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 +# Semantics and pragmatics #
  
 +Semantics and pragmatics are two distinct aspects of communication
 +that pertain, in different ways, to the meaning of a linguistic
 +utterance or other form of communication. Meaning itself seems like a
 +fundamental aspect of communication,​ most likely because we don't have
 +to think about what something means. Yet upon closer inspection we see
 +it is more complex and this is where semantics and pragmatics become
 +relevant. ​
 +
 +## Natural and conventional signs ## 
 +
 +If communication takes place by signs, then we can note, as
 +Augustine does, that it involves '​natural'​ and '​conventional'​ signs
 +(Meier-Oeser 2011). Dark clouds on the horizon are signs of rain and
 +flags, words, and many gestures are signs of nations and ideas because
 +the people communicating with them have learned their conventional
 +interpretations. This hints at the possibility that meaning has
 +several dimensions. Why clouds signify rain and flags signify nations
 +is different. Dark clouds in the sky are connected to the here and
 +now. They are materially part of the rain that will come, and one
 +could say that the rain itself causes clouds. Another example is a
 +foot print, which is a sign of someone walking in a direction because
 +it is the effect and the visible trace of someone'​s foot. Thus these
 +signs have meaning because of their relationship to a space and time,
 +a context, of their production. Flags, by contrast, and most words,
 +are meaningful because they represent or 'stand for' a particular
 +idea, and one can substitute for the other.
 +
 +Here it is important to point out that many people probably would say
 +that semantics is the study of the meaning of words. Historically this
 +is true, in the sense that the study of semantics is a particular
 +approach to communication which attempts to understand why it conveys
 +meaning in the form of concepts by looking for an underlying abstract
 +logic. However, it is my view that this is not an adequate definition
 +of meaning itself, and for this reason, the field of semantics has
 +always run into its own limits. Many forms of communication derive
 +meaning from their context of use, and indeed one could argue that all
 +instances of communication get some of their meaning in their
 +context. Thus semantics as the study of meaning has always been
 +incomplete without some attention to the pragmatic aspect of
 +communication,​ that is, the degree to which every act of communication
 +is at some level both a flag and a rain cloud.
 +
 +## Shifters ##
 +
 +There are many lingusitic forms which have no meaning except for their
 +connection to the context of their utterance. Otto Jespersen calls
 +these words "​shifters"​ (2013 [1922]: 123) because the same form with
 +shift in meaning depening on who is speaking and to whom one is
 +speaking, as well as when and where. Pronouns are the chief example of
 +this. The English words I and you, among others, depend on the context
 +of utterance to refer to something. Demonstratives (this, that) also
 +fall into this category.
 +
 +## Indexicality ##
 +
 +Another important example of pragmatic is the indexicality of
 +communicative form. This has been particularly influential in studies
 +of the social use of language and communication and the study of
 +culture'​s influence on language. An index is something which signifies
 +an idea because it is physically contiguous with it, or in some usages
 +of it, is simply associated with it. Hence, one's accent signifies
 +indexically the origin of the speaker without referring to it. Variant
 +sounds of an utterance, independently of the words they form, point to
 +or index the speaker and, in an extended sense, the context of the
 +utterance. Similarly, speaking styles (also known as registers) index
 +the background and social status of the speaker. Doctors index their
 +medical training by their habitual preference for polite-sounding
 +technical jargon for ailments, and so on.
 +
 +The concept of an indexical sign comes from the work of Charles
 +Sanders Peirce and his trichotomy of signs: symbol, icon and
 +index. Although the index in some ways resembles a "​natural sign,"
 +Peirce'​s aim was move beyond the binary opposition of natural and
 +conventional to a more general account of meaning as a process.
 +
 +## Performatives ##
 +
 +Philosophers of language have been concerned with semantic meaning as
 +part of a more general inquiry into the relationship between language
 +and truth. J. L. Austin (1962) observed that there was a limit to this
 +inquiry because there were many kinds of linguistic expressions which
 +were neither true nor false, but still had meaning. He argued that one
 +could, at least provisionally,​ separate truth-bearing statements,
 +called constatives,​ from another class of speech, in which speech was
 +an act. These he called performatives or speech-acts,​ because rather
 +than representing a fact about the world, they performed an
 +action. Performatives can be identified by their verbs: promise, bet,
 +name, decree. In uttering these verbs one is performing the action
 +they name. Thus the meaning of these statements is not whether or not
 +the correspond to reality. Rather, Austin proposes that such
 +speech-acts are either felicitous or infelicitous,​ that is to say,
 +whether they are accepted as valid in a particular context.
 +
 +As he develops his concept of performatives,​ Austin comes to realize
 +that the distinct between constatives and performatives is not
 +absolute, because many statements seem to be both. Many statements
 +have an indirect meaning and so assessing them in relation to their
 +truthfulness leaves out the extent of their message. Thus, he
 +concludes that all statements have three different aspects:
 +
 +* locutionary,​ the referential meaning of an utterance. ​
 +* illocutionary,​ the action performed by the utterance. ​
 +* perlocutionary,​ the effect of the speech-act. ​
 +
 +Suppose people are gathered in a classroom, and a teacher says to no
 +one in particular, "​It'​s chilly in here." While the locutionary aspect
 +of the statement is eithe true or not, given the context, the
 +illocutionary force of the utterance is also clear. This statement is
 +also a type of speech-act, specifically,​ a *request* to 'close the
 +window.'​ Such a request, if felicitous, may lead to an effect, that
 +is, someone responding by closing a window.
 +
 +## References and further reading ##
 +
 +Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words: The William James
 +Lectures, 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
 +
 +Jespersen, Otto. 2013 [1922]. Language: Its Nature and
 +Development. London: Routledge.
 +
 +Meier-Oeser,​ Stephan. 2011. “Medieval Semiotics.” In The Stanford
 +Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer
 +2011. http://​plato.stanford.edu/​archives/​sum2011/​entries/​semiotics-medieval/​.
 +
 +Parmentier, Richard J. 1994. Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic
 +Anthropology. Bloomington,​ Ind.: Indiana University Press.
 +
 +Silverstein,​ Michael. 1976. “Shifters,​ Linguistic Categories and
 +Cultural Description.” In Meaning in Anthropology. School of American
 +Research Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe, NM: University of New
 +Mexico Press.
semantics_and_pragmatics.txt · Last modified: 2014/09/02 21:07 by ryans