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Book of the month

June 21, 2009

Hello again,

This month’s book is a classic study of pragmatics that should be in every school’s reference library. Geoffrey Leech’s Principles of Pragmatics was first published by Longman in 1983. Pragmatics had ...


...until then been somewhat overshadowed by semantics and structural linguistics, but Leech saw that earlier work by Austin, Searle and Grice in this field warranted further investigation. Thus building on Austin’s and Searle’s speech act theory and Grice’s conversational Implicature, he shows how pragmatics also encompasses politeness, irony, phatic language and social principles that are culturally variable.

I first became interested in pragmatics when I realized that students were often not making their meaning clear because they did not understand rules of language behaviour that had nothing to do with the meaning of words. An example was a student who upset his host family by saying every morning, “where is my breakfast, please?” To him, this was a perfectly polite request. But his host family felt it implied that his breakfast was late. Some less direct request, such as, “would you call me when breakfast is ready please” was needed. And on the other side of fence, students whose languages automatically have a response to “thank you”, such as “bitte”, “avec plasir”, found the British to be rude because they more often than not said nothing. Interestingly, I believe it was the American who taught us the response, “you’re welcome”.

Thus pragmatics studies how meaning depends not only on linguistic knowledge but also on the context of the utterance, knowledge about the status and relationship of those involved, and the speaker’s intention. Pragmatic competence is the ability to understand another speaker's intended meaning, but when the speaker does not understand the pragmatic principles of his interlocutors, misunderstanding can easily occur.

Although the groundwork in pragmatics had been done by others, Leech helps clarify the importance of pragmatics as an aspect of language that needs to be taught just as much as grammar and vocabulary. For L2 learners it is a great hurdle as its rules are culturally specific. Pragmatic choices can also be very idiosyncratic, depending on a specific relationship. Take the husband who frames the question: “has my shirt been ironed yet?” The intention behind the passive is not to suggest that divine powers do the ironing but to shake off any personal responsibility for the action while not directly ordering his wife to do it.

Leech’s work with its myriad examples of how different forms of the same underlying meaning have different intentions and effects is extremely helpful. Teacher can usefully take his examples and use them to help sensitize students to this aspect of language.The imperative form is a good example. Leech looks, for example, at the different effects of: peel these potatoes/hand me the newspaper/sit down/look at that/enjoy your holiday/have another sandwich. The imperative is used in each case, but with a different intention and effect in each case.

Happy reading!

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