What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of language and communication. This branch of linguistics involves the social aspects of natural languages and how speakers use them.

Traditionally, it has been thought to be different from linguistic semantics (meaning), which deals with the meanings of words and sentences. It also differs from syntax, which focuses on word order, and semiotics, which is the study of symbols.

Semantics and pragmatics both deal with the use of signs in a logical context, but their uses are not the same. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but linguistic semantics is usually used to refer to the specific meaning of a sentence; whereas, pragmatics is more general and includes all social cues that accompany a particular utterance.

A number of philosophers have studied the nature of ambiguity and vagueness in utterances, and have made important contributions to this field. One of the most influential theories is the principle of relevance, which suggests that a speaker’s every utterance conveys enough relevant information for it to be worth the listener’s effort to decipher its meaning.

Another significant theory is that of conversational implicature, which explains the ways in which people communicate and interact with others. It posits that the language we use in social interactions is a form of symbolic manipulation, and argues that we interpret and act on language based on what other people are saying.

Theorists who work on this aspect of language argue that it is essential to our understanding of how people communicate with each other, and that the way we use a language has an impact on how we think and feel about other people. These philosophers include:

Cognitive pragmatics, which focuses on the mental processes that take place in human communication; intercultural pragmatics, which studies how people communicate with people who are from different cultures; and intralingual pragmatics, which relates to the language learning process for foreign-language speakers.

In a related vein, speech act theory is a theoretical framework that considers how people express themselves using verbal gestures and nonverbal expressions. This approach posits that the way we use language has an effect on our social interactions, and may explain why some gestures are considered rude in one culture while normal in another.

A third perspective is that of hearer-oriented, which focuses on the ways in which the listener processes a speaker’s utterance. This perspective is the most prominent in contemporary pragmatism, and is often linked to the neo-Gricean model of language that focuses on autonomous semantics.

As a result, the main theme of pragmatism is that language is not just a system of phonological and syntactic rules; it is a consciously constructed system that allows competent speakers to convey their thoughts and intentions to the rest of the world. This perspective is supported by the work of a number of logical analysis philosophers, such as Locke and Saussure. It has been adapted by a number of neo-pragmatists, such as Richard Rorty and Nicholas Rescher.