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George Orwell, individual and writer
Private Experience and the Novel
Phonographical Level and Morphological Level
Richardson as Novelist: 'Clarissa'
How to Read and Understand Poetry
ClassicNote on The Scarlet Letter
Barthes on Bataille
Wordsworth's nature poems — analyses


7.1. In chapter five we saw that a unit of meaning can be as small as a morpheme and as large as an idiom. Here we extend the range to include whole sentences. The speaker of the sentence

The daughter of the terrorist has been caught.

might, for example, be simply conveying information, but he might also be suggesting that there is now an opportunity to exert some pressure on the terrorist.

Like an idiom, then, a sentence may have a meaning that is only conveyed as a whole. What did you say? may simply mean hat the speaker did not hear, but it could also be a challenge to repeat something that will not find favour.

The question Do you have a spare biro? could constitute an offer of a biro, a request for a biro or simply a request for information. Here, too, context clearly provides support, as may intonation.

We have now entered the field of linguistic study that is called pragmatics.

The general study of how context affects linguistic interpretation, or meaning, is pragmatics. In other words, pragmatics is concerned with the interpretation of linguistic meaning in context. There are two kinds of context relevant for the interpretation of linguistic meaning: (i.) linguistic context and (ii.) situational context.

7.2. Linguistic context: Discourse (analysis)

By linguistic context we understand the discourse that precedes the phrase or sentence to be interpreted (what was previously spoken or written). Taken by itself, the sentence

Amazingly, he already loves her

is essentially uninterpretable.

The linguistic meaning is that something male (and animate) has arrived at a state of loving something female (and animate), and the speaker finds something astonishing about it. There are no referents for he and her, and the reason for the adverb amazingly is vague. But if the sentence preceding it were:

John met Mary yesterday.

its interpretation would be clearer:

John met Mary yesterday. Amazingly, he already loves her.

Linguistic knowledge accounts for speakers’ ability to combine phonemes into morphemes, morphemes into words, and words into sentences. Knowing a language also permits combining sentences together to express complex thoughts and ideas. These larger linguistic units – several sentences, including exchanges between speakers – are called Discourse.


As G. Finch (2000: 219) points out,

“‘Discourse’ is one of those elastic terms which one sometimes encounters in

linguistics. It is often used quite loosely to mean any sequence of language

in written or spoken form larger than a sentence. The distinctive aspect of

‘discourse’, however, is that it stresses the communicative dynamics of

language. In this sense, analyzing discourse means investigating all those

features which are part of the total communicative act: context of utterance,

tenor of relationships, mode of discourse, and so on. “

Discourse analysis (also called Discourse linguistics) is the study of continuous stretches of language longer than a single sentence. It especially investigates the organization of such general notions as conversations, narratives, speeches, looking out in particular for linguistic features which identify the structure of the discourse (Discourse markers), such as I mean to say, or Well, anyway.

The term has been used to apply to both spoken and written language, but some authors restrict it to speech, and deal with the structural organisation of writing under the heading of text.

In recent years, several linguists (M. McCarthy, S. Levinson) have attempted to discover linguistic regularities in discourses (Discourse analysis or DA), using grammatical, phonological and semantic criteria, e.g. cohesion, anaphora, inter-sentence connectivity.

It is now plain that there exist important linguistic dependencies between sentences, but it is less clear how far these dependencies are sufficiently systematic to enable linguistic units higher than the sentence to be established.

Some linguists adopt a psycholinguistic perspective in studying discourse, which they view as a dynamic process of expression and comprehension governing the performance of people during linguistic interaction.

Others adopt a sociolinguistic perspective, in which the purpose or function of the discourse is emphasized.

Closely allied to pragmatics, perhaps part of it, discourse analysis or conversation analysis, is the study of the organization and the dynamics of conversation.

We are more at ease when a conversation flows smoothly. We are less at ease if there are pauses in the conversation or if, conversely, two people are speaking at the same time (overlap). We dislike people interrupting, beginning to speak at an inappropriate point. Discourse analysis investigates the mechanisms that facilitate smooth flow in conversations.

A typical exchange involves the basic ‘moves’ of initiation, response and follow-up:

A. What time is it? (initiation)

B. Seven-thirty (response)

C. Thanks (follow-up)

Each move here represents a speech act – requesting, informing, thanking – and in this way discourse analysis is able to use and extend the work of speech act theorists such as J. R. Searle and J. L. Austin.

However, this model works best for more formal interactions between two participants. Problems arise with spontaneous conversations where several people are contributing in an apparently random manner, such as a chat in a local pub. Deciding where exchanges begin and end and what acts are being performed is often difficult.

These kinds of complications have led many discourse analysts to concentrate more on how people behave and cooperate in the management of discourse rather than on trying to apply abstract models to raw speech data. Observing conversational behaviour in this way is the concern of a school of discourse analysis called ethnomethodology.

Ethnomethodologists study the conventions of conversation such as turn-taking, i.e. how people know when it’s their turn to speak, and the use of adjacency pairs - the formulaic pairing of utterances, greeting – greeting, apology – acceptance, which allows people to negotiate stock situations.

Knowing when to speak and what counts as a reply, as opposed to an interruption, are important socializing factors in language use.

Closely connected with this is the ethnography of communication which is concerned, on a much broader scale, with the effect of social and cultural variables on what is loosely termed, ‘linguistic behaviour’. Knowing whether to call someone ‘Mr. Jones’, ‘Jimmy’ or ‘Jones’, for example, depends on a number of factors to do with the situational context, the nature of our relationships and the cultural assumptions within which we are speaking. ‘terms of address’, as they are known, are a complex area of study, not least because customs differ between countries and nationalities.

