What is Pragmatic Linguistics?

Pragmatic is the branch of linguistics that deals with the relationship between an utterance’s meaning and its context. It includes a number of theories dealing with how one and the same sentence can express different propositions in different contexts (either because of ambiguity or indexicality), the theory of conversational implicature, speech act theory, and so on. It also studies the way that a speaker’s underlying intention, not explicitly expressed in an utterance, can be derived from contextual information.

This information might include other things that are known or presumed about the hearer, such as their knowledge, social position, and personality. It might also include facts about the linguistic environment, such as whether the utterance is being used to request an action or report a fact.

Some of the most important pragmatic theories focus on the ways in which speakers convey their intentions to each other. These theories are sometimes referred to as communicative pragmatics or discourse pragmatics.

The most common pragmatic theory in the philosophy of language is Relevance Theory, which aims to explain how the contents of utterances can vary between speakers and between contexts. This theory takes into account the ways that hearers comprehend a speaker’s intended meaning by using contextual information.

Other pragmatic theories try to describe the way that a speaker uses a specific language in order to achieve certain goals. This can involve a particular kind of avoidance speech that produces and reinforces social taboos, as seen in the Dyirbal languages of Australia. In this case, the use of the everyday lexicon is prohibited in the presence of specific family members, such as parents-in-law and paternal uncles’ children. Instead, the speakers use a special lexicon reserved for these occasions. In such cases, the semantico-referential meaning of the utterance remains unchanged, but its pragmatic meaning changes.

A major problem with pragmatics is that it is hard to decide what it is that makes a certain utterance have a particular pragmatic meaning. Some philosophers have drawn a distinction between “near-side” and “far-side” pragmatics. Near-side pragmatics is concerned with the nature of certain facts that are relevant to determining what is said in an utterance, including resolving ambiguity and vagueness, the reference of proper names, indexicals and demonstratives, and the issue of presupposition.

Far-side pragmatics, on the other hand, involves the comprehension processes that take place in a listener’s mind as they attempt to interpret an utterance. This process is described in various ways, ranging from a ‘cognitive model’ of the linguistic system to a more traditional view that sees it as an inferential activity. This latter view is essentially the same as that of relevance theory.