covers the territory adequately
In defending pragmatics we can say that:
- The study of speech acts has illuminated social language interactions
- It covers things that semantics (hitherto) has overlooked
- It can help inform strategies for teaching language
- It has given new insights into understanding literature
- The theories of the cooperative principle and politeness principle have provided insights into person-to-person interactions.