One topic of study, for example, has been turn-taking, how the ‘floor’ passes from one person to another with a minimum of disruption. One technique for handing over the floor is the use of tag questions:

It’s going to be very difficult, isn’t it?

Another is the use of a falling intonation contour. If the handover does not go smoothly, if for example there is overlap, the problem may be resolved by a struggle for domination whereby there is an increase in loudness and a slowing of the pace of speech.

The study of discourse, or discourse analysis, is concerned with many aspects of linguistic performance, as well as linguistic competence. Discourse analysis involves questions of style, appropriateness, cohesiveness, rhetorical force, topic / subtopic structure, differences between written and spoken discourse, and so on.

With such a large agenda it is not surprising that discourse analysis continues to have a wide appeal. Linguists are not the only people interested in speech behaviour; so are sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. Discourse analysts, then, come from a ‘broad field’ of related disciplines, each with its own particular view of the subject.

But if we stick our linguistic perspective we could say that discourse analysis is centrally occupied with two main linguistic functions: the interpersonal and the textual.

The interpersonal because it is focusing on the way in which we use language as a means of interacting with others, and the textual because it also focuses on our ability to construct coherent/cohesive ‘texts’. This is the case whether such texts are in written or spoken form.

7.2.2. We’ll point out a few aspects of discourse that bear on the interpretation of linguistic meaning. Cohesion / coherence

The terms, frequently encountered in discourse analysis, refer specifically to the way in which sentences, whether in spoken or written form, cohere together to form a meaningful text. It is part of the quality of a text that it is not just a series of disconnected sentences but possesses what the linguist Michael Halliday terms textuality. Our ability to create and recognize such sequences, according to Halliday, constitutes our textual competence.

The terms themselves have a slightly different meaning which is important linguistically because it forms the basis of a useful distinction.

Cohesion signifies the surface ties which link units together. The key work in identifying these has been undertaken by M. Halliday and R. Hasan (1976). They identified a range of ties at various linguistic levels, phonological, syntactical, lexical and semantic, which serve to hook sentences onto each other.

Some of the principal devices here are lexical, involving the use of synonyms or hyponyms:

He turned to the ascent of the mountain. The climb was steep.

I bought some daffodils. They’re very practical flowers.

Other devices are more grammatical and involve strategies such as co-reference, substitution, and ellipsis.

Cohesiveness used to be considered by language teachers as a basic requirement for texts. But since the work of Halliday and Hasan more emphasis has been placed on coherence as a criterion of textuality. It’s possible for a sequence of sentences to be cohesive without being coherent. The following utterance uses the cohesive device of substitution to tie the sentences together but the result is clearly not coherent:

A castle is a piece in chess. There’s one at Windsor.

A text may in fact be coherent without any cohesive links at all. The following two sentences have nothing to tie them together but are nevertheless logically related in the minds of both speaker and listener:

I must tidy the house. My mother-in-law is coming tomorrow.

This utterance could easily be made cohesive by the insertion of because between the sentences but it’s clearly not necessary in such a context. We know the two are causally related partly because of the logical sequence of assertion followed by explanation, which is one of the discourse frames we habitually use, and partly because we know in the real world what a visit by a mother-in-law may entail.

These examples would suggest that cohesion doesn’t render a text coherent. Rather it seems to signal coherence for purposes of either clarity, emphasis, or elegance. Coherence is concerned with the way in which propositions are linked together in a logical and sequential manner.

Our expectation of such linkage is a basic convention of communication and underlies both the cooperative principle, and the production of speech acts. As such, coherence depends, crucially, on inference, that is, our ability to detect and interpret meanings not necessarily present in the text. This is part of our pragmatic knowledge and as a consequence must take into account features such as context and audience. Speaking to someone from a different culture, for example, we may need to use fairly explicit cohesive devices in order to signal actively the logical connections we are making, whereas with someone we know very well we can afford to take all kinds of discourse liberties. Pronouns

Pragmatics is important when interpreting discourse, for example, in determining whether a pronoun in one sentence has the same referent as a noun phrase in another sentence.

Pronouns may be used in place of noun phrases or may be used to refer to an entity presumably known to the discourse participants.

Pronominalization occurs both in sentences and across the sentences of a discourse.

Within a sentence, the sentence structure limits the choice of pronoun. Thus, a reflexive pronoun is required if both it and its antecedent are in the same sentence:

He helped himself to another cake.

Likewise, sentence structure also dictates whether a pronoun and a noun phrase can be interpreted as co-referential.

In a discourse, prior linguistic context plays a primary role in pronoun interpretation.

In the following discourse:

It seems that the man loves the woman.

Many people think he loves her.

the most natural interpretation of her is ‘the woman’ referred to in the first sentence, whoever she happens to be. But it is also possible for her to refer to a different person, perhaps one indicated with a gesture. In such a case her would be spoken with added emphasis:

Many people think he loves HER!

Similar remarks apply to the reference of he, which is ordinarily co-referential with ‘the man’, but not necessarily so. Again, intonation and emphasis would provide clues.

As far as syntactic rules are concerned, pronouns are noun phrases, and may occur almost anywhere that a noun phrase may occur.

Semantic rules establish whether a pronoun and some other noun phrase in the discourse can be interpreted as co-referential. A minimum condition of co-referentiality is that the pronoun and its antecedent have the same semantic feature values for the semantic properties of number and gender.

