The Relationship Between Semantics and Pragmatics

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The Relationship Between Semantics and Pragmatics
« on: June 01, 2021, 01:19:23 PM »
The Relationship Between Semantics and Pragmatics

①  What is meaning?

Levinson, discussing the relationship between semantics and pragmatics, remarks: “From what we now know about the nature of meaning, a hybrid or modular account seems inescapable; there remains the hope that with two components, a semantics and a pragmatics working in tandem, each can be built on relatively homogeneous and systematic line” (1983:15).Both in semantics or pragmatics, meaning is a main topic which causes linguists’ interest and concern.

On one hand, in semantics, the word “meaning” has many different meanings. In their book, The Meaning of Meaning written in 1923, C.K.Odgen and I.A.Richards presented a “representative list of the main definitions which reputable students of meaning have favoured” (p.186). G.Leech in a more moderate tone recognizes 7 types of meaning in his Semantics (p.23), first published in 1974, includes: conceptual meaning, connotative meaning, social meaning, affective meaning, reflected meaning, collocative meaning, thematic meaning. The first type of meaning — conceptual meaning — makes up the central part. It is denotative in that it concerned with the relationship between a word and the thing it denotes, or refers to. In this sense, conceptual meaning overlaps to a large extent with the notion of reference.

On the other hand, all these types of meaning mentioned above have been well studied in the field of semantics. What’s more, in pragmatics linguists connect the meaning of a word with the thing it points to. To some extent, it is similar to the referential theory, which relates the meaning of a word to the thing it refers to, or stands for. There is something behind the concrete thing we can see with our eyes. And that something is abstract, which has no existence in the material world and can only be sensed in our minds. This abstract thing is usually called concept. A theory which explicitly employs the notion “concept” is the semantic triangle proposed by Ogden and Richards in their book The Meaning of Meaning. They argue that the relation between a word and a thing it refers to is not direct. It is mediated by concept. In a diagram form, the relation is represented as follows:



                                              Word  --------------------  Thing


The difference between semantics and pragmatics according to G.Leech, in his Principles of pragmatics (pp.5-6) holds the view that “can be traced to two different uses of the verb to mean:

[1] What does X mean?                     [2] What did you mean by X?

Semantics traditionally deals with meaning as a dyadic relation, as in [1] , while pragmatics deals with meaning as a triadic relation, as in [2]. Thus meaning in pragmatics is defined relative to a speaker or user of the language, whereas meaning in semantics is defined purely as a property of expressions in a given language, in abstraction from particular situations, speakers, or hearers.” And he goes on to state explicitly “This is a rough-and-ready distinction which has been refined, for particular purposes, by philosophers such as Morris (1938, 1946 ) or Carnap ( 1942 ).”

As it is known to all, the word is a vital unit of analyzing linguistics and it is the bearer of meaning in semantics, which focus on its literal meaning; while in pragmatics words are seen from a functional point of view, that is to say, how it makes a difference in a context. There are three approaches to deal with meaning:

The traditional approach is based on the assumption that the word was the basic unit of syntax and semantics. Thus, the traditional approach is almost exclusively concerned with word meaning and words are regarded as the bearer of meaning.

Functional linguists like M.A.K.Halliday take a functional approach towards meaning. They emphasize the social aspect of language and regards language as “social semiotic”. According to their description, the functional components of the semantic system are the modes of meaning: ideational meaning, interpersonal meaning and textual meaning.

The pragmatic approach emphasizes the dependency of the understanding of an utterance of the situational context.

②  Pragmatics = Meaning – Semantics

Hanks states that “meaning arises out of the interaction between language and circumstances, rather than being encapsulated in the language itself” (1996:266); that is to say, encoded in semantic units and administered by syntactic rules.

When we use sentences with a meaning other than the literal, this kind of meaning is sometimes referred to as speaker’s meaning, utterance meaning or contextual meaning. It is called pragmatics. Since this kind of meaning comes partly from the use of language in a context, pragmatics may also be defined as the study of language in use. Now if we divide meaning into two major sides: the side more closely related to the words used, the more constant, inherent side of meaning (which is studied under the heading of semantics) and the side more closely related to the context, the more indeterminate side, or something extra (which is studied under the heading of pragmatics), then we can say “pragmatics = meaning – semantics”. Pragmatics is the study of the relationships between linguistic forms and the uses of those forms. For example, two friends having a conversation may imply some things and infer some others without providing any clear linguistic evidence that we can point to as the explicit source of “the meaning” of what was communicated.

eg. Her: So—did you?

