What is Pragmatic Linguistics?

Pragmatic is the study of how meaning is constructed, beyond the literal meaning of an utterance. It focuses on the social cues, body language, and general context of an utterance that give it its meaning potential. This is what sets pragmatics apart from semantics and syntax.

Unlike semantics, which is concerned with the relation of signs to objects that they may or may not denote, pragmatics is concerned with the relations between utterances and their interpretations in a particular situation. It also looks at the interaction between speakers and how they communicate with one another.

If you’ve ever wondered why people don’t always say what they mean, or if your friend was joking when they told you about their bad day, you are experiencing pragmatics at work. Without pragmatics, we would have to explain everything that we meant to say in full and wouldn’t be able to use slang or rely on ambiguity in conversation.

The term “pragmatic” was coined in the 1930s by psychologist Charles Morris, and it became a subfield of linguistics in the 1970s. It is sometimes confused with semantics, but they are not the same thing. Semantics deals with the meaning of words and their objects, while pragmatics looks at the social signals that accompany a word’s meaning.

Pragmatics is often referred to as the “middle ground” between semantics and syntax. It is concerned with the underlying structures that determine the possible meanings of an utterance, as well as the conventions that govern how those meanings are communicated.

A big part of pragmatics is understanding how different social situations influence our perception of a speaker’s intentions, and it involves the interpretation of social norms in conversations. A major framework for pragmatics is relevance theory, which aims to describe how listeners track linguistic (syntax) and extra-linguistic information to figure out the speaker’s intentions.

In addition to understanding how different social situations influence our interpretation of an utterance, pragmatics is used to learn languages. For example, the studies of Wildner-Bassett (1994) and Tateyama et al. (1997) demonstrate that pragmatic routines can be taught to beginning foreign language learners, dispelling the myth that pragmatics should only be learned once a student has developed a foundation of grammar and vocabulary. This makes pragmatics a crucial element in second language acquisition, and it is therefore important for teachers to understand the role that pragmatics plays in communication and comprehension.