When semantic rules and contextual interpretation determine that a pronoun is co-referential with a noun phrase, we say that the pronoun is bound to that noun phrase antecedent. If her in the previous example refers to ‘the woman’, it would be a bound pronoun. When a pronoun refers to some object not explicitly mentioned in the discourse, it is said to be free or unbound. The reference of a free pronoun must ultimately be determined by the situational context. First and second person non-reflexive pronouns are bound to the speaker and hearer, respectively. Reflexive pronouns are always bound. They require an antecedent in the sentence.

In the example above - Many people think he loves her - , semantic rules permit her to be either bound to ‘the woman’, or to be a free pronoun, referring to some person not explicitly mentioned. The ultimate interpretation is context-dependent. Anaphora/ Anaphoric reference

The term ‘anaphora’ comes from a Greek word, meaning ‘carrying back’.

It is used to describe the cohesive ties which link sentences to those which precede them. Anaphoric reference, in other words, is a form of discourse connection which enables the reader to see the sentences s/he is reading as constituting a text.

Anaphora is the general term for replacing phrases with pro-forms. The pro-forms include pronouns, which are actually pro-noun phrases, pro-verbs and pro-sentences.

Anaphoric reference is typically achieved in three ways: by co-reference, by substitution, and by ellipsis.

Firstly by co-reference, in which pronouns and sometimes determiners refer to items previously mentioned in the text, as in:

Finish your homework. It will save time,

where it refers back to Finish your homework. Also:

Jane saw the boy with the telescope.

Jane saw him.

Technically, what we call pronouns are ‘pro-noun phrases’ in that they are anaphors/ anaphoric pronouns that replace entire noun phrases:

I am sick, which (=I am sick or my being sick) depresses me (pro-sentence)

Secondly, by substitution – using do and one – usually to avoid repetition, as in:

I like his car. It’s a new one.

His cat scratches. If it does, just tap it on the nose.

Ann hugged Tom as did (= hugged Tom) Mike. (pro-verb phrase)

Is it going to be very expensive? I hope not

And thirdly, by ellipsis, for example:

Q. Where are you going?

A. [I am going] To the pictures.

Failures of anaphoric reference are frequently encountered in the speech and writing of young children, who will talk about him or her without having indicated who is being referred to.

Novelists may also omit anaphoric reference, in this case deliberately, in order to create the illusion of a pre-existing world:

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost

every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town

Hall Annexe (the opening of John Fowles’s The Collector) Cataphora / Cataphoric reference

‘Cataphora’ is from a Greek term, meaning ‘forward looking’ (as opposed to anaphora). It is used to describe the cohesive ties between items and those which come after them: typically between a pronoun and a following noun phrase of some kind.

That’s what I like to see, an empty plate.

Because of its anticipatory quality, cataphora can be used to create suspense:

Over in the corner it lay, a small untidy heap. As Michael approached he

saw a perfectly formed human shape.

Cataphoric reference is a more stylized device than anaphora and is less frequently encountered in ordinary discourse. Missing parts

The process of anaphora replaces whole phrases with pro-forms. Sometimes in discourse, or even within sentences, entire phrases may be omitted and not replaced by a pro-form but still understood because of context. Such utterances taken in isolation appear to violate the rules of syntax, as in the sentence

*My father dried.

But in the following discourse it is perfectly acceptable:

My mother washed the dishes. My father dried.

The second sentence is understood to mean

My father dried the dishes.

Linguistic context often reveals when a missing part can be understood for something previously said, such as ‘will wash’ in

Ann will wash grapes and Mary – plums.

In this example, Mary is understood to wash plums. This illustrates a process often referred to as Gapping by linguists.

In a similar process, called Sluicing, what follows a wh-word in an embedded sentence is omitted, but understood:

Your husband is talking with someone, but I don’t know who.

My cat ate something, and I wish I knew what.

He said he was coming over, but he didn’t say when.

Missing from the end of the first sentence is he is talking with; missing from the second sentence is she ate; and from the third sentence he was coming over. The articles the and a

There are discourse rules that apply regularly, such as those that determine the occurrence of the articles the and a. The article the is used to indicate that the referent of a noun phrase is agreed upon by speaker and listener. If someone says

I saw the boy

it is assumed that a certain boy is being discussed. No such assumption accompanies:

I saw a boy

which is more of a description of what was seen than a reference to a particular individual.

7.3. Situational context

7.3.1. Much discourse is telegraphic in nature. Verb phrases are not specifically mentioned, entire clauses are left out, pronouns abound. Yet people still understand people, and part of the reason is that rules of grammar and rules of discourse combine with contextual knowledge to fill in missing gaps and make the discourse cohere.

Much of the contextual knowledge is knowledge of who is speaking, who is listening, what objects are being discussed, and general facts about the world we live in, called situational context.

Context is a major source of supplementary information. Hearing What did you say? from a frail old man, we are likely to infer that he has not heard what we said. Hearing it from a young man holding an iron bar we might infer that we are in a potentially violent situation.

So, too, proximity between speaker and listener minimizes what has to be explicitly said. An utterance like

That shop over there is where I bought the pork yesterday

only works if the speaker and listener are together. Without the common reference points of time and space more information would have to be given, something like:

The butcher’s shop in Richmond Street is where I bought the pork on

Tuesday 25 April.

Even this might leave one wondering which town and which year was being referred to. Proximity in this sense is generally a matter of shared knowledge.

If the speaker and the listener have common acquaintances the speaker might be able to say: I met Ann in the butcher’s. If not, he might need to use an expanded utterance like:

I met a friend of mine, Ann Richards, in the butcher’s.