   Him: Hey—who wouldn’t?

Thus, pragmatics is appealing because it is about how people make sense of each other linguistically, but it can be a frustrating area of study because it requires us to make sense of people and what they have in mind.

In other words, when we speak we not only produce some units of language with certain meanings, but also make clear our purpose in producing them, the way we intend them to be understood, or they have certain forces as Austin prefers to say. Austin acknowledges the “force” may be regarded as part of “meaning”, when the later is used in a broad sense. But Austin thinks it is better to distinguish “force” from “meaning”, with the latter used in a narrow sense, or what we called the more constant, inherent side of meaning,. Thus interpreted, “force”, or “illocutionary meaning ”and may be translated into Chinese as 言外之意.

To figure out meanings in actual context, Herbert Paul Grice presented the original theory – the cooperative principle, or CP for short, which is meant to describe what actually happens in conversation and guide us. What’s more, it is obvious that the conversational implicature of an utterance is different from its literal meaning. There is no direct link between the two. So if it is to succeed as the speaker intends to, there must be ways for the hearer to work it out. In “Logic and Conversation”, Grice suggests, “To work out that particular conversational implicature is present, the hearer will rely on the following data: (1) the conventional meaning of the words used, together with the identity of any references that may be involved; (2) the CP and its maxims; (3) the context, linguistic or otherwise, of the utterance; (4) other items of background knowledge; and (5) the fact that all relevant items falling under the previous headings are available to both participants and both participants know or assume this to be the case.

Later on, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson developed Gricean maxims. In 1981, Wilson and Sperber published an article entitled “On Grice’s Theory of Conversation”. In it they propose for the first time that all Gricean maxims, including the CP itself, should be reduced to a single principle of relevance, which is defined as “The speaker has done his best to be maximally relevant”(Wilson & Sperber[1981];361).Reference theory was formally proposed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in their book Relevance: Communication and Cognition in 1986.

As for CP itself, they think it is not incompatible with their principle. Nevertheless, it does not seem right to characterize conversation as a cooperative effort. Conversation is basically egotistic, some degree of cooperative effort. Conversation is basically egotistic, some degree of cooperation is only a price interlocutor have to pay. In their 1986 book, Sperber and Wilson define the principle of relevance as: “Every act of ostensive communication communicates the presumption of its own optimal relevance.”(Sperber & Wilson 1986: 158)

③  Semantic clash & Pragmatic acts

Pragmatic acts are pragmatic because they base themselves on language as constrained by the situation, not as defined by syntactic rules or by semantic selections and conceptual restrictions. Pragmatic acts situation-derived and situation-constrained; in the final analysis, they are determined by the broader social context in which they happen, and they realize their goals in the conditions placed upon human action by that context. As such, they correspond to what Levinson, in an early article, has called ‘activity types’: “they [the ‘pragmemes’] constrain what will count as an allowable contribution to each activity [or ‘pract’ and on the other hand, they help to determine [‘set up’] how what one says [one’s ‘speech acts’], will be ‘taken’” (Levinson 1979:393; Jacob L.Mey additions).

Consider the following example. The Chicago alternative cultural weekly Reader had an advertisement in its August 21, 1992, issue for a downtown cocktail lounge called Sweet Alice. The ad carried the text “I bought some sushi home and cooked it; it wasn’t bad.”Of course, this sentence is a joke: everyone knows that sushi is eaten raw, and that you’re not supposed to cook it. Cooking sushi may strike one as funny, stupid, or outrageous, depending on one’s point of view. In the same way is “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, which made a certain linguist famous in the sixties.

