We often don’t always say what we mean, and yet we still manage to communicate with each other. How is this possible? Pragmatics! In this short episode led by your friendly neighborhood linguist Emily (PhD), you’ll discover the basics of what pragmatics is, why it matters, and how it works. Enjoy!
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Meet your guide/host! Emily Sabo (PhD, University of Michigan) is a linguist at Mango who specializes in the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing. Emily is also a language teacher, a producer of the We Are What We Speak docuseries, and get this...a storytelling standup comedian!
How Pragmatics Works?
Hey friends! Welcome back to How Language Works!
As you know, in this series, we unpack the foundational systems that underlie how language works. In our last episode, we talked about semantics, which was all about word meaning. But it turns out semantics is only half the story. To really understand how meaning works in language, we need to know about pragmatics. Lucky for you, in this episode, I’m going to tell you what pragmatics is, why it matters, and how it works!
If you don’t know me yet, I’m Emily - your friendly neighborhood linguist and host of Mango Language’s series How Language Works. Without further ado, let’s get to it!
What is pragmatics?
It’s the contextual meaning of our language.
You might be asking - how is that different from semantics? It’s the ‘contextual’ part. When you know the semantics of a language, you know the vocabulary of that language. That is, you know what words and sentences mean in a literal sense.
When you know the pragmatics of a language, you go beyond literal meaning and understand the subtle art of conversation. If you’re looking for something to be grateful for today, you can thank your knowledge of pragmatics for how you take social, cultural, and situational factors into consideration when communicating with language.
For example, your pragmatic knowledge is what allows you to do things like politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, negotiate turn-taking norms in conversation, and navigate ambiguity in context. We’ll look at some examples of these later in the episode.
The takeaway? Semantics = literal meaning, and pragmatics = meaning in context.
Why do we need pragmatics?
Because language is ambiguous and people don’t always say what they mean.
How is language ambiguous?
For instance, imagine you see a news headline: “A stolen painting was found by a tree.” This sentence is ambiguous: it has two possible meanings. In one interpretation, a sentient tree (perhaps named Tim, for Timber) stumbled upon a stolen painting.
In the other interpretation, the painting was discovered (by humans) in its location next to a tree. This sentence is ambiguous because the word ‘by’ has multiple meanings that work semantically in this sentence.
But by applying pragmatic knowledge of how the world works (i.e. that trees don’t have the agency to find things), you’re able to easily ignore the unlikely interpretation in favor of the likely interpretation. The takeaway? Languages are inherently ambiguous, and pragmatics helps us disambiguate meaning to facilitate everyday communication!
Why don’t people always say what they mean?
One of the most prominent reasons for this is politeness conventions. For example, when I’m ready to leave someone’s house, I likely won’t say “I’d like to leave now, so let’s end this conversation.” Instead, I’ll apply a pragmatic strategy by saying something like “Well, it’s getting late.”
In this case, I’m not explicitly saying I want to wrap up the conversation, but I’m politely implying it. In pragmatics, there’s a name for this indirect use of language: it’s called implicature. It’s defined as the meaning a speaker intends without explicitly saying it.
You might think this sounds passive aggressive, but we do it all the time. And for a variety of reasons (politeness conventions are just one of them). Now that you have the name for this concept, I bet you’ll catch yourself using and hearing implicatures ALL THE TIME. You’re welcome!
How does pragmatics work?
A speaker makes assumptions and a listener makes inferences in order to reach common ground.
And at the core of everyday pragmatics is the goal of understanding and being understood. This is known as the Cooperative Principle. And it was introduced back in 1970s by the late philosopher of language Paul Grice. Grice also authored what has come to be known as the Gricean Maxims. These are four general pragmatic rules that seem to hold in most situations and most languages.
These maxims are like the glue that holds together a cohesive conversation.
However, like any framework, there are plenty of exceptions. For example, when using sarcasm, we might intentionally violate the maxim of being truthful - for humorous effect. When nervous, we might violate the maxim of being concise because we feel the need to ramble on. There’s also some differences interculturally. There’s actually a whole field of linguistics that analyzes differences in pragmatics between language and cultural backgrounds. It’s called intercultural pragmatics.
Last thing – what happens when a speaker’s intent misaligns with a listener’s inferences?
Communication breakdown! This happens often. Here’s a funny example from my real life. I was once at a party and met someone who told me she worked in “labor and delivery.” I replied “Oh cool - my grandfather was a truck driver.” [record skipping SFX]. What happened here? I heard “labor and delivery” and thought “manual labor and package delivery.” She worked as a nurse in the maternity ward - labor and delivery. From her perspective, me mentioning my grandfather’s truck driving profession was totally unrelated to the conversation at hand, a violation of the relevance maxim. It wasn’t contributing to the Cooperative Principle of building meaning collaboratively. Needless to say, it was awkward and hilarious. If you have a funny anecdote from a time you had a pragmatics breakdown in conversation, let us know – I’d love to hear about it!
Well, that’s the end of the episode!
As always, before we wrap up, let’s do a little recap. In this episode, we learned that pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics dedicated to understanding meaning in context. Pragmatic knowledge is important to have because languages are inherently ambiguous and people don’t always say what they mean. As a result, our conversations are full of implicatures and politeness conventions. This reality requires us to rely on pragmatic inferencing to understand each other. The Cooperative Principle and the Gricean Maxims are general pragmatic rules we follow to soften the edges of our conversations, navigate ambiguous phrases, find common ground in discourse, and glean that ‘Sure!’ and “Sure” – while the same word – carry very different meanings.
Speaking of “Sure!” vs. “Sure…”, don’t miss our next episode, where we dive into prosody - the final frontier of the How Language Works series! Why do we end sentences with a higher pitch? Do languages differ in how melodic vs. monotone they can be? How does intonation work in tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese? All that and more in next week’s episode of How Language Works. If you want to be the first to know when that episode is out, subscribe to the show and follow us on your favorite social media platform. Until then - be well and stay happy. ¡Ciao!