If a communication is between people with different cultural backgrounds, then much more might have to be explicitly stated if the communication is to succeed. The English are likely to interpret in two very different ways notices on the door of a butcher’s shop which say Sorry, no rabbits; and Sorry, no dogs. As the English do not eat dogs we assume that the second of these two notices is telling us that, for reasons of hygiene, they are not allowed to take a dog into the shop. Somebody from a very different cultural background might, however, assume that the butcher was apologising for having run out of dog meat.

Often what we say is not literally what we mean. When we ask at the dinner table if someone ‘can pass the salt’ we are not querying their ability to do so, we are requesting that they do so.

If I say ‘You are standing on my foot’ I am not making idle conversation, I am asking you to stand somewhere else.

We say ‘It’s cold in here’ to mean ‘Shut the window’ or ‘Turn up the heat’ or ‘Let’s leave’ or a dozen other things that depend on the real-world situation at the time of speaking.

Situational context, then, includes the speaker, hearer, and any third parties present, along with their beliefs (and their beliefs about what the others believe). It includes the physical environment, the subject of conversation, the time of day, and so on, ad infinitum. Almost any imaginable extralinguistic factor may, under appropriate circumstances, influence the way language is interpreted.

Pragmatics is also about language use.

It tells that calling someone a son of a bitch is not a zoological term, but an insult (mainly American English – an insulting word for someone you are angry with).

It also tells us that when a justice of the peace says, in the appropriate setting, I now pronounce you man and wife – an act of marrying was performed.

Because pragmatics is concerned with the interpretation and use of language in context, it may be considered part of what is called linguistic performance.

We will look at a few of the ways that real-world context influences and interacts with meaning, an aspect of pragmatics.

7.3.2. Maxims of conversation

Well structured discourse follows certain rules, conversational conventions or maxims of conversation.

These maxims were first discussed by the philosopher Paul Grice. Here is a summary of the four conversational maxims that make the discourse coherent, part of the broad Cooperative principle.

a) The maxim of quantity: This maxim states that a speaker’s contribution to the discourse should be as informative as is required – neither more nor less. In other words, say neither more nor less than the discourse requires.

b) The maxim of relevance: This maxim states that a speaker’s contribution to the discourse should be relevant. The maxim of relevance explains how saying ‘It’s cold in here’ to a person standing by an open, drafty window might be interpreted as a request to close it, else why make the remark to that particular person in the first place.

c) The maxim of manner: This maxim states that a speaker’s contribution to the discourse should be brief and orderly; he should avoid ambiguity and obscurity. The violation of this maxim is another source of incoherence.

d) The maxim of quality: This maxim requires that the speaker should not lie or make unsupported claims. That is to say, this maxim requires sincerity and truthfulness.

Conversational conventions such as these allow the various sentence meanings to be sensibly connected into discourse meaning and integrated with context, much as rules of sentence grammar allow word meanings to be sensibly (and grammatically) connected into sentence meaning.

We communicate more than we say explicitly. This disparity between what we intend to communicate and what we actually say is central to pragmatics. It is bridged by what the speaker implies and what the listener infers on the basis of shared knowledge, shared assumptions and the context of the utterance.

If a man at a party has no easy means of getting home and a woman says she has got a car, she may be offering him a lift. If so, making the offer entails a number of what might be called implicatures or presuppositions. She is implying that she is able and willing to drive the man home, that the car is nearby, that it is not broken down, that she has time to go by way of his place, and so on.

The woman might, of course, be letting others know that she does not need a lift or even gloating about the fact that she is in a better situation than the man. But we tend to assume that other people are being helpful.

As Paul Grice puts it, a cooperative principle tends to apply. Grice’s four maxims can take account of how we facilitate communication by being co-operative:

- A maxim of quality is based on the tendency for an utterance to be true: the man would assume that the woman does indeed a car.

- A maxim of quantity reflects the tendency for the amount of information given to be appropriate: the offer of a lift would not be clear if the woman said that she has a ten-year old red Volvo.

- A maxim of relevance reflects the inclination for the man to assume that what the woman said was relevant to his situation.

- And in accordance with a maxim of manner, information is usually presented in an orderly fashion.

By allowing us to take certain things for granted, then, the assumption of co-operation allows us to say less than would otherwise be necessary.

Another example of the topics investigated within discourse analysis is why some responses to a proposition reflect more unease than others. Reflecting Grice’s co-operative principle, we are happier going along with a proposition than going against it. Because going along with a proposition, such as an invitation to go to the cinema, is a preferred option, the related utterance exhibits no unease: Yeah, fine.

Going against the proposal, on the other hand, exhibits unease, the speaker perhaps hesitating, softening the refusal, feeling obliged to justify the refusal:

Um, I don’t think so. I’ve got an essay to finish.

The cooperative principle has been refined in two main ways. First, it has been refined by the addition of the politeness principle. This was suggested by G. Leech (1983) as a way of explaining why people feel the need to be indirect in conveying what they mean. The politeness principle enjoins people to be tactful and polite unless there is a specific reason not to be. One of the things it does is to account for the so-called ‘white lies’. These ostensibly break the maxim of quality but are felt by most people to be different from other lies in that they are intended to be cooperative rather than to mislead. The second refinement is represented by relevance theory. Relevance theorists are interested in the way we process information and operate within models of reality which allow us to assess the relevance of utterances.

Pragmatics includes speech acts, presuppositions and deixis.

7.3.3. Speech act theory Consider the following sentences:

(i) He apologized

(ii) I apologize

Sentence (i) He apologized could be classed as a declarative utterance. So could sentence (ii) I apologize. But there is a significant difference between the two: whereas the former describes an action, the latter not only describes an action, declares it to others, but in fact is the action. By saying we are doing.

