Semantics, Pragmatics and Discourse

Semantics and Pragmatics
Not only has semantics now become an important area of inquiry in linguistics but it has also been extended to the level of pragmatics. Pragmatics is seen b some linguists as an independent level of language analysis as it is based on utterances in the same way as phonology is based on sound, syntax on sentences and semantics on both words and sentences.

The link between pragmatics and semantics remains, however, that at both levels we are concerned with meaning. Semantics attempts to relate meaning to logic and truth, and deals with meaning as a matter primarily of sense-relations within the language. Pragmatics attempts to relate meaning to context of utterance; it views language as action which is performed by speakers.

What is the context of utterance? A sentence is uttered by a speaker, and when the speaker utters it, he/she performs an act. This is called a speech-act. Since it is performed by a speaker in relation to a hearer (or addressee), it depends on the conditions prevailing at the time the speech-act is performed. These conditions include the previous knowledge shared by speaker and hearer, and the reasons for the performance of the act. All these taken together constitute the context of utterance-speaker(s), hearer(h), sentence(s) and utterance(u).
Meaning in this sense involves the speaker’s intention to convey a certain meaning which may not be evident in the message itself. In the sentence ‘There’s a fly in my soup’, the message is that ‘There is a fly in my soup’ in which the speaker’s intention may be to complain. So the meaning of the utterance contains the meaning of complaint. A hearer hearing this sentence may interpret it not just as a statement but as a request to take the soup away. That is, the meaning will include some intended effect on the hearer.
The consideration of meaning as a part of the utterance or speech act was initiated by the philosopher J.L. Austin (How to Do Things With Words) and developed by J. Searle and H.Y. Grice. Let us consider Austin’s idea first. Keeping in view the above distinction between the speaker’s intention to convey a particular meaning which may not be evident in the message itself, Austin makes a distinction between Sense and Force. Sense is the propositional content or logical meaning of a sentence. Austin calls it the locutionary meaning. Force is the act performed in uttering a sentence. It is the performative meaning, defined by Austin as Illocutionary Force. For example, the utterance ‘Please shut the door’ is an imperative sentence. The logical or propositional context is that of shutting the door. It will have the force of request if the speaker and hearer are in some relationship which allows the speaker to make requests to the hearer, the hearer is in a position where he is capable of shutting the door, there is a particular door which the speaker is indicating and that door is open. If all these conditions are not fulfilled, the utterance will not have the force of request. We can chart the meaning of the above sentence as follows:
Please shut the door           Sentence form : Imperative
                                          Sense : Shutting the door (someone)
Force : Request
In this sentence, sense and force are very similar to each other. However, in some cases there may be a difference. For example, if the speaker says, Can you shut the door?’ the sentence form is interrogative, the sense is ‘can’ + ‘you’ + ‘shut the door’, that is, the logical meaning of the sentence is a question about the ability of the hearer to shut the door, evident in the sense of the modal ‘can’. However, the force is still that of request. In such an utterance, it is clear that the sense is not the total meaning of the utterance, and that if only the sense is considered, the utterance will not succeed as a successful communication. If the hearer takes only the sense of the above sentence, he will understand the sentence only as a question regarding his ability to shut the door; it is only when the force of the utterance is understood that the hearer takes it as a request to shut the door, provided all the conditions for the performance of the request are fulfilled.
In other instances there is even more discrepancy between what the sentence says and what the speaker of the sentence intends the hearer to understand by it, i.e. between sense and force. ‘There’s a cold breeze coming through the door’ is a statement in terms of form and sense, but the speaker may intend it to be a request to shut the door. In this way, there can he any number of variable meanings of the same utterance.
This raises a problem: how can we interpret a sentence when sense and force are very different and nothing in the sentence itself indicates what its force can be? Here a distinction can be made between utterances which are more conventional in nature and others which are more individual and situation-specific. For example, ‘Can you shut the door?’ is the kind of utterance which has become conventionalized to a great extent, so that a hearer is less likely to misinterpret it as a real question, and more likely to understand its force of request. But in the case of ‘There’s a cold breeze coming through the door’, or ‘Its very cold in the room’ or ‘Are you immune to cold?’ there is a more indirect manner of making the request to the hearer. These are more dependent on the relation between the speaker and the hearer. While the conventionalized utterance can occur in many situations, the variable utterances can occur only in specific situations e.g. informal, friendly etc. Only under such conditions will the hearer be able to infer the intended meaning of the speaker.
It is for this reason that Grice (Logic and Conversation, 1975) explains that all communication takes place in a situation where people are co-operative. When people communicate, they assume that the other person will be cooperative and they themselves wish to cooperate. Grice calls this the ‘Cooperative Principle’. Under this principle, the following maxims are followed:
(i) Maxim of quantity. Give the right amount of information, neither less nor more than what is required.
(ii) Maxirn of quality. Make your contribution such that it is true; do not say what you know is false or for which you do not have adequate evidence.
(iii) Maxim of relation. Be relevant.
(iv) Maxim of manner. Avoid obscurity and ambiguity; be brief and orderly.
These ‘Maxims’ are different from rules in that while rules cannot be violated, maxims are often violated. That is, people often give more or less information than required, or make irrelevant contributions. When this happens, some implied meanings arise as a result. For example, in the interaction:
