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Winter 2003

Pragmatics and discourse analysis, by Margarida Bassols Puig

Pragmatics, like discourse analysis, goes beyond structural study of the phrase and focuses on higher units -speech acts and conversation turns: What is more, it focuses on its object of study through consideration of the context and its construction, through recognition of speaker intention, and through the establishment of implicit elements which the hearer has to access. In this article, we apply the concept of discourse orientation to certain statements of argumentation made by leading candidates in the November 2003 elections to the Catalan legislature.


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1. Introduction

2. The contribution made by pragmatics

3. Pragmatics and argumentative discourse

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography


1. Introduction

Around the beginning of the seventies, impelled by the leap forward that the "théorie de l’énonciation" had taken with the differentiation of sentences from propositions, and propositions from utterances, a group of theories and theorists sought to go beyond the limits of the sentence, and to engage with the meaning of discourse, that is non-arbitrary sequences of utterances.

In fact, the initial idea was that besides the known linguistic units (phonemes, morphemes, sintactic constituents and lexical items) belonging to the different levels characterising a language, one could postulate another new unit of analysis, which went beyond phrase-level: namely discourse.

Discourse could be understood variously as a linguistic unit like the others mentioned above (1), or as a communicative level linked to the subject that produced it, (2) or as the result of a human activity intimately related to social ideologies. (3)

Soon, a universal principle emerged, generally speaking intuitive rather than anything that could be strictly formulated, known as the Coherence principle, according to which discourse is a coherent sequence of phrases and any discourse is interpreted based on the expectation that it will have a degree of coherence.

Furthermore, certain linguistic elements were postulated as markers of this coherence, working as indicators to give the text coherence. Considered in this respect were pronouns, definite descriptions and discursive anaphoric nominal syntagms; pragmatic connectors and tenses of the verb.

And in terms of structure, the macrostructure and microstructure of discourse were discussed, for example by Van Dijk, referring to the semantics and syntax which provided its vehicle. Also a series of linguistic markers were isolated, notably by the Geneva School, which worked together to construct this.

On the one there were hand markers of illocutionary function: the performative verbs, the markers of indirect language and syntactic inversion. On the other hand, there were the interactive function markers, including those that structure conversation and speech turns, and there were the connectors.

At all events, the most debated and most debatable issue was, and still is, the delimitation of the constituent units of discourse. For this the grammatical sentences might be chosen, or conversely the utterances, the latter being sentences in use. But, also, in the nineties, based on conversational analysis as carried out for instance by the Geneva School, it came to be argued that the constituent unit of discourse could perfectly well be the speech act --that is to say, the use of a complete grammatical phrase (Reboul & Moeschler 1998, 29). This idea was further supported by, for example, the work carried out by Ducrot.

2. The contribution made by pragmatics (4)

It is plain that discourse analysis has objectives that lie very close to, if not shared by, those of pragmatics. This is because discourse is none other than a sequence of sentences in operation -in other words utterances. But while discourse analysts explain the interpretation of the elements in question without going outside language, pragmatics resorts to other ambits of human activity (beliefs, feelings, knowledge, intentions…). Only in this way can one explain how utterances are interpreted and how successful interpretation of utterances is managed. It is only with the aid of considerations of a pragmatic nature that we can go beyond the question "What does this utterance mean?" and ask "Why was this utterance produced?".

1 Ms: Vagi una mica de pressa a convèncer el PSOE perquè tenim pressa tots plegats

per fer tot això. (You should hurry up a little in persuading the PSOE, because we're all in a hurry to do all that. (5)

Mr: Vostè llegeix els diaris? (Do you read the papers? (6)

To know why Mr (Maragall) asks the question, we need to bear in mind quite a number of considerations of a pragmatic nature, for example, the degree of relevance of the question: in fact considerable, given that this is a political debate.

While discourse analysis can only explain that this is a reply to the observation made by Ms (Mas) or explain what type of sentences make up each of the utterances, pragmatics will explain what kind of reply it is, based on one or more implicatures. For example, "if you read the newspapers you will know that I have done so many times", or "as I am sure that you read the newspapers, I think you know perfectly well that I have done so, therefore your observation is unnecessary". Taking a pragmatic approach, the linguist can successfully uncover the intention that Mr has in selecting "Do you read the papers?", and why he selected this utterance rather than another one.

Pragmatics' object of study is "language use and language users" (Haberland & Mey 2002, 1673), and language use-understood as a universal human capacity and activity- necessitates recourse to non-linguistic elements to be properly interpreted, because it makes use of inference and needs interlocutors to have knowledge of the world. "The study of language use has to explain how it is that sentences produced are successfully interpreted by interlocutors" (Reboul & Moeschler 1998, 35).

What has pragmatics to offer that is new? What new elements are in play here? Basically it relies on the speaker's interpretative strategy, in which the latter attributes qualities and moods such as rationality, desires and mental states to other speakers. Such an interpretative strategy is orientated towards predicting other speakers' behavior, above all their interpretative behavior. Additionally, pragmatic theory has three central concepts: context, intention, and inference.