Such utterances are called performative utterances.

We can use language to do things. We can use language to make promises, lay bets, issue warnings, place names in nominations, offer congratulations, swear testimony, etc.

The theory of speech acts is the study of what an utterance does beyond just saying something. By saying:

I warn you that there is a dog in the closet.

you not only say something, you warn someone.

Verbs like bet, promise, want, resign, pronounce, nominate and so on are performative verbs. Using them in a sentence does something extra over and above the statement.

There are hundreds of performative verbs in every language. The following sentences illustrate their usage:

I bet you 5 dollars that Yankees win.

I challenge you to a match.

I dare you to step over this line.

I fine you $100 for possession of oregano.

I move that we adjourn.

I nominate Barman for mayor of Goth.

I promise to improve.

I pronounce you man and wife.

a) In all these sentences the speaker is the subject (the sentences are in the first person) who by uttering the sentence is accomplishing some additional action such as daring, nominating, or resigning.

b) Also, all these sentences are affirmative, declarative and in the present tense. They are typical performative sentences.

c) The use or the potential use of the word hereby is also indicative of a performative utterance. An informal test to see whether a sentence contains a performative verb is to begin it with I hereby…:

I hereby sentence you to three years in prison.

In studying speech acts the importance of context is evident. Thus, in some situations There is a sheepdog in the closet is a warning, but the same sentence may be a promise or even a mere statement of fact, depending on circumstances.

We call this underlying purpose - or the effect of what is done: a warning, a promise, a threat, or whatever – the illocutionary force of a speech act.

Because the illocutionary force of a speech act depends on the context of the utterance, speech act theory is a part of pragmatics. The development of Speech Act Theory Speech act theory was originally developed by the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin in the 1930s and expounded in a series of lectures which he gave at Harvard in 1955. These were subsequently developed in 1962 as How to Do Things with Words. The approach has been greatly developed since by the philosopher J. R. Searle.

Speech act theory argues that when we use language we are performing certain acts. Traditionally philosophers have distinguished between actions and speaking on the basis that speaking about something is quite different from doing it. As a consequence, all we can do of utterances is ask whether they are a correct representation of reality, not whether they work or not. Austin substantially challenged this by demonstrating that utterances can be regarded as events in a similar way to other actions.

There are three types of acts which utterances can be said to perform: a locutionary act, an illocutionary act, and a perlocutionary act.

A locutionary act, or locution, refers simply to the act of saying something that makes sense in the language; in other words, that follows the grammatical rules of language.

An illocutionary act is one which is performed through the medium of language: stating, warning, wishing, promising, and so on.

A perlocutionary act is the effect the illocutionary act has on the listener: such as persuading, convincing, deterring, misleading, surprising, and so forth.

Let’s take, as an example, requesting a favour. The locution would consist of the words being uttered in a grammatical sequence; the illocution, the act of requesting; and the perlocution, the persuasion of the addressee, provided, of course, that the request was successful.

Speech act theory tends to concentrate largely on illocutions. Locutions and perlocutions, coming before and after the illocutionary act, although important, are of less central interest.

When Austin first began his study of speech acts he attempted first of all to distinguish between a class of utterances which he called performatives and those which he termed constatives.

Performatives are a special group of utterances the saying of which actually performs the action named by the verb. For example:

Act of marriage I pronounce you man and wife

Act of naming a ship I name this ship the Saucy Sue

Act of closing a meting  I declare this meeting closed

Act of a wager   I bet you a fiver

Act of apology  I apologize

In order for an utterance to count as a performative one, various conditions have to be met. Austin termed these conditions felicity conditions. Thus, an utterance is only a performative utterance if the conditions necessary to make it an act prevail. I apologize only constitutes an apology if the speaker has done something wrong and if he acknowledges that he has done so. Nobody would end up behind bars if I said I hereby sentence you to three years in prison.

To constitute an act this utterance requires such conditions as the listener having been found guilty of a crime and the speaker having the authority of a judge. As we saw in the case of the man and the woman at the party, an offer is only an offer if the speaker is able and willing to do what is said. Such conditions are called felicity conditions.

Constatives consist of all those other utterances, such as statements and questions, where actions are being described or asked about rather than explicitly performed, as in I cooked the cake and Can you cook the cake?

Austin realised that the distinction between performatives and constatives was artificial since even constatives are performing some kind of act although of a more purely linguistic kind than performatives.

Later he abandoned the distinction between performatives and constatives and distinguished instead between explicit and implicit performatives.

Explicit performatives are those which have a performative verb, that is, a verb which names the action being performed, for example, affirm, allege, assert, forecast, predict, announce, insist, order, state. These are sometimes referred to as speech act verbs, since they are all verbs of ‘saying’.

Implicit performatives lack a ‘saying’ verb, but none the less assume the presence of one. So, for example, Beware of the bull can be expanded to I warn you to beware of the bull. Also, Come and see me sometimes is expandable to I invite you to come and see me sometimes.

Some linguists claim that most utterances are performative utterances and that every sentence is some kind of speech act. By arguing that they can be preceded by performative verbs, with or without hereby, such linguists claim, for example, that commands and questions are performative utterances.

Shut the door, they argue, is an abbreviated form of

I (hereby) order you to shut the door.

Even when there is no explicit performative verb, as in It’s raining, we recognize an implicit performance of stating.

On the other hand, Is it raining? is a performance of questioning, just as Leave! is a performance of ordering. In all these instances, we could, if we chose, use an actual performative verb:

I state that it’s raining.

