By: Rami Alghamdi
A comparison of semantics and pragmatics is a very large undertaking and a simple essay does not provide a sufficient venue for discussing all of the ideas and notions related to the many different views of semantics and pragmatics. However, given that I am very interested in linguistics, I view the comparison of semantics and pragmatics from a linguist’s point of view. This approach will help the reader to focus on a single aspect of this broad topic. The goal of this essay is to identify the similarities between the two sub-fields and to highlight the main differences between these sub-fields as discussed in the field of linguistics.
B. Similarities between Semantics and Pragmatics
The two branches of linguistics, i.e. semantics and pragmatics, deal with the meaning of language and link language to the world. Each branch deals with meaning differently; yet, many students of linguistics confuse the two terms. The only obvious similarity between the two branches is that they both deal with the meanings of words and sentences but in different ways. According to Lyons (1977), semantics is a branch of knowledge that is concerned with meaning whereas Levinson (1983) defined pragmatics as a branch of knowledge that is concerned with language use. However, note that the fields of semantics and pragmatics are integrally related to one another. For example, some categories in semantics require the application of pragmatics in order to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation. Deictic words, for instance, take some elements of their meanings from the context in which they are uttered (Hurford, Heasley, & Smith, 2007). As an example, the pronoun “he” cannot be fully interpreted unless we know to whom the pronoun refers.
Interestingly, a certain amount of tension exists between practitioners of each sub-field. According to pragmaticists, semanticists give unsatisfactory or incomplete interpretations of utterances and a complete interpretation of any utterance requires both semantics and pragmatics (Bianchi, 2005).
C. Differences between Semantics and Pragmatics
The theory of signs by Morris (1938) clearly highlighted the differences between these branches of study by describing how we can deal with the meaning of signs from a semantic dimension or a pragmatic dimension. Based on this logical view, we can grasp meanings of words from two different dimensions. The semantic dimension refers to the study of the relations of words to which they refer whereas the pragmatic dimension refers to the study of the relationship between words, the interlocutors and the context.
Although Bach (1999) stated that viewing the differences between semantics and pragmatics through their implementation is easier than to describing them in plain words, certain evidences highlight the differences between semantics and pragmatics. First of all, one of them is highlighted by the process of determining meaning. Semanticists adopt a narrow scope because they deal with only text and analyze the meaning of words and how they are combined to constitute meaningful sentences. In contrast, pragmaticists’ work adopts a wider scope beyond the text itself; indeed, they consider the facts surrounding the utterance such as the contextual factors, knowledge of the world surrounding the context of the message, the speaker’s intended meaning and the hearer’s inferences in order to interpret that utterance (Bianchi, 2004). Consequently, the meaning of an utterance is context-independent in semantics but it is context-dependent in pragmatics. In addition, certain words and expressions cannot be understood unless they are put in a context. For example, the English use of sentence “it hit me” has many different meaning when used in everyday conversation. It could mean “it came into violent contact with the speaker” or “it became apparent to the speaker.” Either way, the determination of the correct meaning of this sentence requires knowledge of the context in which it is used.
Another difference can be found in Grice’s Theory of Implicature which is pragmatics oriented (Horn, 2006). In fact, this theory shed more light on the fine line separating semantics and pragmatics. In this theory, Grice focused on the speaker’s intention with a particular utterance because the speaker may wish to convey a different meaning than what the sentence itself means (Horn, 2006). For example, Horn (2006) detailed a situation in which a person is described as having a good personality which may imply that he/she is not attractive, thereby necessitating a discussion about their personality rather than their looks.
In addition to this theory, the two theories of locution and illocution clarify the importance of and illustrate the difference between pragmatics and semantics in terms of their approaches to analyzing sentences. Locution refers to uttering a stretch of words that have been formed in a particular way to carry some degree of specific meaning while illocution refers to the task that those utterances perform such as demanding, asking, requesting, etc. (Lyons, 1995). In other words, locutionary act is what a sentence says and is; therefore, equivalent to meaning in the traditional sense whereas illocutionary act is what a sentence does when uttered by a speaker and; as a result, performs a certain act intended by the speaker. Both of these acts are related to semantics and pragmatics respectively.
Another dissimilarity emerges with the principle of compositionality attributed to Frege (Partee, 2008). This principle introduces an interesting view based on which understanding the whole meaning of an expression entails figuring out the meanings of its constituent parts (Partee, 2008). For instance, a customer enters a coffee shop where the following conversation takes place:
Customer: May I have English tea and a glass of water, please?
Waiter: Sure. Right away, sir.
The principle of compositionality claims that we do not need to know anything other than the context to understand the meaning of the sentences. The waiter figures out the meaning of the sentence by knowing the meaning of each lexical item in that given sentence and by being aware of their combinations rather than trying to understand the speaker’s intention or having knowledge of the surrounding world. This theory is more useful to semanticists since they deal with meanings of words and how they are combined to form sentences.
Another difference is noted when examining some conjunctions that have non-truth conditional meanings that can only be determined if they are inserted into a given context. In other words, such conjunctions as “so” and “but” can only be studied within a pragmatic framework rather than semantic one (Blakemore, 2002).
Another distinction is introduced in Blakemore’s (2002) discussions of the idea of the procedural process versus the conceptual process. According to Blakemore’s (2002), in procedural process, the hearer follows certain clues in the uttered expressions to grasp the contextual assumptions and effects that are intended by the speaker. By those uttered expressions, the procedural information is encoded while, in conceptual process, the hearer constructs a series of representations including phonetics, phonological, syntactic and semantic ones which are connected to different linguistic rules. However, pragmatics involves the procedural process with the focus on the connection between the language uttered and the context in which it is used while semantics entails the conceptual process by concentrating on the meaning of expressions (Blakemore 2002).
Finally, Leech (1980) stated that semantics can be placed in the grammar domain with a linguistic system or code while pragmatics can be placed in the rhetoric domain where codes are implemented. Moreover, the former is rule-governed whereas the later is principle-governed (Leech, 1980). Note that Leech (1980) mentioned this comparison between rules and principles in relation to Sealre’s distinction between regulative and constitutive rules to draw our attention to the idea that principle is more normative than descriptive, thereby differentiating it from rules.
D. Concluding remarks
Semantics and pragmatics are both sub-branches of the field of linguistics. Yet, as different disciplines, they are only similar in that both sub-branches deal with meaning. As this essay has shown, many aspects of research on language highlight the differences between the two sub-fields such as Morris’s theory of signs, the process of determining meaning, Grice’s theory of implicature, the theories of locution and illocution, Frege’s principle of compositionality, determining meaning of some conjunctions that have non-truth conditional meanings by inserting them into a given context and the procedural process versus the conceptual process distinction.
In conclusion, Leech (1980) described the difficulty of drawing a line between meaning conceive as an abstract property of the sentence and meaning conceived based on a context function. Based on the previous views, I prefer to adopt Recanati (2004) suggestion, i.e. look at semantics and pragmatics as complementary disciplines.
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