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Topics in Linguistic Anthropology: Pragmatics

A sketch of the world with hello written in different languages


Linguistic Anthropology is the study of language. And this includes a ton of different topics, such as the structure of language, the evolution of language, language and gender, language and social class, how people learn languages, how languages are related to each other, and lots more! This blog post will focus on pragmatics. Let’s start off by defining pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of language in a social context. It is the study of the rules for using language in the right way in different situations. There is more to knowing a language than learning sounds and words and how to make sentences. You need to be able to use language correctly in social situations. Here’s an example. Say you are eating dinner with your family, and you say, “Can you please pass the salt?” In this situation, you are not really asking if the person is physically capable of passing you the salt. You are actually requesting that the person give you the salt. This is an example of pragmatics.

Literal vs. Non-Literal

Sometimes we speak literally, and sometimes we don’t. If you speak literally, you mean exactly what you say. If you are speaking non-literally, you mean something other than exactly what you say. Let’s look at a few examples. If someone says, “No one likes me” they don’t actually mean that not a single person likes them, but instead, they mean that not enough people like them. If someone says, “I can’t do anything right” they don’t mean that they really cannot do a single thing correctly, but instead that they are struggling with doing something. If someone says sarcastically, “Oh, that’s just great” they don’t mean that it is actually great–they mean the opposite. So, knowing if a person is talking literally or non-literally is part of pragmatics.

Social Identity

Sometimes when we speak, what we say gives information about our social identity. This is called social meaning. Here are some examples. If someone says, “I ain’t gonna do nothin'” this implies that the person is not educated. If someone says, “Y’all sit down, ya hear?” this implies that the person is from the American South. If someone says, “Howdy, partner!” then this implies the person is a cowboy in the American West. If someone says, “Back in my day, we respected our elders” this implies that the person is an older adult. As you can see, speaking can give information about our social identities.

 A woman with dark hair and a blue shirt pointing to a country's flag, with several other countries' flags around her.

Rules for Conversations

When we have conversations, there is a certain structure to the conversation, and there are certain unspoken rules. Before we start a conversation, there is often a greeting ritual. For example, in American English, we say “Hi. How are you?” and the other person is expected to say something like, “Fine. How are you?” And then you reply with something like “I’m ok, thanks.” You are not supposed to actually answer the question, “How are you?” literally, and talk about how things are actually going in your life. Depending on how close you are to the person, you might shake hands or even hug or kiss. After the greeting ritual, you can start to have the actual conversation. But here again, are unspoken rules. You have to take turns talking, and you should not interrupt the person who is talking. And if you ask the other person a question, you should stop talking and let them answer. When the conversation is over, there is again a ritual. You might say something like this: “Well, it’s been nice talking to you” or “Well, I’ve got to get going.” Then the other person says something like, “it was nice to talk to you, too.” Then you each say goodbye. These conversation rules may seem very obvious, but following them is an important part of using language appropriately.

The structure of a conversation can be different in different cultures. For example, in Hebrew and Arabic languages, people greet each other by saying “Peace to you” and the other person says, “And to you, peace.” In Chinese, you greet someone by saying, “Have you eaten yet?” Other cultures have a long greeting ritual. For example, in Senegal, there is a complex greeting ritual. After you say something like good morning, you need to recite the person’s full name several times, to acknowledge their family and ancestors. You also shake hands. You need to do this greeting every time you encounter another person, even if you just did the ritual a short time earlier.

Here’s another example. The Western Apache people use silence to greet other people. If you are meeting someone for the first time or seeing someone after a while, you stay silent and assess the other person. Then you can speak when you feel comfortable. The Apache way of greeting may seem rude to Americans, but the Apache think American greetings are rude, too. The Apache see Americans as rude because they ask personal questions, like “how are you?” and “how are you feeling?” and order people around by saying things like “come in” and “sit down.”

Maxims of Conversation

Now, I’d like to talk about the maxims of conversation. These are cultural expectations for conversations. Let’s look at the maxims of conversation for the English language, which are Quantity, Quality, Relevance, and Manner.

We will start off by looking at Quantity. This maxim of quantity means that we should only say as much as the situation requires–no more and no less. Here’s an example. Say that your friend asked what you have been doing this week. If you say, “nothing” this is not enough information, and it implies that you don’t want to tell them what you actually did. But if you start telling your friend in detail what you did every hour for the past week, that is too much information.

The next maxim is Quality. This means you should say only what you believe to be the truth. Here’s an example. Say you are in a new city and you are lost. You ask a stranger where the nearest bus stop is. The person doesn’t actually know but says it is 3 blocks north, which is not true. You go three blocks north and now you are even more lost. It is important in a conversation for people to assume that the other person is telling the truth, and if they don’t know something, they should state that. The person could say something like “As far as I know…” or “I may be wrong, but…”

The next maxim is Relevance. This means that you should only say what is appropriate for the topic of conversation. If you need to say something that is not relevant, you can say something like “I don’t want to change the subject, but…” or “Oh, by the way…”

The last maxim is Manner, which means you should be brief and clear. If you are asked a question, you are expected to answer it concisely, instead of rambling on and on.

So these are the maxims of conversation in English. But the maxims are different in different cultures. For example, in English, if you are offered food, you should answer truthfully. But in the Middle East, if you are offered food, you are expected to refuse politely several times, and the host should repeat the offer several times before you finally accept the offer of food. Here’s another example. In English, you are expected to speak up and not beat around the bush. But in Japanese, you are expected to approach things in a roundabout way and talk more indirectly. And in English, when someone gives you a compliment, you are supposed to say thank you. But in Japanese, you are expected to deny the compliment. Also, in English when giving a gift you might say something like, “I hope you like it” or “I thought you could use it.” But in Japanese, when you give a gift you are supposed to tell the person that the gift is useless.

Learn More

Want to learn more about pragmatics? Check out the YouTube video, “Pragmatics: Crash Course Linguistics #6” (embedded below) or at this link.

Thanks for reading!