When asked about the odd wording in the advertisement quoted above, the linguists might say that the sentence above contains a semantic clash, and that’s why it doesn’t make sense: the semantics of one of its parts (the sushi) contradicts the semantics of another part (the cooking). This is where pragmatic acts come into picture. Pragmatics tells us it’s all right to use language in various unconventional ways, as long as we know, as language users, what we’re doing. That implies letting ourselves be “semantically shocked”, if there is a reason for it, or if it is done for a purpose.

Such a pragmatic explanation of a linguistic fact will by some be ascribed to an inability to explain linguistic matters in normal ways, making use of the standard methods of semantics or syntax; this kind of attitude has led to the well-known characterization of pragmatics as the “waste -basket of linguistics”.


(2)               The relationship between semantics and pragmatics

①  Definitions

Morris gave his new definitions in this 1946 book are: “ pragmatics is that portion of semiotic which deals with the origin, uses, and effects if signs within the behavior in which they occur; semantics deals with the signification of signs in all modes of signifying.”

Furthermore, pragmatics is the study of language usage from a functional perspective and is concerned with the principles that account for how meaning is communicated by the speaker or writer and interrupted by the listener or reader in a certain context. Pragmatics studies the contextual meaning and it is concerned with people’s intended meaning, their assumption and their purposes or goals. It concentrates on the aspects of meaning that cannot be predicted by linguistic knowledge alone and takes into account our knowledge about the physical and social world. Comparatively speaking, semantics is the study of the relationship between linguistic forms and entities in the world and it focuses on the meaning that comes from linguistic knowledge.

In general, pragmatics and semantics are both linguistic studies of meaning. The great difference between them is whether the context of use is considered in the study of meaning. If it is not considered, the study is confined to the area of traditional semantics; if it is considered, the study is being carried out in the area of pragmatics. Or we may say that semantics is the study of meaning in language. It is concerned with what language means. This is not the same as what people mean by the language they use, how they actualize its meaning potential as a communicative resource. This is the concern of pragmatics.

②  Langue-Parole distinction of Saussure

Saussure proposed that linguistics should concern itself with the shared social code, the abstract system, which he called langue, leaving aside the particular actualities of individual utterances, which he called parole.

According to Saussure’s account on the distinction between langue and parole, we could identify the social bond that constitutes language (langue) which is more or less like a grammatical system, or in other words, from my point of view, belongs to semantics. While the actual use of speaking (parole) has a potential existence in each brain, which belongs to pragmatics. So the distinction between langue and parole is, to some extent, reflects the relationship between semantics and pragmatics.

Furthermore, as Chomsky points out that the distinction between competence and performance is related to the langue-parole distinction of Saussure; we can also observe the discrepancy between competence and performance in normal language users. According to Chomsky, the task of a linguist is to determine from the data of performance the underlying system of rules that has been mastered by the language user. As far as I am concerned, that is to combine pragmatics and semantics together; use materials from pragmatics to summary rules in semantics.

On one hand, as a language user we all have, without any doubt, a grasp of the rules of language and all these linguistic rules, though we may not be able to state them explicitly, make up a large part in semantics. On the other hand, in fact, speakers do not always observe linguistic rules when they talk in daily life. Instead there can be numerous false starts, derivations, grammatical expressions and so on, which arouse linguists’ interests in respect of pragmatics.

To extend the notion of competence, which is restricted by Chomsky to knowledge of grammar, to incorporate the pragmatic ability for language use, Dell Hymes approaches language from a socio-cultural viewpoint with the aim of studying the varieties of ways of speaking on the part of the individual and the community. This extended idea of competence can be called Communicative Competence. In this way, we enlarge the area of semantics to pragmatics.

(3)               Summary

According to Geofrey Leech—This is what he says about the relation between pragmatics and its nearest linguistic neighbor, semantics. “The view that semantics and pragmatics are distinct, though complementary and interrelated fields of study, is easy to appreciate subjectively, but is more difficult to justify in an objective way. It is best supported negatively, by pointing out the failures or weakness of alternative views” (1983:6). Leech distinguishes between three possible ways of structuring this relationship: semanticism(pragmatics inside semantics), pragmanticism(semantics inside pragmatics) and complementarism(semantics and pragmatics complement each other, but are otherwise independent areas of research).

Anta Afsana
Department of English
Daffodil International University
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Contact number: 07134195331