What is Pragmatic Linguistics?

Pragmatic is the study of how language is used and what meanings are conveyed through it. It is one of the three main branches of linguistics, along with semantics and syntax. Semantics focuses on the actual objects or ideas that a word refers to, while syntax focuses on the relationship between signs or symbols. Pragmatics is concerned with how the meaning of an utterance is determined in a specific context, and takes into account non-lexical elements such as gestures, body postures, and the way that words are combined to form phrases or sentences.

A common example of pragmatics is the everyday greeting “How are you?” People don’t usually respond to this question by discussing every possible medical and personal detail that might affect their state of being at that moment, as would be the case if they were responding to a literal interpretation of the phrase. Instead, they often provide a pragmatic answer, such as, “Fine, thanks for asking.”

This is one of many examples of how the semantics and pragmatics of a statement are determined by the context in which it is used. This is because, in addition to lexical and syntactic elements, pragmatics also takes into consideration the social and cultural background of the speaker and addressee. For this reason, there are a variety of pragmatics theories in existence, some of which conflict with others.

Generally speaking, contemporary philosophical pragmatics tends to divide into two camps. Those who see it as a psychological project, and those who view it as an empirical investigation of the way that language is used. Both of these tend to be split into a range of sub-fields, but differ in their approach and methodology.

There are, for example, those who focus on a theory of relevance, such as Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. This theory argues that a speaker’s every utterance conveys enough information about their intended purpose and audience to justify the effort required to process it. This is why some things are conventionally implied rather than explicitly stated, as in the example above of Elwood’s presumptive response to the question of whether the sea is salty.

Other scholars, such as Douglas Robinson and Laurence Horn, are critical of this theory and its emphasis on relevance. They argue that it blurs the line between what is said, and what is meant to be said, by placing a large part of conventional sentence meaning within pragmatics (the study of implicatures), rather than the traditional home of semantics.