I ask if it is raining.

I order you to leave.

We thus arrive at the view that all utterances constitute speech acts of one kind or another. In some cases the type of act is explicitly marked by a speech act verb, whereas in others, it is more implicitly signaled.

Since the early work on speech acts much effort has been directed towards categorizing the types of acts possible in language. Some are so fundamental that they are grammaticalised into distinct sentence types:

Declarative sentences are used for the act of stating, interrogative sentences for asking questions, and imperative sentences for giving orders and making requests. But these are just a few of the many which are available to speakers.

If we are to investigate the intention and the context of utterances it is useful to attempt a categorization of utterances by function, by speech act.

One basic distinction is that between statements, often called declarative utterances, questions (interrogative utterances), and requests or commands (imperative or directive utterances). We may be able to distinguish these by their syntax.

A statement typically has the word order subject - verb – object, as in He shuts the door.

A question typically has the word order verb - subject - object, as in Can you shut the door?

A command typically has no explicit subject: shut the door.

Form may, however, be misleading; social considerations, considerations of politeness may result, for example, in a command being expressed in the form of a question: Can you shut the door?

Thus we need context, as well as form to draw the correct inference from such utterances as Do you have a spare biro?

Taxonomies of speech act types provided by theorists vary in detail but one of the most widely used is that proposed by J. R. Searle (1979: 10 -16). He divides all acts into five main types, as below:

(i) Representatives, which commit the speaker to the truth of the expressed

proposition (paradigm cases: asserting, concluding)

(ii) Directives, which are attempts by the speaker to get the addressee to do

something (paradigm cases: requesting, questioning)

(iii) Commissives, which commit the speaker to some future course of action

(paradigm cases: promising, threatening, offering)

(iv) Expressives, which express a psychological state (paradigm cases: thanking,

apologizing, welcoming, congratulating)

(v) Declarations, which effect immediate changes in the institutional state of affairs

and which tend to rely on elaborate extra-linguistic institutions (paradigm cases:

declaring war, christening, marrying, firing from employment)

Indirect speech acts

Speech acts of the kind we have been looking at so far can all be described as direct speech acts in that there is a match between sentence meaning and speaker meaning, i.e. the form of the utterance coincides with what the speaker is intending to convey. However, much of what we say is not so direct. We often use statements, for example, to make requests, and even orders. The statement It’s cold in here, for instance, could be classed, under Searle’s classification, as a representative, since it’s manifestly asserting something. But a listener might also detect an extra, or indirect meaning, ‘Can you close the window?’ In this case we could say that the utterance is performing an indirect speech act: the speaker means what the sentence means but something else as well. One of the principal reasons for the employment of indirectness in utterances is that speakers and listeners perceive it to be more polite. This is particularly so in the area of requests and orders.

If it’s the case that the meaning of utterances is in large part indirect, then this raises the problem of how listeners arrive at a secure interpretation of them. How are we to know if I’ll see you tonight is a promise, a threat, or simply an announcement? This is a greyer area of speech act theory since we are encountering here a fundamental problem of language, namely, the extent to which it underspecifies meaning. The only approach we can take here is pragmatic.

Searle suggests that in understanding indirect speech acts we combine our knowledge of three elements. These elements are: the felicity conditions of direct speech acts, the context of the utterance, and principles of conversational cooperation, such as those provided by the cooperative principle.

The felicity conditions, as we have seen, have to do with the speaker being in an appropriate situation to make the utterance.

The context of the utterance is the situation in which it is made. This usually gives the clue as to how it should be interpreted.

And the conversational principles are the baseline assumptions which speakers and listeners conventionally hold about relevance, orderliness and truthfulness. The process of combining these elements draws heavily on inference because much of what is meant is not explicitly stated. It is here that the work of speech act theorists links up with the more general approach of H. P. Grice and his interest in conversational implicatures.

7.3.4. Presuppositions

The term Presupposition is used in both semantics and pragmatics to refer to assumptions implicitly made by speakers and listeners which are necessary for the correct interpretation of utterances. The statement I’m sorry it’s raining, for example, presupposes that it’s raining. The presupposition also holds if the statement is negated: I’m not sorry it’s raining, also presupposes it’s raining.

This is an important difference between presupposition and entailment, a logical relationship with which presupposition is sometimes confused. Presupposition deals with the necessary preconditions for statements to be true. So the sentence My cat was run over yesterday assumes as a necessity the truth of I have cat.

Presupposition allows us the freedom not to make everything absolutely explicit in our communications.

A certain amount of presupposition is implicit in the linguistic system and can be studied just like entailment, in terms of its truth conditions. This is the concern of semanticists for whom presupposition is a matter of formal logical relationships. The examples already given illustrate this strict view. We could call this sentence presupposition.

Many sentence presuppositions are produced by the presence of certain words. Linguists term these lexical triggers. For example, there is a class of verbs, like regret and realize which are called factive verbs because they presuppose the truth of their complement clauses. Compare sentences (1a) and (1b) below. Only the sentence with the factive verb realize presupposes (1c). The non-factive verb think has no such presupposition.

(1a) John realized that it was raining

(1b) John thought that it was raining

(1c) It was raining.

Similarly compare (2a) – (2c):

(2a) Ann regretted going out.

(2b) Ann considered going out.

(2c) Ann went out.

