Semantics and pragmatics

Semantics and pragmatics are two subfields of linguistics that study the meaning of language.

Defining semantics and pragmatics

Semantics and pragmatics are two subfields of linguistics that study the meaning of language. They both focus on how speakers use words to communicate meaning, but they approach the question of meaning from different perspectives. Semantics is the study of the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences. It focuses on the relationship between words and the concepts they represent, and it seeks to understand how speakers use language to convey meaning. In semantics, researchers study how words combine to form phrases and sentences, and how these larger units of language convey meaning in a systematic way. Semantics also deals with the study of reference, truth conditions, and entailment.

Pragmatics, on the other hand, is the study of meaning in context. It focuses on how speakers use context and background knowledge to interpret the meaning of words and sentences. Pragmatics examines how the meaning of an utterance is determined not only by the meanings of the words used, but also by the context in which the utterance is made and the intentions of the speaker. Pragmatics also deals with the study of implicature, presupposition, deixis, and speech acts.

The difference between semantics and pragmatics can be thought of as the difference between what is said and what is meant. For example, the literal meaning of the phrase “I’m cold” is a statement expressing a subjective experience of the speaker. However, in the right context, it could be interpreted as a request to close the window.

Cognitive semantics

Cognitive semantics is a field of linguistic study concerned with the relationship between language and thought. It is based on the idea that meaning is a mental construct and that the way words are used and understood is shaped by our experiences, beliefs, and general knowledge of the world. Cognitive semantics proposes that the meanings of words and sentences are not fixed, but are shaped by our individual experiences and cultural context. One of the key concepts in cognitive semantics is the notion of prototype. A prototype is a typical example of a category, such as “bird” being a prototype of the category “animal”. Cognitive semantics proposes that we use prototypes to understand the meanings of words, and that the meanings of words are not just based on the definitions given in a dictionary, but also on our experiences and knowledge of the world.

Cognitive semantics distinguishes between conventional meaning and conceptual meaning. Conventional meaning refers to the meaning of a word as it is commonly used and understood in a particular language community. Conceptual meaning refers to the mental representations of a word’s meaning that we have in our minds. Cognitive semantics proposes that our understanding of words is shaped by both conventional meaning and conceptual meaning. Cognitive semantics also explores the relationship between words and the concepts they refer to, as well as the relationships between concepts. This includes the study of metaphor and metonymy, where words are used to refer to concepts in non-literal ways.

Metaphor as a foundation of our conceptual system

Cognitive semantics proposes that metaphor is a foundation of our conceptual system. Metaphor can be defined as the process of mapping the structure of one concept (the source domain) onto another concept (the target domain), creating new meanings and associations. Thus, metaphor is not just a literary device but a cognitive process that allows us to understand abstract concepts in terms of more concrete and familiar ones, shaping our understanding of the world in a way that goes beyond literal, denotative meanings.

For example, the metaphorical expression “time is money” maps the structure of economic transactions (the source domain) onto our understanding of time (the target domain), suggesting that time is a valuable resource that should be managed carefully. Similarly, the expression “an argument is a journey” maps the structure of physical journeys (the source domain) onto our understanding of arguments (the target domain), suggesting that arguments are processes that involve progression and resolution.

In this way, metaphor is seen as a key mechanism for shaping our understanding of abstract concepts, allowing us to create meaningful connections between seemingly disparate domains. This has important implications for our ability to understand, communicate, and reason about complex topics and abstract ideas.

Formal semantics: Truth conditions and compositionality

Formal semantics is a subfield of linguistics that studies the meaning of words and sentences in a formal and mathematical way. In formal semantics, the concept of truth conditions refers to the circumstances or conditions under which a statement is considered true or false. Truth conditions are typically defined in terms of the meanings of the individual words and phrases that make up the statement, and how they relate to the world or a possible world. For example, the truth condition for the statement “The sky is blue” would be that the sky is in fact blue. If the sky is not blue, then the statement would be false. Truth conditions can also be defined for statements that contain logical connectives like “and”, “or” and “if-then”. For example, the statement “the sky is blue and the streets are wet” is true if and only if both statements “the sky is blue” and “the streets are wet” are true.

In formal semantics, the concept of compositionality refers to the idea that the meaning of a complex expression can be derived from the meanings of its individual parts and the way they are combined. This principle is based on the idea that the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its parts and the way they are combined, rather than by some additional meaning that is not present in the parts themselves. Compositionality can be observed in the way that the meaning of a sentence can be derived from the meanings of its individual words and the grammar that connects them. For example, the meaning of the sentence “John is eating an apple” can be derived from the meanings of “John”, “is eating”, and “an apple”, as well as the grammatical structure that connects them.

Sense vs. reference: Hesperus and Phosphorus

In formal semantics, the distinction between sense and reference is a way of describing the relationship between language and the world. Sense refers to the meaning or conceptual content of a word or expression, independent of its relation to the world. It is the way in which the word or expression is understood by speakers of a language and how it relates to other words or expressions. For example, the sense of the word “dog” refers to the concept of a domesticated mammal, commonly kept as a pet, that is a member of the species Canis familiaris. Reference, on the other hand, refers to the relationship between a word or expression and the specific objects or entities in the world to which it refers. It is the way in which a word or expression is used to refer to a specific thing or set of things. For example, the reference of the word “dog” would be to a specific dog that you are talking about or the set of all dogs.

The distinction between sense and reference can be illustrated with Kripke’s famous example “Hesperus is Phosphorus”. In Ancient Greece, Hesperus and Phosphorus were both names for the same celestial body—the planet Venus—but they had different senses. The name “Hesperus” was used to refer to Venus when it appeared in the evening sky, while “Phosphorus” was used when it appeared in the morning sky. The Ancient Greeks didn’t know that these two bodies were the same planet. Although “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” referred to the same thing, their meanings were distinct; one could not simply substitute one for another. Therefore, the sentence “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is not trivially true; it could be a discovery. In this way, it differs from the sentence “Venus is Venus”, which states something necessarily obvious. Hesperus and Phosphorus have the same reference, but different senses; one can know of both Hesperus and Phosphorus without knowing that they are the same planet.

Cooperative principle, Gricean maxims, and their violations

The cooperative principle is a concept in linguistics proposed by Paul Grice, which states that in any conversational exchange, participants aim to be cooperative and mutually beneficial in their communication. This principle is based on the idea that conversation is a cooperative activity, and that speakers and listeners work together to achieve mutual understanding. To achieve this cooperation, Grice proposed four maxims of conversation: the maxim of quality, the maxim of quantity, the maxim of relevance, and the maxim of manner. The maxim of quality states that speakers should speak truthfully and provide evidence for what they say. The maxim of quantity states that speakers should provide enough information to be informative, but not more than is required. The maxim of relevance states that speakers should make their contributions to a conversation as relevant as possible. The maxim of manner states that speakers should speak clearly and avoid obscurity or ambiguity.

Since following the maxims in conversation is natural, violating the maxims is often understood as intentional and meaningful. Figurative language is an example of violating the maxim of quality. For example, when someone says “It’s raining cats and dogs” they are not communicating that animals are falling from the sky, but rather that it is raining heavily. Another way is through the use of implicature, where the speaker implies something without directly stating it. Implicature can be created by violating any of the maxims, such as being vague or ambiguous in the way something is said, not providing enough information or not being relevant to the conversation. The listener is then required to infer the speaker’s intended meaning by drawing on background knowledge and context.

Implicature and presupposition

In pragmatics, implicature refers to the process by which speakers imply something without directly stating it. This is often done by flouting or violating one or more of the Gricean maxims of conversation. Implicature is an inferential process that relies on the context, the speaker’s intentions, and the shared background knowledge between the speaker and the listener. For example, if one person asks “Have you been to the gym lately?” and the other person responds “I’ve been sick”, they are—strictly speaking—violating the maxim of relevance, since “I’ve been sick” is not a direct answer to a question about gym attendance. Nevertheless, the listener will almost certainly understand that the implied answer is “no” by using their world knowledge to connect illness and difficulties with exercising.

Presupposition refers to the background information or assumptions that are made by a speaker or a listener when using a certain word or phrase. It is an assumption that is taken for granted and not explicitly stated in the utterance. Presuppositions are triggered by certain words or phrases and are part of the meaning of the sentence. For example, if one person says “my sister has stopped smoking,” the listener would assume that the speaker has a sister and that she used to smoke in the past, even if neither piece of information had previously been asserted directly.

Information structure: Topic, comment, focus, and givenness

Information structure refers to the way information is organized and presented in a sentence. Concepts important in the study of information structure include the topic, comment, focus, and givenness. A topic refers to the information or subject that a speaker is discussing or focusing on in an utterance. It is often used to signal the background information or the already known information in the discourse. A comment refers to the new information or the focus of the discourse that is being added by the speaker or writer. It is often used to signal contrastive or new information. For example, in the sentence “as for me, I like cake”, “as for me” can be understood to be the topic, and “I like cake” to be the comment.

Focus refers to the information that is given special emphasis or prominence in a sentence or discourse. The focus can be the same as the comment, or it can be a subset of the comment. Givenness refers to the degree to which an element of a sentence or discourse is assumed or known by both the speaker and the listener. Given information is often the topic or background information, while new information is often the comment or focus. In English, focus is often indicated by placing special prosodic emphasis on the focused element, and givenness is conveyed by deemphasizing a part of a sentence. In many languages, however, notions such as topic and focus are conveyed by syntactic or morphological means, such as affixation.

Deference indices and honorifics

Deference indices refer to the linguistic forms that speakers use to show politeness, respect, or subservience to others. These forms of language are used to signal the speaker’s relative social status or power in relation to the listener, and they can take a variety of different forms depending on the language and culture.

Honorifics are linguistic forms that are used to show respect or reverence to someone of higher social status. The distinction takes a number of forms and indicates varying levels of politeness, familiarity, courtesy, age, or even insult toward the addressee. In English, honorifics include the use of special titles, such as “Mr” or “Dr”. Many European languages use different pronouns to convey formality or familiarity, such as the French distinction between the informal “tu” and the formal “vous” (both translated as “you” in English). Japanese has a rich inventory of linguistic forms that are used as deference indices to show politeness, respect, or subservience to others. Some examples include the use of the polite forms of verbs, which is known as the “masu” forms, the use of the “san” honorific title, and the use of the formal and polite speech level “keigo” which includes the use of polite vocabulary, grammar, and sentence-final particles. The Dyirbal language, spoken in the Cairns rainforest of Northern Queensland, has a system called the affinal taboo index. In this language, speakers have two different sets of words: one for everyday interactions and another specifically for talking to their mother-in-law.

Pragmatics and developmental language disorders

Pragmatics plays an important role in understanding and addressing language impairments in autism and developmental language disorders (DLDs). Individuals with autism and DLDs often struggle with pragmatic skills, such as understanding and using nonverbal cues, interpreting figurative language, using appropriate register and tone, and understanding and following social conventions in communication.

In the case of autism, individuals may have difficulty with social interactions and understanding social cues, which can make it difficult to use language in appropriate ways. They may also have difficulty understanding figurative language, such as idioms and metaphors, which can make it difficult to understand and participate in conversations. In the case of developmental language disorders, individuals may have difficulty with following rules for conversation, nonverbal cues, and the appropriate register or tone.

Pragmatics assessment and intervention are important for individuals with autism and developmental language disorders, as it can help to improve their ability to understand and use language in social contexts, and thus improve communication and social interactions. Speech-language pathologists may use different assessment tools, such as the Pragmatic Rating Scale (PRS) or the Test of Pragmatic Language (TOPL) to evaluate pragmatic skills. They can then design and implement interventions, such as social skills training, narrative language intervention, and conversation skills groups that target specific pragmatic deficits.

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