What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a field that focuses on the ways in which language is used in real-world situations. This field of study seeks to explain why people use certain languages, how they interpret those phrases, and how ambiguities are disambiguated. In other words, Pragmatics answers the question: Why don’t people always say what they mean?

For a long time, the relationship between linguistics and pragmatics was strained. Linguistics viewed language as an abstract system with a rigid structure, while pragmatics emphasized how meaning is produced and understood through social context. This tension has largely been resolved as scholars have realized that the two fields are closely related and that a full understanding of language requires both perspectives to be appreciated.

Since its inception, pragmatics has sought to examine the social and contextual meaning of language. This broader view of language has helped to shed light on a number of issues, including how we can understand non-literal meanings, how we understand slang and jokes, and how we manage turn-taking in conversations.

A major contribution to pragmatics was made by the philosopher Paul Grice, who authored a set of four general principles that seem to apply in most situations and most languages. These are known as the Gricean Maxims and include: Be concise. Provide only the necessary amount of information to make the point. Be truthful. Be polite. Be relevant. These principles are rooted in Grice’s modified version of Occam’s razor, which states that more information is not necessarily better.

In the 1970s, several psychologists, both those studying developmental psychology and psycholinguistics, began to focus on pragmatic language production and interpretation. This was a significant departure from the traditional emphasis in linguistics and psycholinguistics on lexical, syntactic, and semantic processing of individual sentence meaning. This early work in experimental pragmatics provoked strong reactions from some within linguistics and psychology. It was even suggested that pragmatics was the ‘wastebasket of linguistics’ (see citations).

One major area of concern in contemporary experimental pragmatics concerns the extent to which researchers must account for the task demands placed on participants during the course of an experiment. It has been argued that this critical element is often ignored and that the resulting experimental results do not adequately characterize the role of pragmatics in real-world communication.

While a complete understanding of pragmatics would require the full exploration of all the facets of human cognition, there are many promising directions for future research. For example, the increasing popularity of eye-tracking and fMRI studies of language production and processing has led to new insights into the underlying cognitive processes involved. Other areas for future research in linguistic pragmatics include examining the way in which language is combined with gesture and movement, comparing how different cultures produce and interpret pragmatic messages, and investigating the ways in which the brain’s architecture and physiology influence a speaker’s ability to generate and comprehend pragmatic meaning. It is also important to continue integrating pragmatic research across the disciplines of psychology, sociology, history, and philosophy.