What is Pragmatics?
Pragmatics is the study of how people use language to communicate with others. It focuses on the relationships between words, people and context rather than on reference, truth, or grammar. It is rooted in philosophy, sociology and anthropology, and it also involves linguistics.
It is often compared to other linguistic frameworks, such as semantics (the meaning of a word or sentence) and syntax (word order). But in its own right, pragmatics is a distinct field, rooted in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.
The History of Pragmatics
The field of pragmatics emerged in the 1970s as a departure from the traditional emphasis within psycholinguistics on lexical, syntactic, and semantic processing of individual sentence meaning. During this time, some linguists and psychologists were skeptical about the scientific potential of pragmatics.
Many of the early experimental studies in pragmatics were task-specific, attempting to understand how people “understand” the meanings they convey or interpret in language situations. Typically, these studies measured pragmatic behaviors by asking people to perform specific tasks that required them to make quick judgments about whether a figurative utterance made sense, or fit into the story context, or conveyed a certain kind of literal or figurative meaning.
These task-specific studies have some merit, but they do not capture all the complexities of how people actually use a language.
There are numerous independent variables that influence how people behave in experiments. For example, a person’s mood can affect their responses to tasks that require them to make quick judgments about the figurative or literal meaning of sentences. In the same way, a person’s social status can have an effect on their behaviors in experimental pragmatic tasks.
For instance, if someone is in a compromising position and needs to maintain their social status, they may use more neutral and subtle speech patterns than they would for their own gain. Similarly, a person with a positive face is more likely to give a positive remark than a negative one.
A person’s age can also influence their pragmatism. For example, a child might have more difficulty developing a socially acceptable use of language than an adult.
They may not have enough linguistic experience to know how to speak in socially appropriate ways or be able to read others’ expressions. For these reasons, it is critical that children have access to culturally appropriate language and social interaction during their formative years.
Then, when they are older, they can continue to develop their linguistic skills through learning new languages and engaging in conversations and interactions with other adults. This is especially true for deaf children, who must learn how to interpret the social signals they see and hear from the hearing world.
However, in addition to the problems mentioned above, there are other major challenges that remain for the field of experimental pragmatics. First, the field has a tendency to be overly focused on “processes” by which people acquire, produce, and understand language. While this is an important part of the field’s mission, it can lead to overly skewed perspectives on how people really communicate and interpret in language situations.