The problem with an account of presupposition which is limited to a truth-based semantic approach, however, is that it doesn’t take full account of all the presuppositions which speakers and listeners make in interpreting communications. To begin with, some presuppositions clearly depend upon our knowledge of the world. Compare the following sentences:

(3a) She tripped before getting in the car

(3b) She died before getting in the car

(3c) She got in the car

(3c) is presupposed by (3a) but not by (3b). The reason for this is simply that we know that someone who has died cannot get into a car. The issue here is pragmatic rather than simply semantic. This second kind of presupposition, which depends on extra-linguistic information, is termed pragmatic presupposition.

In any communication there is a certain amount of presumed knowledge independent of purely semantic knowledge. The degree and kind of assumed knowledge depends on a wide range of factors which linguists broadly refer to as context. If you ask someone whether they want a cup of coffee and receive the reply It will keep me awake, your respondent is assuming you know whether or not they wish to stay awake. This background presupposition cannot be recovered from the form of the answer itself, but must necessarily be there for it to count as an appropriate reply.

What is at issue here is the degree of shared knowledge which both parties have. This form of presupposition is vaguer and less codifiable than its stricter semantic counterpart. Most pragmatists who study it approach it in terms of communicative strategies such as the cooperative principle, which involve interpretative principles based on inference and implicature.

Stylistically, presupposition is exploited in a range of discourse types including advertisements, newspapers, and fiction.

As we have seen presuppositions are implicit assumptions that accompany certain utterances. Speakers often make implicit assumptions about the real world, and the sense of an utterance may depend on those assumptions. The presuppositions of an utterance are facts whose truth is required in order that the utterance be appropriate. Consider the following sentences:

(a)   Have you stopped smoking cigarettes

(b)   Who bought the badminton set

(c)   John doesn’t write poems anymore

(d)   The present king of France is bald

(e)   Would you like another beer

Sentence (a) is inappropriate if the person addressed has never smoked cigarettes. Thus, sentence (a) carries with it the presupposition that at one time you/one has smoked cigarettes.

In (b) there is the presupposition that someone has already bought the badminton set, and in (c) it is assumed that John once wrote poetry.

We have already come across the somewhat odd (d), which we decided we could understand even though France does not currently have a king. The use of the definite article the usually presupposes an existing referent. When presuppositions are inconsistent with the actual state of the world, the utterance is felt to be strange unless a fictional setting is agreed upon by the participants, as in a play, for example.

Sentence (e) presupposes or implies that you have already had at least one beer. Part of the meaning of the word another includes this presupposition. The Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appears not to understand presuppositions:

Take some more tea” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet, “Alice replied in an offending tone, “so I can’t have


“You mean you can’t take less”, said the Hatter: “It’s very easy to take more

than nothing.”

The humour of this passage comes from the meaning of the word more which presupposes some earlier amount. These phenomena may also be described as implication. Part of the meaning of more implies that there has already been something.

Presuppositions can be used to communicate information indirectly. If someone says: My brother is a lawyer, we assume that person has a brother, even though that fact is not explicitly stated.

Much of the information that is exchanged in a conversation or discourse is of this kind. Often, after a conversation has ended, we will realize that some fact was imparted to us that was not specifically mentioned. That fact is often a presupposition.

7.3.5. Deixis

The term deixis comes from a Greek word meaning ‘pointing’ or ‘showing’.

In stylistics ‘deixis’ refers to those features of language which orientate our utterances in time, space, and speaker’s standpoint. So, for example, the tense system is deictic because it locates event in the present or the past.

In all languages there are many words and expressions whose reference relies entirely on the situational context of the utterance and can only be understood in light of these circumstances. This aspect of pragmatics is called deixis.

Deictic elements have very little referential force without the support of context, they require knowledge of the circumstances: (the) person, place, or time of the utterance to be interpreted referentially.

Terms / items such as you, here, there, this, that, are normally deictic because they locate items in space relative to the person who is speaking: my here is your there.

The first person pronouns I, we, and the second person pronoun you are also deictic in this respect. This form of deixis is exophoric in character in that it is situationally, or contextually, bound.

A secondary form of deixis is endophoric and serves to locate items textually. In the following example this points forward cataphorically to the next sentence:

This is important. Don’t go out.

Additionally, terms like this and that can be used to locate things emotionally. Linguists refer to this as displacement. In the utterance

Get that animal out of here.

The demonstrative that as well as pointing to the particular animal conveys the speaker’s dislike.

Similarly, this frequently occurs in jokes and anecdotes as a means of indicating familiarity:

There was this man (i.e. a particular man) Person deixis

First and second person pronouns such as: my, mine, you, your, yours, we, ours, us are always deictic because their reference is entirely dependent on context.

You must know who the speaker and listener are in order to interpret them.

Third person pronouns are deictic if they are free. If they are bound their reference is known from linguistic context. One particular exception is the pronoun it when used in sentences such as

It appears as though he is in town.

He found it advisable to inform the public about the changes

In these cases it does not function as a true pronoun by referring to some entity. Rather, it is a grammatical morpheme, a placeholder as it were, required to satisfy the rules of syntax.

Demonstrative pronouns are also deictic. Expressions such as this person, that man, these women, those children are deictic for they require situational information in order for the listener to make a referential connection and understand what is meant. Time and place deixis.

The following examples are all deictic expressions of time: now, then, tomorrow, this time, that time, seven days ago, two weeks from now, last week, next April.

In order to understand what specific times such expressions refer to, we need to know when the utterance was said. Clearly, next week has a different reference when uttered today than a month from today. If you found an undated notice announcing a “BIG SALE NEXT WEEK” you would not know whether the sale has already taken place.

Expressions of place deixis require contextual information about the place of the utterance, as shown by the following examples: here, there, this place, that place, those houses over there, yonder mountains.

