Menu Close


Saying what needs to be said, and not saying what should not be said

Pragmatics deals with utterances, as specific events, subject to speakers’ or signers’ knowledge, awareness, intentions, in particular circumstances according to who is talking or signing and his or her audience. Pragmatics is sometimes, mistakenly it seems to me, counterposed to linguistics.

In the late 1950s John Langshaw Austin was working on what was published in 1962 as ‘How to do things with words‘. The book was only published after Austin’s early death. It established the discipline which soon became known as ‘pragmatics’.

In his non-academic life, Austin was uncommonly concerned with truth and accuracy. As an intelligence officer in the 1939 – 1945 war, he is credited by one of his colleagues who later went on to become another philosopher, with ensuring that the intelligence, on which the 1944 D-day invasion depended for its success, was accurate. The invasion was planned for a day earlier. But a group of meteorologists correctly predicted that the weather that night would be bad. The invasion was duly delayed.

As a philosopher, Austin distinguished between three sorts of act: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. Each with a correspondingly different sort of ‘force’ in utterances.

There is clear pragmatic force in the ‘transformations’ which Noam Chomsky (1957) famously identified, including negation, question formation, ‘passivisation’ as in “The actor was stunned by the critic” as opposed to “The critic stunned the actor”. The passivisation diminishes the agency in the unpassivised ‘kernel’, instead highlighting the actor’s experience.

Pragmatics is obviously part of everyday discourse between children, between adults, and between adults and children. By the hypothesis here, both discourse and pragmatics were part of the evolution of language, especially at the very start of this evolution, but less and less so as this evolution proceeded.

John Searle and Herbert Paul Grice greatly developed pragmatics, but not in any way so as to supplant linguistics.

Departing slightly from the standard canons of the framework here, I personally assume that discourse interacts with syntax in complex and intricate ways, allowing utterances: “Ah, there you are!” Ah, followed by a pause, marks this as a discourse opening expressing relief. There has has been displaced from the right edge where it would appear in a grammatical sentence in English. It keeps a locative reference, and contrasts with here. But it also becomes a discourse structure, and thus blocks both negation and the formation of a question. There are no truth conditions. It does not make sense to say: “Ah, there you are! Is that true?”

Another sort of structure given only by discourse consists in expressions like “The bigger the better” with no form of the verb, otherwise obligatory in any statement in English (by its syntax0, and such that it be neither questioned nor denied.

By the proposal here, discourse was indistinguishable from any notion of syntax or grammar at the very beginning of human language evolution. Faint echoes of this still remain in

  • Very early language with hello or good bye often in the first pairings of different sorts of element;
  • The way discourse elements are allowed at the beginnings or ends of sentences, or otherwise with a momentary pause before and after the discourse element – as in “He allegedly travelled at night” or “He travelled allegedly at night” but not between at and night.