Pragmatics 101

Pragmatics is the study of how people use language to achieve different goals or functions. It involves all of the social signs, body language, and tone of voice that a speaker uses when speaking.

Pragmatism was developed in the United States by a group of philosophers, including George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), George Herbert Morris, and John Dewey. These philosophers drew heavily on sociology and anthropology to understand how people communicate.

First, a theory of pragmatics needs to embrace the omnipresent, context-sensitive, task-dependent nature of language processing. This means that the utterances people use are constantly being interpreted in different contexts given their different understanding of their goals and tasks (see Ferreira and Patson, 2007).

Second, there is an important need to explore how these context-dependent meaning products are generated. Many linguistic theories, for example, assume that the messages people use are all unified in the same way, a view that is too simplistic and socially and esthetically decontextualized to be valid.

Third, a theoretical framework for explaining pragmatic behavior must incorporate the varying independent variables that influence people’s behavioral performances in experimental situations. These vary depending on the explicit task that researchers have presented to participants in their studies.

These task influences are often ignored or minimized in linguistic pragmatic theories, but they play an essential role in explaining why people use language the way they do, and how people can create diverse meaning products from a single utterance. The time is ripe for scholars to fully acknowledge these task demands in their linguistic pragmatic theories, to make them a core part of their characterization of the ways that people use language.