Directional terms such as: before / behind, left / right, front / back are deictic insofar as you need to know which way the speaker is facing.

Deixis abounds in language use and marks one of the boundaries of semantics and pragmatics. The pronoun I certainly has a meaning independent of context – its semantic meaning, which is “the speaker”; but context is necessary to know who the speaker is, hence what “I” refers to.

7.3.6. Context and co-text

In this section we present some further aspects referring to context, discussed by G. Finch (2000: 212 -213). As we have seen, ‘context’ is a very widely used term in linguistics and, as a consequence, any account of its meaning will involve us in specifying exactly how it is being used.

In a general sense, it refers to that which comes before or after something. In the case of a sentence, or utterance, it could be the sounds, words, or phrases, which surround a particular verbal item. So, for example, in the sentence

Peter went to the pictures. He went alone

We know who he refers to because of the preceding item Paul.

This kind of context is called verbal context, or sometimes, simply the co-text.

According to D. Crystal (1987: 79), the term co-text is used by some British linguists in an attempt to resolve the ambiguity of the term context, which can refer to both linguistic and situational environments. The term co-text refers to the former, and context to the latter.

Co-text means ‘accompanying text’, i.e. those sounds, words, phrases and so on, which accompany each other in the particular sentence or utterance.

Verbal context is also important in semantics, in determining the actual sense with which a word is being used. The word flight, for example, has a number of different senses, including ‘a series of steps’, ‘a journey by air’, and ‘an attempt to escape’. But to know which of these is most appropriate in the title The flight of the bumble bee, we need to take into account the meaning of the item bumble bee.

The kind of context we have been talking so far can, in general terms, be thought of as the linguistic context, that is, the context provided by the linguistic system itself. Equally significant, although more difficult to define, is the situational context in which utterances take place. If you ask someone whether they want a cup of coffee and the reply is Coffee keeps me awake, then clearly, in order to know whether this means yes or no, we need to know more than the simple meaning of the words being used. The ability to interpret utterances correctly involves us in processing, not just the words, but the situational context in which they are being used.

But the problem for linguistics is in deciding just how much of a given situation we need to know in order to carry out the task of interpretation. Some of the contextual variables, such as the relationship of the participants (father/daughter, employer/ employee), variables and the particular form of communication being used telephone, letter), can be dealt with by other discourse categories like tenor and channel.

But there still remains an indeterminate area of situational context, much of which we may take for granted in interpreting an utterance.

To cope with the spread of possible contexts many linguists make a broad distinction between micro-context and macro-context.

The micro-context is the immediate one in which an utterance occurs. The principal features it incorporates are setting and occasion. The first of these indicates the place where a discourse event occurs, and the second, the particular circumstances which occasion it – a row with a neighbour, a proposal of marriage, and so on.

The macro-context, as its name implies, includes the more ‘remote’ environments in which communication occurs. Any communicative act assumes a framework, or background, of shared values and beliefs. The factors which are important here are geographical social, and cultural. The separation of wider and immediate features in this way enables us to describe the impact of context on linguistic meaning more clearly. None the less, it sill remains an indeterminate area of stylistic analysis if only because situational context is essentially extralinguistic in character. As such, it’s the point at which language and the world at large interact.


We communicate more than we say explicitly. This can be so because we are generally co-operative, generally want to help the listener to understand. What we need to say is minimised by the support provided by the context in which the utterance takes place and by shared knowledge. Such factors fall within the study of pragmatics. Related to pragmatics is discourse analysis, the study of the organization and dynamics of conversations.

The general study of how context affects linguistic interpretation is pragmatics. Context may be linguistic – what was previously spoken or written – or knowledge of the world, what is called situational context.

Discourse consists of several sentences, including exchanges between speakers. Pragmatics is important when interpreting discourse, for example, in determining whether a pronoun in one sentence has the same referent as a noun phrase inanother sentence.

Well-structured discourse follows certain rules and maxims, such as ‘be relevant’ that make the discourse coherent.

Pragmatics includes speech acts, presuppositions, and deixis. Speech act theory is the study of what an utterance does beyond just saying something. The effect of what is done is called the illocutionary force of the utterance.

Presuppositions are implicit assumptions that accompany certain utterances.

Deictic terms such as you, here, now require knowledge of the circumstances 9the peron, place, or time) of the utterance to be interpreted referentially.


1. What might somebody intend to convey by saying He’s got a gun?

2. Somebody might say to a soldier Fire! What felicity conditions are likely to apply

before the soldier responds by firing a gun? Account for the fact that a firefighter

would react very differently to this utterance.

3. Rewrite the following sentence, using information of your choice, so that it is less

dependent on deixis:

She will try to sell it here tomorrow.

4. The following sentences make certain presuppositions. What are they? The first

one has been done for you.

a. The police ordered the minors to stop drinking.

Presupposition: The minors were drinking

b. Please take me out to the ball game again.

a.      That her pet turtle ran away made Emily very sad.

b.      Lisa wants more popcorn.

c.      Who discovered America in 1492?

Guide to exercises:

1. In a situation like a bank robbery the principal intention of this utterance might

be to warn. At a hunting event, on the other hand, it might be intended to

convey that it is not necessary to provide a gun for somebody.

2. For a soldier to respond to the call Fire! he needs to have a gun, the call should

come from a superior officer, and so on.

3. This sentence might be expanded to something like Mrs. Smith will try to sell

the table at the market here in Winchester on Saturday 25 April. Even this

presupposes that the listener knows which Mrs. Smith, which table and which

year the speaker is referring to.


Politica de confidentialitate



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