Pragmatics and Experimental Linguistics


In short, pragmatics is the study of meaning in context. It’s the reason people don’t always say what they mean. If they did, there would be no slang, jokes wouldn’t be funny and conversations would take twice as long. Instead, pragmatic knowledge allows us to politely hedge a request, intelligently read between the lines and navigate ambiguity in everyday language interactions.

Experimental pragmatics arose in the 1970s when various psychologists (both developmental, psycholinguistic and cognitive) and linguists began exploring how language is used to communicate. This was a new focus of research, which differed from traditional psycholinguistic and linguistic emphasis on lexical, syntactic and semantic processing of sentence meaning. This led to a number of critics who argued that it was impossible to scientifically examine pragmatic language production and interpretation.

The main distinction is that pragmatics takes contextual factors into account, whereas linguistic semantics and syntax do not. For example, a number of studies show that people understand irony quickly, but this understanding depends on pragmatic knowledge about how to interpret the implication of a speaker’s utterance.

Similarly, the way that people use demonstrative adjectives such as these, those and there is dependent on context. This is referred to as deixis and is a key aspect of pragmatic meaning. However, these task demands are rarely considered by researchers when designing experimental pragmatic tasks and interpreting their results. This article aims to rectify this by providing examples of how pragmatic theory can be applied to improve the design and analysis of experimental pragmatics.