The origin of linguistic pragmatics as a discipline can be traced back to an article titled “How to make our ideas clear,” written by Charles Sanders Peirce in 1878. In this essay, the founder of semiotics, the science of signs, presented a general principle of inquiry, which was later identified by William James as the first formulation of “pragmatism.” Although Peirce did not use the term per se in his original piece, it is in this essay that he presented the thesis according to which the meaning of a concept or statement is to be found in all its possible practical bearings. Although this thesis had a tremendous influence on key philosophers such as William James or John Dewey, creating as a result the American philosophical movement called “pragmatism,” the influence that is of interest to us regarding its linguistic dimension is the one it exerted on Charles W. Morris (1901–1979).
The Study Of Language
Morris proposed three ways of studying signs: syntactic studies, which analyze the relation between a sign and other signs; semantic studies, which investigate the relation between a sign and what it is supposed to refer to; and pragmatic studies, which examine the relation between a sign and its users/interpreters. While Morris’s reflection was devoted to the functioning of signs in general, Rudolf Carnap started to use this trichotomy to speak of the different manners of studying natural languages, pragmatics being for him a type of investigation focusing on language use in specific situations. The term “linguistic pragmatics” therefore refers to a sub-branch of linguistics that focuses on such usage. As it is often the case, there exist many different ways of defining linguistic pragmatics, but the most common way is to speak of it as “the study of language usage” (Levinson, 1983, 5). From this very broad definition, at least five phenomena tend to qualify as typical objects of linguistic pragmatics: speech acts, presuppositions, conversational implicatures, politeness, and indexical expressions.
Historically, it seems fair to say that pragmatics has not been a very hot topic in communication research per se. Communication scholars are, of course, often aware of Searle’s speech act theory, Grice’s cooperative principle, or Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory (see below), but the students typically interested in the detailed study of interaction tend to be more familiar with the research agendas put forward by ethnographers of communication, conversation analysts and ethnomethodologists. There are, however, some important exceptions, like the work of Mark Aakhus on the language– action perspective (LAP), Robert B. Arundale on conversational implicatures, Scott Jacobs and Sally Jackson on argumentation, Robert E. Sanders on the sequential dimensions of interaction, and Robert T. Craig, Karen Tracy, and Frances Spisak on politeness theory. Since most of these communication studies stem from speech act theory and the model of conversational implicatures, it is these two specific theories that will now be briefly introduced.
Speech Act Theory
Although John Austin (1911–1960) never spoke about pragmatics per se in his posthumously published William James Lectures titled How to do things with words, his reflection on the action dimension of language is one of the pillars of pragmatics research. Austin started his lectures by deploring philosophers’ tendency to exclusively focus on statements and other descriptive sentences, which prevented them from accounting for other uses of language. This led him to create a first opposition between what he called constative and performative utterances. A typical constative utterance would be “This painting is beautiful,” which consists of noticing or reporting a specific state of affairs, while a typical performative utterance would be, “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth,” which consists of performing a specific action, i.e., naming a ship the Queen Elizabeth, if these words are pronounced in the right circumstances by the right person.
As his reflection progressed throughout his lectures, Austin started to express much discomfort with this opposition, especially when he realized that even constative utterances could be considered as having performative dimensions. For instance, he noticed that utterances like “This painting is beautiful” also consist of “doing things with words” (e.g., asserting something). This led him to approach all utterances in terms of performance and to identify three types of action: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. While a locutionary act simply consists of saying something, the illocutionary act is what is done in saying something. In saying, “This painting is beautiful,” A is asserting something about a painting. Depending upon the context, A could also be said to be performing other illocutionary acts simultaneously. For instance, if a friend is accompanying her in the museum and says, “I just don’t get it,” we could then say that in uttering “This painting is beautiful,” A is also retorting to or contradicting B. Finally, Austin proposes the notion of perlocutionary act to account for the consequences of a given illocutionary act. For instance, if, upon hearing A saying, “This painting is beautiful,” B starts to look more carefully at the Picasso, we could then say that A’s response made B look more carefully at the painting, which is the perlocutionary act.
Although Austin provided a very detailed classification of illocutionary acts, it is the one of his student John Searle that is the most renowned. Searle proposes a typology of five speech acts, which he calls assertives (i.e., holding something to be true, as in “This painting is beautiful”), commissives (i.e., committing oneself, as in “I will come”), directives (i.e., getting someone to do something, as in “Give me a hand!”), expressives (i.e., expressing a psychological state vis-à-vis something previously performed, as in “I apologize for calling so late”), and declarations (i.e., transforming the world by making it conform to what is declared, as in “I hereby declare you husband and wife”). This classification, according to him, exhausts everything that can be done in saying something. Furthermore, Searle proposes a theory explaining the functioning of what he calls indirect speech acts, i.e., illocutionary acts by which one says more than what is literally said in the utterance produced. For instance, when A says to B “Do you know who is going to tomorrow’s meeting?” A might not only be literally asking B if he knows who is going to tomorrow’s meeting, but also asking him to tell her who is going to that meeting.
