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Language in Use

Pragmatics-Portfolio assignments concerning pragmatic principles in spoken language

Term Paper 2014 26 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics

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(i) Towards the end of his introductory chapter, Levinson (1983: 31) offers the following definition of Pragmatics, which is in line with Gazdar’s (1979) idea of context change: “Gazdar (1979: 4-5) … wishes to capture the ways in which utterances change the context in which they are uttered: f(u) = c or f(s, c) = c i.e. f is a function from utterances to contexts, namely the contexts brought about by each utterance (or f assigns to each sentence plus the context prior to its utterance, a second context caused by its utterance).” Discuss Levinson’s definition by exploring the notion of context and its significance for the branch of Pragmatics.

(ii) In How To Do Things With Words, Austin (1962) initially makes a very strict distinction between statements and performatives. This distinction, however, breaks down completely towards the end of his lecture. Illustrate the internal development of Austin’s argumentation.

(iii) Searle suggests a classification of speech acts – according to their illocutionary force – into representatives, expressives, commissives, directives and declaratives. Explain the differences between those five types of acts and find illustrative examples in real language use (i.e. spoken language corpora such as the spoken parts of the COCA or the BNC).

(iv) In syntax, three kinds of sentences are distinguished depending on their structure: declarative sentences, interrogative sentences, imperative sentences. However, sentence type and illocutionary force are not always directly related. For instance, a request can be realized by means of an imperative (“Go away!”), an interrogative (“Would you mind leaving me alone for a while?”), or a declarative (“I would really like to be alone right now.”).
Pick a film or TV series you like and find three examples of direct and three examples of indirect speech acts.

(v) Illustrate the differences between maxim violation, maxim flouting and maxim hedging (Grice) with the help of concrete examples!

(vi) well and now - Research question: Are well (286784 tokens) and now (285925 tokens) in their function as discourse marker interchangeable or do they serve specific functions in spoken discourse?

Bibliographic Refernces

(i) Towards the end of his introductory chapter, Levinson (1983: 31) offers the following definition of Pragmatics, which is in line with Gazdar’s (1979) idea of context change:

“Gazdar (1979: 4-5) … wishes to capture the ways in which utterances change the context in which they are uttered:

f(u) = c or f(s, c) = c

i.e. f is a function from utterances to contexts, namely the contexts brought about by each utterance (or f assigns to each sentence plus the context prior to its utterance, a second context caused by its utterance).”

Discuss Levinson’s definition by exploring the notion of context and its significance for the branch of Pragmatics.

Attempting to define a rather abstract term of linguistic science such as ‘Pragmatics’, proves to be a challenging and intricate task. Since all verbal communication is regarded a highly structured social activity, connected speech as part of interactional spoken dialogue requires a substantial amount of metalinguistic knowledge from all participants, speakers and hearers alike. When attempting to interpret possible speaker intentions, identifying word, phrase, and utterance borders as well as recognizing occurrences of speech repair and hesitation, the hearer relies on contextual signposts assisting in interpreting the information offered in an utterance. Those contextual cues oftentimes extend or even overrule the semantic content of words and phrases thereby causing a change from pure semantic meaning to meaning minus semantics (Levinson 1983: 31). What is left then may be described as context-dependent meaning potential which includes, among others, contextual information concerning appropriateness, speaker intension on the level of speech acts performed during an utterance, relevance, conversational implicatures, and discourse structure. These forms of pragmatic information do not derive from specific lexical meanings but are constituted within a certain communicative context including, among others, domains of language, mood of the participants, educational and cultural background, degree of formality considered appropriate etc. Therefore, they are not to be interpreted by the hearer based solely on their semantic content but rather on the contextual information they are embedded in (cf. ibid.: 27, 33 and Bunt : 81). According to Levinson (1983), the holistic meaning generated within an utterance consists of lexical meaning as well as pragmatic content including implicit meaning, inference, presumption, and other contextual factors which do not necessarily have to be uttered by the speaker. The unsaid, non-verbalized aspects are what stress the necessity of focusing on language use in context in order to successfully communicate and in order to successfully comprehend the full extent of an utterance and its meaning (cf. Levinson 1983: 15).

Natural communication may therefore be regarded as context-dependent. However, the notion of context, what it includes and how it influences understanding within a communicative situation is not easy to define (cf. ibid. 23). Next to knowledge of role and status as well as knowledge of spatial and temporal location, participants rely on multiple aspects of the social and psychological world (Ochs in ibid. 23) in which they operate. When we construe context to be the totality of conditions that influence the understanding of communicative actions, we may conclude that those communicative actions not only operate on specific contexts but that they also produce new ones (cf. ibid.: 31 and Bunt 2000: 81 et seq.). The function f of an utterance u is then causing a change of context c.