Needless to say, these are not concepts that have never been used by other approaches to language. In particular, context plays a relevant role in cultural anthropology, derived from Malinowski's idea of the "context of situation" (Malinowski 1949), in other words the general conditions under which a language is spoken. For Malinowski, situation and expression are inseparable. Discourse analysis retains this concept and indeed makes it one of its central pillars. On the other hand, the concepts of speaker intention and inferences play a fundamental role in Speech Act theory and in formulations of Grice's principle of Cooperation.

But every one of these terms has a different meaning in the different theoretical paradigms.

Let us take context, for instance: in Discourse Analysis this is something which is outside the speakers and is static in nature, framing the communicative activity, it constitutes the place and the time in which the latter takes place; in pragmatics, on the other hand, it is something personal and dynamic. For Sperber & Wilson (1980), for example, it is not a given at the outset, but rather is constructed by the interlocutors utterance by utterance. It includes the series of premises that have to do with knowledge of the world, and to a combination of perceptive data known by the interlocutors; it also involves a series of items of information extracted from the interpretation of preceding utterances at any given moment. The theory of knowledge and linguistics are interrelated here.

Turning to intention, pragmatics defends the idea that recognition of speaker intention conditions success in overall interpretation of an utterance. "Interlocutors arrive at a satisfactory interpretation of the utterance, if they succeed in recovering the contents that the speaker intended to communicate by means of that utterance" (Reboul & Moeschler 1998, 47).

For Searle, this intention is expressed by means of certain linguistic conventions, which are the central core, while intention is relegated to the anecdotal; for Grice, on the other hand, meaning and intention are never explicit and transparent, they can only be recovered thanks to the implicit elements.

The pragmatic theory of relevance put forward by Sperber & Wilson was a further advance, and separates the informative intention -which is that the speaker wishes to manifest a series of assumptions- from the communicative intention -which is that they also want to communicate their intention of so doing.

It is plain that to succeed in correctly interpreting these two intentions, the receiver of the message has to work with the implicit knowledge which Grice speaks of. What we have, then, is a third important concept, which includes all that is inferred by the interlocutors from what is said. In reality, it is knowledge shared by both, and which both know to be shared in this way.

3. Pragmatics and argumentative discourse

Among the different ways in which discursive activity may manifest itself, argumentation is one which has particularly attracted the interest of scholars, because it is omnipresent in communicative activity and because it dominates political, legal and advertising discourse modes.

Based on Speech Act theory (Searle 1970) we can state that the argument as an illocutionary act is associated with the perlocutionary act of persuasion, an act whose objective is to get interlocutors or audience to accept a series of ideas –the arguments- which involve the demonstration of a conclusion.

Van Eemeren (1984, 43-45) characterises the illocutionary act of persuasion in the following way. It has:

  • Propositional content, the totality of propositions expressed.

  • An essential condition, the fact of articulating this series of propositions constitutes an attempt by the speaker to justify an opinion O to the hearer.

  • Preparatory conditions, the speaker believes a) that the hearer will not accept opinion O at the outset, b) that the hearer will accept the totality of propositions expressed, c) that the hearer will accept the constellation of propositions as a justification of O.

  • Sincerity conditions, the speaker believes that a) O is acceptable, b) the propositions expressed in the utterances are acceptable, c) that these propositions constitute a reasonable justification of O.

To put it another way: speakers, who know they have an opinion O which is not accepted at the outset by the interlocutors, employ a series of propositions which are thought to be acceptable and which are thought to be a good justification of O, in order to change interlocutors’ initial opinion.

When thinking of a strategy to convince or persuade the interlocutor, by means of the relationship between one or more arguments and a conclusion, definition of the discourse orientation has a very important place. The discourse orientation is the movement or direction we wish to give to the coherent totality of speech acts and which we wish to induce in our receptor. While we construct the discourse we impose on it a precise process of interpretation, offering guidance on how to attribute meaning to our utterance. In this way we guide listeners along the interpretative path which will lead them to understand what we say and the intention with which we say it. And we do so by devising a strategy, applying effort to the selection of words and discourse movement, with a view to achieving certain specific communicative objectives. If we apply this concept to argumentative discourse, we can tease out three basic argumentative orientations: the concessive, the consecutive and the conclusive.

a) Concessive orientation, which operates with two speech acts or two interventions (7) One which argues in favor of an implicit conclusion r, and another which does so in favor of a conclusion -r and which, accordingly, questions precisely the relevance of the first act. When weighing up the force of the two acts the result implies -r.

Even though you come you won't see him
                  1                          2

You will come > you will see him (implicit conclusion r)
You won't see him (-r)

2 makes it clear that the first act is not relevant, argumentatively speaking, because its implicit conclusion is not acceptable. Put another way, "there is no use in your coming if what you want is to see him". (8)

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