We called semantics the study of meaning, but clearly our understanding of the concept of meaning is more richly textured than what we've discussed as the truth conditional way of understanding sentences. When we think about meaning, it is also important to take into account the contribution of context. In simple terms, then, we can think about pragmatics as the study of the contribution of context to meaning.
1) Context: what is it?
Here are four subareas involved in fleshing out what we mean by context.
Epistemic context: the epistemic context refers to what speakers know about the world. For example, what background knowledge is shared by the speakers is crucially part of your epistemic knowledge when you have a conversation with someone else?
Linguistic context: the linguistic context refers to what has been said already in the utterance. For example, if I begin a discussion by referring to Jane Smith and in the next sentence refer to "her" as being a top notch athlete, the linguistic context lets me know that the antecedent of "her" (the person "her" refers to) is Jane Smith.
Social context: the social context refers to the social relationship among speakers and hearers.
Think about the discussion of the library scene in Language Files. Two people come into a library and they are talking really loud. They sit at your table and continue their babbling. So, you look up at them and say:
"Excuse me, could you please speak up a bit more? I missed what you said."
What do we know pragmatically about your utterance? What
contributes to our understanding of why its literal meaning (i.e. please
speak up) departs so much from what its intended meaning is (i.e. shut
up!)? Consider some of the contextual properties of the utterance.
- physical: the conversation occurs in a library
- epistemic: libraries are quiet places
- linguistic: sarcastic tone of voice (intonation cues are linguistic)
- social context: you have the right to ask someone to be quiet in a place where people are supposed to be quiet, especially if their rule-breaking is injurious to the needs of others, which overrides the social norm of not giving orders to total strangers.
Contextual knowledge allows for the hearer to comprehend that the intended meaning is distinct from the literal meaning. With any luck, they'll even tone it down.
Besides understanding broad notions of how context is important, pragmatics also examines the kinds of Speech Acts that people employ when they speak. We'll cover the notion of speech acts here.
2) Speech Acts
Basically, we can divide the world into two flavors of Speech Acts: direct and indirect. Here is a sketch of direct speech acts, with indirect acts addressed later on.
Direct Speech acts: (3 sub-flavors to start with)
Before leaving the world of direct speech acts, there's one more twist. A special kind of direct speech act is called a performative. Performatives are interesting in that they are basically verbs whose action is a speech act.
We can embed declaratives, interrogatives, and imperatives such as those in (1-3) in sentences.
Okay, this wouldn't be a linguistics class if we didn't discuss a way of attempting to test for what kind of speech act you've got in front of you.
Here's the answer: Only the first one. Why?
3) Felicity Conditions
Think about the many ways that a sentence can go wrong? It can be mispronounced. We can regularize an irregular verb. We can produce an ungrammatical sentence. All of these are errors that aren't exactly pragmatic errors in the sense that we want to discuss here. The kind of pragmatic error that we want to think about here is the situationally inappropriate use of a sentence. Inappropriate sentences can be perfectly well-formed, but they can nevertheless be situationally all wrong.
Linguists characterize the notion of situational inappropriateness in terms of what are called felicity conditions. The basic idea here is that felicity conditions allow us to determine under what circumstances it is appropriate to ask questions, give commands, and so forth. Note that we are just touching the tip of the iceberg here. Really delving into the area of felicity conditions requires a ton of work, but what we'll review here should give you a decent idea of how the thinking goes. One big thing to bear in mind is that if we get the felicity conditions down explicitly enough, we can pinpoint the nature of the inappropriate use of language in terms of the particular felicity condition or conditions violated.
As an example, here are some felicity conditions associated with questioning and requesting.
S questions H about P (some state of affairs)
Additionally, (2) and (3) don't exactly hold. The teacher doesn't so much want to know the truth about X as to know what the student knows about X. And, when asking the question, the teacher doesn't necessarily know whether the student knows the truth about X. Rather, the teacher often asks in order to see IF the student knows the truth about X.
Finally, note that I may stand in front of the class and ask the following question: "Does anybody have the time?" Immediately, you all will most likely shift back into understanding my question in terms of the felicity conditions in (1-3) above and give me an answer. That is, even though I'm the teacher, that's the not kind of question that would be asked in the teacher role. The question would be infelicitous only if I have a watch on that you know is working perfectly or if there is a huge clock with the time in front of me, because I'd be violating the first condition.
Anyway, think about how you do this kind of interpreting all the time. Think about how you are constantly sifting through your knowledge of context and of the felicity conditions behind questions in order to understand whether the question is used appropriately.
Here's a general set of felicity conditions on requests.
S requests H to do A (action):
4) Indirect Speech Acts
That last observation gives us a nice transition to the notion of indirect speech acts. Consider the following sentences
Clearly, B has responded literally to A's question, while A's meaning was a request for B to pass the salt, and not a query regarding B's ability to engage in the activity of salt-passing.
