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Updated on September 30, 2014



Just like every other existing entity, pragmatics has an origin. It is largely believed that when one knows the history of a thing, he will know better how that thing would work or how successful it would be in the future. If a person will succeed in dealing with a problem, he must first find out the origin of that problem. It is the same with pragmatics which does not just appear from nowhere. It went through stages and also had challenges to overcome which it did overcome to reach its present state.

Definition of pragmatics

Pragmatics is basically concerned with interpretation through context. Meaning is analysed based on users’ relation with everything around. Whatever circumstance that influences the interpretation of codes is built up through inter-dependence of societal variables. This means that meaning is not a one-way thing. Every word that is said has a peculiar meaning as affected by the surrounding circumstances that prompts its use.

Charlse Morris defines pragmatics as “the study of the relation of signs to interpreters” (1938:6). Pragmatics study how signs are interpreted differently beyond the limits of syntactic or semantic rules. Though rules exist in languages, people from different linguistic backgrounds are still able to communicate when they meet. This happens because the interlocutors put together other linguistic properties outside specific languages in their effort to communicate. Whatever one does to understand a message passed through unconventional linguistic means is an exercise of pragmatics.

According to Mey (1993:6) “pragmatics studies the use of language in human communication as determined by the conditions of society”. These conditions do not refer to laws, rules or governance. They refer to the way we can see things through what we experience in the natural state of our society; including weather, people language, colours etc.

Griffiths says that, Pragmatics involves the use of the linguistic tools brought together by semantics to succeed in meaningful communication. Pragmatics is about the interaction of semantic knowledge with our knowledge of the world, taking into account contexts of use.

Use of pragmatics

Mey says that the use of pragmatics depends on how users view linguistics and how they place pragmatics within it (1993:11). We may see pragmatics as a component of linguistics like syntax, semantics and phonology. We may see it as an independent entity that tends to step in when there is a problem in a linguistic environment; it surfaces when every linguistic field fails to address certain issues about meaning.

Importance of pragmatics includes;

  1. Generally, pragmatics offers a fuller, deeper and more reasonable account of human behaviour.
  2. Outside pragmatics, no understanding: most times, we don’t rely completely on grammatical or syntactic connection of words to understand what is communicated. A statement can be ambiguous; such as

Flying planes can be dangerous.

This could mean any of

  1. It is dangerous to fly planes, or
  2. When a plane is flying, something dangerous can happen.

One would need to analyse the circumstance of discussion to understand whether the speaker means.

  1. Pragmatics enables language creation: this is because it enables people to use language stylistically or a more codified manner for specific purpose. New words or new ways of using existing words can come out of that. For example computerize is formed from computer on just because –ize is added to change a word to a noun. Computer can still be used as a verb as in computered car.

  1. Leech (1983) in his supportive contribution defended the eligibility of Pragmatics as an independent field of linguistic study by saying that Semantics does not handle all issues relating to meaning, that those areas neglected by semantics are those that pragmatics handles. For instance the speech act theory and politeness principles are areas Semantics has ignored. Pragmatics has leaped beyond textual limitations to explore meaning at a broader and seemingly abstract linguistic vista.

The origin of pragmatics

For over thirty years the field of Pragmatics has been experiencing rapid growth as a result of the great interest of researchers on it. Pragmatics which studies meaning in relation to context is an area of linguistic study that began since in the late 70s.

Pragmatics may be considered a new field in linguistics. However, its origin can be dated back to the ancient Greek and Rome. The term is derived from the Latin pragmaticus which in Greek is pragmaticos, both meaning practical. Its study can also be linked to the theory of signs by Charlse Morris (1938) who says that Pragmatics studies the relations of signs to the objects to which the signs are applicable. Grice (1975) is another major contributor to the study of pragmatics who in a more modern approach says that pragmatics should be centred on more practical dimension of meaning. His suggestion is advanced by other earlier linguists like Leech (1983) and Levinson (1983). In 1975, Grice came up with the “Pragmatic Principles,” and in 1983 Leech made a very significant contribution by coming up with the “Politeness Principles.” Green (1989) defines pragmatics as a natural language understanding, which was in some way substantiated by Blakemore (1990) in her “Understanding Utterance.”

The emergence of pragmatics can be traced to the invalidation of earlier linguistic theories and hypotheses, one of which was Chomsky’s “Syntax-only” approach that states that linguistic description must relate to syntax only if it must be valid. There were linguistic issues that could not be explained by the existing theories at this time, and this problem was first noticed not by linguist, but by Philosophers working in the gray zone; a meeting point between linguistics and philosophy.

Syntax could not treat extra linguistic issues adequately. There was also problem in interpreting certain assumptions known as presuppositions which contribute to general understanding of language. According to Mey (pg 3), “’pragmatic turn’ in linguistics can thus be described as a shift from the paradigm of theoretical grammar to the paradigm of the language user.” That is to say that the usage of linguistic items are examined in relation to the user, and not restricted to grammatical contents alone.

Semantics was regarded as a waste basket into which syntactically problematic sentences were dropped; sentences like Chomsky’s colourless green books sleep furiously. This is an example of a sentence that is syntactically acceptable by its meaning is not acceptable. The argument continues that more and more of such statements were dropped in the syntax waste basket until it began to overflow with other statements that semantics alone cannot explain. This introduces another waste basket or ragbag that is called pragmatics. For instance I love you may not be sufficiently accounted for semantically as the meaning would defer as to whether a husband is talking to a wife or to a daughter, or a man talking to another man. Context which is a pragmatic concept becomes an aspect to be recognised in understanding the sentence properly.

Researchers continued to expound the concept of Pragmatics to the point that the International Pragmatics Association (IPrA) was established in Antwerp in 1987. This indicated the growth and establishment of Pragmatics as an independent linguistic subfield that is concerned with examining the everyday use of language in society. The success of pragmatics continues with the contributory publications of Journal of Pragmatics that began since 1977 and Pragmatics in 1991 on issues of great linguistic concern. Other publications (published and unpublished) like thesis, book series, dissertation, newsletters and reference works (like Concise Encyclopaedia of Pragmatics; 1998) also contributed to the field of pragmatics. Several international conferences have been held in Viareggio 1985, Antwerp 1987, Barcelona 1990, Kobe, 1993 and other places where issues covering pragmatics where discussed.

Criticisms against pragmatics

In the process of its development, Pragmatics also had to contend with certain criticisms.

  1. Pragmatics did not have a defined focus. For that reason, areas of linguistics that were not quite clearly explainable were given to the field of pragmatics, and that was why it was referred to as a garbage can where recalcitrant data are kept.
  2. Pragmatic principles were considered fussy and incapable of adequately telling people how to clearly choose meaning relating to a unit of utterance. Marshal (in Cun, 1989) suggested that Pragmatics was not capable of existing as an independent subfield of linguistics since semantics has already dealt with the issues of meaning.
  3. It was called a rag bag into which semantically analysable data where dropped. This means that only statements that made no semantic sense, and are therefore not of any linguistic importance are considered properties of pragmatics.


Pragmatics may be termed a baby-field in the family of linguistics. However it has grown to maturity at this point and can fend for itself as an independent body. Whatever challenge it had to face in its developmental process, it is quite agreeable now that it has contributed immensely to the study of meaning. It has become like a backbone to “almighty” Syntax.

Works Cited

Green, Georgia M. Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding. Hillsdale: N. J. Etrlbaum, 1989.

Leech, Geofrey N. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman, 1983.

Levinson, Stephen C. Pragmatics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Mey , Jacob L. Pragmatics: An Introduction. Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 1993.


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