By assuming correct understanding of a speech event uttered, we also imply that implicit, underlying motivation behind the utterance is understood and recognized. The hearer then goes from a status of “not knowing” to “knowing”, thereby changing the context of the entire communicative situation. The context prior to the utterance is characterized, among others, by the hearer not clearly knowing the speakers intensions and not being aware of certain dialogue mechanisms about to take place. After the sequence of speech is uttered, however, the hearer has been informed, explicitly or implicitly, about what is expected of her (i.e. answering, listening, approving etc.) – the context of the communicative situation has been changed from pre- to post-utterance context (cf. ibid.: 31 et seq. and Bunt 2000: 82). The speaker’s communicative intension prior to the utterance (pre-utterance context) becomes shared knowledge of both, speaker and hearer, after the speech sequence has been uttered (post-utterance context) (cf. ibid.: 16).

In the field of Pragmatics, contextual information forms the basis of understanding meaning beyond semantic content (cf. ibid.: 21). In order to be able to communicate successfully, one has to be able to decode and identify implicatures, aspects of discourse management, and inferences as well as recognize new meanings in a given context. An exclusion of context itself and change thereof would most likely result in an unsuccessful communication, including misunderstandings on the contentual as well as on the interpersonal level.

(ii) In How To Do Things With Words, Austin (1962) initially makes a very strict distinction between statements and performatives. This distinction, however, breaks down completely towards the end of his lecture.

Illustrate the internal development of Austin’s argumentation.

In his 1955 William James Lectures Austin presents, among others, his concept of performative versus constative utterances, so-called statements. The strict differentiation between the two, however, yields a far more complex definition, which no longer allows for such a clear-cut distinction.

Austin initially defines performatives as the verbal realization of an actual action – in saying what I do, I actually perform that action (Austin 2006: 46 et seq.). He claims that there are specific verbs as well as specific grammatical features that qualify an utterance to belong to the “class” of performative. Verbs such as ‘apologize’, ‘swear’, ‘declare’, ‘christen’, etc. display certain linguistic characteristics which appear to separate them from the rest of the verbs. Considering the following examples:

(1) I (hereby) pronounce you husband and wife.[1]

(2) I (hereby) apologize for my wrongdoing.

(3) I (hereby) promise I will be on time for the meeting.

Even though the semantic content and context of each sample sentence is quite different, all examples listed above use an action-based verb in the present tense form, allow for an insertion of the word hereby before the verb, and are in the first person singular indicative active voice (cf. Archer et al. 2012: 35 et seq. and Austin 2006: 50).[2] Even though they share the structural appearance of regular statements, they, according to Austin’s initial definition, do not report facts and are not themselves true or false (Austin 2006: 47.) A similar sentence with a non-performative verb results in an ungrammatical speech segment:

(4) * I (hereby) love my sister.

(5) * I (hereby) feel drowsy.

Examples (1) through (3) represent what Austin refers to as explicit performatives since they explicitly state the speech act which is performed while the utterance is made, thereby avoiding misunderstanding, stressing importance, authority or power (cf. Archer et al. 2012: 37). So-called implicit or primary performatives are more context-dependent since the speech act performed is not explicitly stated (cf. Austin 2006: 52):

(6) I will be there.

(7) Go home and get some sleep.

Example (6) may be interpreted as a promise but also as a warning or even a threat. In order for the hearer to decode the speech act correctly, she strongly relies on the context of the conversation (cf. ibid.).

Austin’s initial contrastive definition of performatives and statements is largely based on the assumption that constative utterances (statements) are either true or false since they are said to report facts, while performatives may be considered felicitous or infelicitous since they are defined as the actual performance of a certain action (e.g. warning, promise, declaration, announcement etc.) (cf. ibid. 2006: 54).[3] Towards the end of his lecture, however, this clear-cut distinction and the assumptions stated above appear to break down. While attempting to prove his theory, Austin notices that there is a multitude of what he initially calls odd cases (Austin 2006: 53) that do not fit neatly in his definition.

(8) I’m sorry.

(9) I apologize.

Considering Austin’s initial distinction, (8) would represent a constative utterance while (9) may be declared a performative (performing explicitly the act of apologizing while uttering the sentence). But what happens if we simply add the phrase “I state that […]”:

(8a) I state that I’m sorry.