Interestingly enough, this theory can also elegantly explain how pre-sequences function (see Cooren 2005), i.e., sequences by which speakers prefigure another sequence for which they invite collaboration on the hearers’ part (Levinson 1983). For instance, “Do you know who is going to tomorrow’s meeting?” can be used not only to indirectly ask who is going to that meeting (indirect request), but also to literally check if the interlocutor indeed knows this piece of information. In this case, this question can then function either as a pre-announcement or a pre-request. This explains how the same utterance can end up accomplishing many different things depending on the situation.
It is also through the William James Lectures that H. Paul Grice first introduced the topic of conversational implicatures, a key phenomenon in linguistic pragmatics. Although his lecture was given in 1967, it was not until 1975 that it was published as an essay titled Logic and conversation. In this essay, Grice put forward what he called the cooperative principle, which is phrased as follows: “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” There is a general presumption that when people interact with each other, they intend to abide by this principle. Thus, if the literal content of what an interlocutor says appears to deviate from this principle, there is then an inference that this person might mean something else; hence the idea of implicature.
Grice presented four specific maxims to specify the cooperative principle: quantity (“Make your contribution as informative as it is required”), quality (“Try to make your contribution one that is true”), relation (“Be relevant”), and manner (“Be perspicuous”). Each time an interactant appears to breach one of these maxims in communicating, this can be interpreted as implicating something else. For instance, if A says “That’s very clever!” to comment on a behavior that appears obviously stupid to the participants, it is then understood that A is willingly breaching the maxim of quality and is therefore implicating that this behavior is stupid. In other words, implicatures function because it is presupposed that people cooperate to convey meaning.
This model remains a great source of inspiration for many scholars, e.g., Brown and Levinson and their theory of politeness. For them, interactants are endowed with two properties – rationality and face – which explain why people tend to adopt politeness strategies when interacting with each other. While the idea of face is explicitly borrowed from Erving Goffman, the rationality ascribed to interactants derives from Grice’s cooperative principle. By face, Brown and Levinson (1987) mean that interactants are considered to be endowed with two specific wants: the wants to be unimpeded (negative face) and approved of (positive face). By rationality, they mean that interactants will reason from ends to the means that allow them to achieve these ends. In other words, linguistic strategies will be considered “means satisfying communicative and face-oriented ends.” Given that many speech acts can be considered face-threatening-acts (FTA) – e.g., asking something, advising, reminding – interactants will tend to develop politeness strategies, called “facework,” to minimize the face-threatening dimension of what they say (for further development, see Arundale 2005; Craig et al. 1986; Fitch & Sanders 1994).
Pragmatics And Communication
Although communication studies and linguistic pragmatics have somewhat neglected dialogue with each other, a lot could be learned should their respective agendas converge more often. One interesting path of convergence is the parallel work of several communication scholars who have insisted on the constitutive aspect of communication in meaning production and interpretation. While the traditional literature in linguistic pragmatics tends to focus on the cognitive aspects of meaning production, scholars like Arundale (2005), Cooren (2005), and Sanders (1987) have insisted on the limits inherent in any attempt to reduce the question of meaning to what speakers intend to mean in a specific interaction. These scholars thus propose, in their respective agendas, approaches that tend to focus on the dynamic that is at stake at any moment of given interaction. It is in the recognition of such a dynamic that communication scholars can indeed expect to productively contribute to the field of linguistic pragmatics.
- Arundale, R. B. (2005). Pragmatics, conversational implicature, and conversation. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 41– 63.
- Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Cooren, F. (2005). The contribution of speech act theory to the analysis of conversation: How presequences work. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 21– 40.
- Craig, R. T., Tracy, K., & Spisak, F. (1986). The discourse of requests: Assessment of a politeness approach. Human Communication Research, 12, 437– 468.
- Fitch, K., & Sanders, R. (1994). Culture, communication, and preferences for directness in expression of directives. Communication Theory, 4, 219 – 245.
- Levinson, S. C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Sanders, R. E. (1987). Cognitive foundations of calculated speech: Controlling understandings in conversation and persuasion. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
- Sanders, R. E., Fitch, K. L., & Pomerantz, A. (2000). Core research traditions within language and social interaction. In W. B. Gudykunst (ed.), Communication yearbook 24. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 385 – 408.
- Searle, J. R. (1979). Expression and meaning: Studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.