A : Where’s my box of chocolates?
B : The children were in your room this morning.
B violates the Maxim of relation because the reply is apparently not relevant to A’s question. A proper response to A’s question would be that B answers A’s question about where the chocolates are. Since B does not give this answer, it implies that B does not know the answer, and also implies a suggestion on B’s part that the children may have taken the chocolates. Similarly, in the interaction:
A : I failed in my test today.
B : Wonderful !
In this case, B’s response violates the maxim of quality in that the expression ‘wonderful’ here is not an expression of delight or actual wonder. A’s statement is not such that would demand a response of exclamation of delight. That such a response is given by B means that B implies something else: the negative of ‘wonderful’ meaning ‘its not wonderful’. But by giving a response like this, and violating the maxim, B is implying irony. The implication generated by an untruthful and exaggerated statement is sarcasm; implication generated by an opposite statement from the one expected is irony. These meanings are possible through the deliberate violation of the conversational maxims and are called ‘conversational implicatures’ by Grice.
The insights provided by these theories of pragmatics have helped us to understand meaning as part of communication rather than as something abstract. They have also helped to analyse units of linguistic organization higher than the sentence, pairs of sentences taken as units, and sequences of sentences taken as texts, leading us to the analysis of meaning in connected language, i.e., discourse.
Discourse Analysis
As soon as we begin to study meaning in language in relation to context, we find that it is situated within two kinds of context. One is the extra-linguistic, i.e. the content of the external world. The other is the intra-linguistic, i.e., the linguistic context in which that piece of language occurs. So, for example, words occur within a sentential context, sentences occur within a context consisting of other sentences. In the ‘analysis of language at the level of discourse, we are concerned with this intra-linguistic context.
Discourse is a level higher than that of the sentence. It includes all the other linguistic levels—sound, lexis, syntax. All these continue to make up a discourse. But here we must distinguish between the grammatical aspect and the semantic/ pragmatic aspect of discourse. The former creates a text and the latter creates a discourse. In the former, words continue to form sentences, sentences combine to form a text. Just as there are rules for combination of words, there are certain relations between sentences and rules by which they may be related. These rules of sentence-connection create cohesion in the text. At the same time, these sentences are also utterances, i.e. they have a force which is vital for understanding their meaning, which are combined to create coherence. Thus we may distinguish between text and discourse in that text is created by sentence-cohesion and discourse is created by coherence. A discourse may be defined as a stretch of language-use which is coherent in its meaning. It will of course include grammar and cohesion. The following is an example of discourse which is both cohesive and coherent:
A : Can you go to Karachi tomorrow?
B : Yes, I can.
The interchange is cohesive because the second sentence does not repeat the whole of the first sentence. Instead of the whole sentence: ‘I can go to Karachi tomorrow’, B says only: ‘I can’, omitting the rest. This indicates that the second sentence is linked to the first in sequential order. It is also coherent because B has given an appropriate response to A from A’s request. However, in the following example:          
A : Can you go to    Karachi tomorrow?
B : There is a general strike.
The two sentences are not cohesive because the second sentence is not linked to the first sentence in a grammatical sense. There is no repetition or obvious connection between the two sentences. But they are coherent, because B replies to A’s request in a sentence which gives some information implying that it may not be possible to go to Karachi. Thus, this exchange is coherent but not cohesive.
In order to analyse discourse, it may be necessary to consider all aspects of language: the grammatical as well as the semantic and pragmatic (not forgetting the role of intonation). Grammatical forms which are used to link sentences and create cohesion can be of several kinds : logical connectors such as ‘and’, ‘but’; conjuncts such as ‘also’, ‘equally’, ‘furthermore’, contrasts such as ‘instead’ and similarly, ‘for’ ‘thus’.
Deictic elements such as ‘here’, ‘there’, also indicate other references and are thus important in creating cohesion as well as discourse meaning.
Apart from grammatical features, discourse is constituted of features which are particular to the mode, tenor and field or domain of that discourse. The mode may be spoken or written. In spoken discourse there will be features of: inexplicitness, lack of clear sentence boundaries and sentence-completion, repetition, hesitation, interaction and maintenance features, e.g. ‘well’, ‘you know’, while in written discourse there will be features of explicitness, clear sentence boundaries and more complex sentences, formal features but no interactional and monitoring features. The tenor of discourse refers to features relating to the relationship between the speaker and the addressee in a given situation—these features reflect the formality or informality, degree of politeness, a personal or impersonal touch. Thus, if the relationship is a polite one, there will be respectful terms of address, e.g. ‘Sir’, and indirect requests rather than commands. If the relationship is one of familiarity, the features will include terms of friendship e.g. ‘dear’, direct requests and imperatives. Lastly, field or domain of discourse pertains to the area of activity to which that discourse belongs, e.g. whether the discourse is in the field of religion, science, law, journalism, advertising. In each field, the discourse will be characterized by a particular kind of vocabulary and sentence structure, e.g. sports commentary uses present tense; advertising uses many adjectives. Literary discourse often freely combines features from many kinds of discourse and occupies a different status from other types of discourse.
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