How can we identifying indirect speech Acts?
How to do this (flow chart style)
Note that the felicity conditions on requests aren't violated (assuming this to be true):
S requests H to do A (action):
So, this is a question literally, but intended as a request. It is an indirect speech act. This said, we might wonder why we use indirect speech acts at all. That is, why don't we always just go straight to the point, stop beating around the bush, etc? In this question/request, we can think of the indirect speech act as a way of communicating to the hearer that although the speaker believes that the hearer is willing to take her/him to the mall, there is also a recognition that asking this favor constitutes a kind of imposition. Framing the request as a question thus allows the hearer the opportunity to more gracefully decline. There are many subtle elements here. Perhaps the speaker has the power to make the hearer take him/her to the mall but does not want to make a show of that power by making a direct request. Perhaps the speaker is unsure about whether the hearer will be willing to take him/her to the mall.
What I want you to notice is that indirect speech is fundamental to the way in which we communicate, because much more is communicated than the so-called literal meaning of our utterances when we use language. That's why I'm often amused by people who think things would be better if we always got straight to the point. Beating around the bush provides speakers and hearers with valuable information. That's why we do it.
An exercise about Felicity Conditions:
Here's felicity conditions on PROMISE as given in Language Files.
S promises H to do A:
5) Rules of Conversation
How can we keep the ball rolling? How can we continue to find usefulness in communication through language? Imagine that people all told lies in random fashion (as opposed to for particular and often transparent reasons). How effective would language be as a communicative device?
The Gricean maxims are a framework for understanding how humans cooperate socially in their use of language.
H.P. Grice first formulated the notion of the so-called cooperative principle. This is not to say that only one type of cooperation underlies all communication. Rather, it attempts to characterize the more generally cooperative aspect of human behavior across situations.
Have you ever spoken with a child and had the following type of exchange?
In a nutshell, here are the Gricean maxims.
Maxims of Quality
Here's a violation of the maxim of quantity at a store.
What do the following violate?
6) Language in Advertising
This section is interesting because it allows you to really examine closely the difference between two concepts: entailment vs. implicature, and it also allows us to think about how implicature requires reference to pragmatics in a way that entailment doesn't.
What's entailment? In a sense, we've already seen entailment in hyponymy. The word "mare" for example, entails the concept of "horse", since all things that are "mares" are also "horses". Here's a couple of sentences that have an entailment relation:
The concept of implicature is slightly different from entailment, but it is related in a way that makes the two concepts sometimes tricky to tease apart, at least as far as language use is concerned. Consider the following pair of sentences.
By the normal interpretation, it would seem to. That is, if I say to you, "Not everyone is going to come", you understand me to be saying that at least someone is coming. For example, you invite the football team to a fund raiser, and the coach calls you and says, "not everyone is going to come." Would you be surprised to arrive and see that absolutely no one showed up? Of course. Why? Because the sentence "not everyone is going to come" implicates that SOMEONE is going to come. However, it doesn't entail it. Note that "Not everyone is going to come" would still be true in a situation in which "no one is going to come." Contrast this with the car sentence above. If "Sarah drives a truck", the sentence "Sarah drives an Accord" can't be true. (Of course, we are making some simplifying assumptions, such as the assumption that Sarah does not have both an Accord and a truck!)
For something to implicate something else, two things have to be the case:
Bearing this in mind, now think of the language of advertising.
At the risk of hammering you to death on this issue, let's take a closer look at the bacteria sentence in order to appreciate why what is happening is happening.
This sentence is called a generic because it has a possible general reading. Generic sentences have the property of making strong statements, as in "dogs bark", "cats meow", and so forth. That is, it is a general property of dogs that they bark. In the bacteria sentence, the generic reading, which is most often the default reading in such constructions, is "all bacteria". However, there is also a possible non-generic or literal reading of the sentence.
If the advertiser only means "some bacteria", there's a potential maxim of relevance violation, under the assumption that you are interested in the filter as a way of guaranteeing water purity. You can see how the advertiser can exploit the default nature of the generic reading in order to take advantage of your belief upon hearing the claim "ABC filters remove bacteria" that what is meant is all bacteria or all harmful bacteria.
The point is this: advertising often takes advantage of implicature to make claims that people interpret to be more powerful than they really are. Bearing this in mind, here is an examples of a real advertising claim taken from your text book. Think about what is implicated in the following case versus what is literally entailed.
Your book notes that the degree to which we are sometimes misled can be surprising. They note an old claim by Ford that "...the Ford LTD is 700% quieter." This is a great example, since Ford apparently admitted that they meant "quieter than the outside". You don't even have to be cynical by nature to see that Ford was testing the line between vague claims and deceit in this case.
Here's a few more slogans. What's implicated versus what is literally entailed?
Here are a couple of cases from last week's Bush/Gore
debate that struck me as interesting. I'm paraphrasing here, but note the
following claims made by each: