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1.1: Semantics and Pragmatics

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    The American author Mark Twain is said to have described a certain person as “a good man in the worst sense of the word.” The humor of this remark lies partly in the unexpected use of the word good, with something close to the opposite of its normal meaning: Twain seems to be implying that this man is puritanical, self-righteous, judgmental, or perhaps hypocritical. Nevertheless, despite using the word in this unfamiliar way, Twain still manages to communicate at least the general nature of his intended message.

    Twain’s witticism is a slightly extreme example of something that speakers do on a regular basis: using old words with new meanings. It is interesting to compare this example with the following famous conversation from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll:

    (1) [Humpty Dumpty speaking] “There’s glory for you!” “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

    Superficially, Humpty Dumpty’s comment seems similar to Mark Twain’s: both speakers use a particular word in a previously unknown way. The results, however, are strikingly different: Mark Twain successfully communicates (at least part of) his intended meaning, whereas Humpty Dumpty fails to communicate; throughout the ensuing conversation, Alice has to ask repeatedly what he means.

    Humpty Dumpty’s claim to be the “master” of his words — to be able to use words with whatever meaning he chooses to assign them — is funny because it is absurd. If people really talked that way, communication would be impossible. Perhaps the most important fact about word meanings is that they must be shared by the speech community: speakers of a given language must agree, at least most of the time, about what each word means.

    Yet, while it is true that words must have agreed-upon meanings, Twain’s remark illustrates how word meanings can be stretched or extended in various novel ways, without loss of comprehension on the part of the hearer. The contrast between Mark Twain’s successful communication and Humpty Dumpty’s failure to communicate suggests that the conventions for extending meanings must also be shared by the speech community. In other words, there seem to be rules even for bending the rules. In this book we will be interested both in the rules for “normal” communication, and in the rules for bending the rules.

    The term semantics is often defined as the study of meaning. It might be more accurate to define it as the study of the relationship between linguistic form and meaning. This relationship is clearly rule-governed, just as other aspects of linguistic structure are. For example, no one believes that speakers memorize every possible sentence of a language; this cannot be the case, because new and unique sentences are produced every day, and are understood by people hearing them for the first time. Rather, language learners acquire a vocabulary (lexicon), together with a set of rules for combining vocabulary items into well-formed sentences (syntax). The same logic forces us to recognize that language learners must acquire not only the meanings of vocabulary items, but also a set of rules for interpreting the expressions that are formed when vocabulary items are combined. All of these components must be shared by the speech community in order for linguistic communication to be possible. When we study semantics, we are trying to understand this shared system of rules that allows hearers to correctly interpret what speakers intend to communicate.

    The study of meaning in human language is often partitioned into two major divisions, and in this context the term semantics is used to refer to one of these divisions. In this narrower sense, semantics is concerned with the inherent meaning of words and sentences as linguistic expressions, in and of themselves, while pragmatics is concerned with those aspects of meaning that depend on or derive from the way in which the words and sentences are used. In the abovementioned quote attributed to Mark Twain, the basic or “default” meaning of good (the sense most likely to be listed in a dictionary) would be its semantic content. The negative meaning which Twain manages to convey is the result of pragmatic inferences triggered by the peculiar way in which he uses the word.

    The distinction between semantics and pragmatics is useful and important, but as we will see in Chapter 9, the exact dividing line between the two is not easy to draw and continues to be a matter of considerable discussion and controversy. Because semantics and pragmatics interact in so many complex ways, there are good reasons to study them together, and both will be of interest to us in this book.

    This page titled 1.1: Semantics and Pragmatics is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paul Kroeger (Language Library Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.