(9a) I state that I apologize.

By uttering example sentence (9a), the act of apologizing is still performed with the addition that the utterance now has to be either true or false since it takes on the form of a statement. When examining (8a), we also notice that the utterance appears no longer to be the simple reporting of a fact but rather the performing of stating this fact. (8a) may therefore qualify as a performative as well, including the “characteristic” feature of either being felicitous or infelicitous. Now, the contrastive borderline between constatives being true or false and performatives being felicitous or infelicitous begins to become quite fuzzy (cf. Austin 2006: 54.).

(10) I promise I won’t be late.

(10a) I won’t be late. But I don’t believe I’m going to make it on time.

In (10) the act of promising is explicitly stated. The utterance may be regarded as felicitous as long as all conventional rules of communication are obeyed or as infelicitous if the speaker is not planning on keeping her promise (lack of sincerity). At a first glance, (10a) sounds somewhat of a contradictory and odd statement to be made. But exactly those kinds of statements give rise to the breakdown of Austin’s initial distinction because they can in fact be infelicitous – in the case of (10a), this infelicity in caused by the speaker stating something as true which she does not believe herself (cf. ibid. 54 et seq.).

In sum, Austin concludes that constatives just like performatives may be affected by infelicities and that by stating, reporting or describing something the speaker not only utters facts but also performs the act of stating, reporting or describing. Thus, stating something may no longer be differentiated from other acts performed and all utterances including constatives may be regarded as performatives (cf. ibid. 55 et seq.). Based on those findings, Austin rests his new and highly influential theory of speech acts.

(iii) Searle suggests a classification of speech acts – according to their illocutionary force – into representatives, expressives, commissives, directives and declaratives. Explain the differences between those five types of acts and find illustrative examples in real language use (i.e. spoken language corpora such as the spoken parts of the COCA or the BNC).

According to Austin, there is a distinction to be made between the literal meaning of an utterance, the so-called locutionary act, and its illocutionary force – what is the point the speaker is trying to make by making the utterance? (cf. Hornsby/Longworth 2006: 62, Archer 2012: 37, Searle 1968: 406 et seq.).

(11) I will be home.

In example (11) the literal meaning is unambiguous, the illocutionary force, however, may be a promise, a warning, or even a threat. Searle proposes a typology of speech acts depending on their illocutionary force.

The first category presented by Searle includes so-called representatives/assertives. The utterance made by the speaker expresses the speaker’s belief that something is true, thereby relating to already existing facts in the real world. By stating, suggesting, claiming etc. the speaker matches her utterance to what is believed to be true (cf. Archer 2012: 39).

(12) Listen, I know you guys are happy and I don't wan na ruin your moment. This isn't real. This little charade, you can get on your knee. You can go through the whole thing, it's not real. A real marriage is between a man and a woman. (57_2012_SPOK_ABC_Primetime).[4]

Here, the speaker is stating his/her opinions by claiming that what he/she is saying is in fact true. In order to stress his/her conviction about the content of the utterance the word real serves as an indicator for truthfulness and real-life existence.

(13) He's had some, I think, overly broad rebuttals: If you attack Bain, if you attack LBOs, you're attacking capitalism. Well, that's not true. There's good capitalism and there's bad capitalism. (55_2012_SPOK_PBS_NewsHour).

The phrase there is conveys the speakers certainness about the utterances made. He/she believes what is asserted to be true and what was uttered before not to be true. By doing that the speaker makes a clear distinction between what he/she believes to be true and what he/she believes to be untrue (cf. word-to-world fit Archer 2012: 39).

The second class of speech acts Searle defines is labeled commissives. Their illocutionary force includes the speaker’s commitment to some future action as it is the case in promises, vows, pledges etc. The words uttered no longer match real-world existences but fit a future real-world state to the words uttered (cf. world-to-word fit ibid.).

[...]


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, examples are provided by the author of the paper.

[2] Austin names a second standard from in which performatives appear: 2nd or 3rd person indicative in passive voice and present tense, e.g. All visitors are warned not to climb over the fences. (cf. Austin 2006: 51).

[3] Austin states two main reasons why performatives may be regarded as infelicitous: 1. Violation of existing conventional procedures and 2. The speaker lacks sincerity, is not qualified (e.g. not a priest in order to pronounce a couple husband and wife), or the performative is simply not understood by the receiver (cf. Austin 2006: 48 et seq.).

[4] All examples taken from the spoken section in COCA are indicated by the respective corpus tags.

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