Learner's Diary



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Learner's Diary 09.01.2008


In this session, we began to discuss pragmatics.

At the beginning, however, Dr. Gibbon gave us an overview about the semantic type of conjunctions. For instance, the sentence “If it rains, it is cloudy” can be understood in three different ways. In order to define, how conjunctions like this one work, a truth-table is very helpful.

A truth-table for the sentence above could look like this:

p   ---> q
(if)  (then)
T   T   T
F   T   T
T   F   F
F   T   F

The letters “p” and “q” stand for the two parts of the conjunction, while arrow shows that the conjunction in question is an if-clause. The letters “T” and “F” signify whether the two constituent parts, as well as the entire if-clause, actually happen to be true, or not. Hence, if it rains, it is cloudy. Due to this, the entire sentence is true (or plausible), which is shown by the letter “T” under the arrow.

This truth-table shows that conjunctions, in fact, do have a meaning: they help to construct the meaning of sentences.

After this part of the lecture that was concerned with semantics again, we got to learn more about pragmatics. In contrast to semantics, a field dealing with signs and their interpretation, pragmatics deals with signs in connection to their interpreters.
Charles Pierce, one of the first philosophers in the 19th century dealing with semantics, distinguished between syntax, pragmatics and semantics.

The earliest models of how signs relate to their users was made by de Saussure, one of the first linguists. In contrast to previous linguists, who dealt mostly with the history of language, de Saussure was more concerned with a synchronic view of language.

According to him, language consists of signs that exist in our subconsciousness and in our memory. Since signs are shared by a community, this community shares a colllectice subconsciousness. Hence, de Saussure was the first person to use a socially-oriented model of language, putting language into its communicative concept.

Bühler, a linguist and a psychologist, introduced a slightly more complex model. Like de Saussure, Bühler’s model also involves a speaker and a hearer. However, he identified three different functions of language: a speaker-oriented function, a hearer-oriented function, and a context-oriented function. According to his “instrumental theory”, signs are instruments with which the speaker can do various things (thus, Bühler’s model is a very idealistic type of model), the sign itself is more implicit than in de Saussure’s model.

According to Roman Jakobson, who taught at Harvard University,the three most important functions are the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion), the representational function (Darstellungsfunktion) and the conative function (Appellfunktion). These imply the relationship between signs and the sender, signs and the context, and between signs and the hearer. Therefore, the main constitutive factors are the same as de Saussure and Bühler used.

However, Jakobson added 2 functions: the contact and the code.
The relationship between the message and the code is called a metalingual relationship (for instance, if you are talking German and you are using a certain word, you are using metalingual knowledge).

Secondly, the relationship between message and contact is called “phatic function”. Phatic functions are used, for example, to keep social contacts (such as in the context of small talks; or if you are on the phone, trying to get the channel work (by using expressions such as “Bist du noch da? Ich hör nix!” ) .

Moreover, there is the relation between the message itself: this is called the “poetic function”. It is a reflexive aspect, for instance, if a text (such as a poem-hence the name) refers back to itself. In other words, this is the reflexivity of a text.

In addition to this, we learned about the traditional distinction of syntax, pragmatics and semantics, which was introduced by Rudolf Carnap:
-syntax: the relation of signs to each other
-semantics: the relation of signs to the world
-pragmatics: the relation of signs to their users

Moreover, we analyzed three texts: an English fairy tale, a recipe and a FCC warning, in order to work out how the different constitutive factors and functions mentioned above actually work in the context of these texts.

Hence, the sender of such a fairy tale is mostly a parent, the receiver is the child, the context is the content of the story, the code is the language it is written (with several typical features), the message is the fairy-tale itself and the contact (the channel) is a one way (assymetrical) channel.
The poetic function is the memory function (both for the sender and the receiver), and the conative function is mostly moral.

Furthermore, we heard about the different pragmatic meanings of appraisals, taboo words, cooperation and politeness.
Concerning appraisals, for instance, one has to distinct between subjective judgements and descriptive judgements. Subjective judgements concern attitudes of the speaker and the hearer (appraisive expressions, taboo expressions), while descriptive judgements concern properties of persons, places, things,…(any concrete object or any abstract entity).
The utterance “We had a Christmas tree”, for instance, is a descriptive judgement.

Another aspect of judgements are taboo words. It is important to state that there are differences of the usage of these words. The word “shit”, for example, is used differently in America and Britain in relation to the German word “Scheiße”. In Britain, most educatd women would not use this word, because it is a much stronger word in Britain. In America, it is less stronger, though it occurs more often in “Black American”.

Though the occasions these taboo words are used in general don’t have nothing to do with these words semantically, taboo words in certain relations are used pragmatically.

Concerning the pragmatic meaning of cooperation and politeness, Paul Grice and Geoffrey Leech introduced several maxims: the former introduced four maxims of cooperation (maxim of quantity, maxims of quality, maxim of relation, maxims of manner), while the latter introduced several politeness maxims.

Politeness is expressed by:
-style (formality)
-directness vs. indirectness (indirect speech acts)
-avoidance of commitment (hedging)
-positive expression of negative judgment (euphemism)
-modification of utterance by tone of voice (prosody)
-body language (posture, position, gesture)

Finally, we talked about speech acts. The concept of speech act was introduced by J.L. Austin and extended by J.R. Searle (and many others). Every speech act is three-dimensional: it is a locutionary act, an illocutionary act and a perlocutionary act. The locutionary act is the propositional meaning of an utterance, the an illocutionary act is the interactive status of an utterance within a dialogue, and the perlocutionary act concerns the effect of an utterance.

Though especially Jakobson's model seemed to be a bit confusing at the first glance, Dr. Gibbon managed to explain to us the details concerning his, and the other theories as well, in an appropriate way. It was also good that we applied Jakobson's model in the context of different text, since it gave us an idea how his theory in fact works.

15.1.08 15:16

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