Article by Jacob Yaaqoub Hawsa | 1 August 2020

Over many years, language has developed as a means for humans to express themselves. It is a way to save knowledge and pass it on from  generation to generation. Primarily, humans use language as a way of communication, which means that it is inevitable that it affects and becomes affected by almost all the different aspects of any given society.

As a Neurolanguage Coach, I am fascinated by the field of Pragmatics and I would like to share some of my knowledge with the readers of this magazine.

What is Pragmatics…….. intention meaning and context

Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics and semiotics that studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning. The ability to understand another speaker’s intended meaning is called pragmatic competence. Scientifically, Pragmatics is ‘’the relation of sign to interpreters’’. Stephen C. Levenson, 2013. It is referred to, as well, as the psychopathology of communications. Meaning, in both definitions, what the speaker’s intention really is beyond the basic meaning of utterance. Pragmatics studies how the transmission of meaning depends not only on structural and linguistic knowledge (grammarlexicon, etc.) of the speaker and listener but also on the context of the utterance,[2] any pre-existing knowledge about those involved, the inferred intent of the speaker, and other factors.

The sentence: “He decided on the boat”, could have two meanings. It could mean that he made a decision while he was on the boat, or he decided to buy the boat, probably as a choice between that and something else. The context would  explain the true meaning of this sentence.  

 ‘Linguistic pragmatics as defined here is at the intersection of a number of fields within and outside of cognitive science: not only linguistics, cognitive psychology, cultural anthropology, and philosophy (logic, semantics, action theory), but also sociology (interpersonal dynamics and social convention) and rhetoric contribute to its domain.’.  Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding. G. M. Green

Related theories

Due to the broadness of pragmatics, many researchers tackle it through specific topics. In this article, I am going to tap briefly into three main theories. These theories are: 

  • The Theory of Speech Acts
  • The Theory of Politeness. 
  • The Theory of Model Person. 

The Theory of Speech Acts explains how words are used not only to present information but also to carry out actions. This theory can be attributed to Oxford philosopher John Austin, who   developed it and presented it in his paper ‘Other Minds’ (1946).

Austin stated that utterances are not simply words said; they function and affect. Thus, by saying, ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife ’, we are not just stating a true or false statement. Rather, we are doing an action which is in this case marrying two people.  

Austin has classified speech acts into three categories: Locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary. Locutionary means the actual utterance and literal meaning. Illocutionary means the intention behind the utterance. While perlocutionary means what takes place and happens by that utterance. Pragmatics, therefore, focuses on illocutionary, what is meant by utterances.  It is also the science of how we avoid ambiguity through context.

Austin goes further into dividing illocutionary into five classes:

  1. Verdictives 
  2. Exertives
  3. Commissives 
  4. Behabitives 
  5. Expositives

Searle’s (1969) view of the theory adds another perspective which states that speech acts are always there for a reason. When, for example, we thank someone, there has to be a force that urges us to perform the act of thanking. Both the thanker and the thankee believe that that is not the norm. 

Examples of Speech Acts:

  • Praising and thanking
  • Criticising
  • Complaining
  • Suggesting
  • Advising
  • Refusing
  • Requesting
  • Complimenting

The Theory of Politeness

Also known as the Politeness Phenomenon, this theory was developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson in 1978. Observing speakers of three languages, Tamil, spoken in Southern India, Tzeltal, spoken in Mexico and English, both British and American, the theory states that ‘People in communications maintain one another’s face’. (Here the meaning of face comes from the Chinese culture of maintaining positive face or self esteem.) As we communicate, it is believed that the norm is to avoid face threatening acts, (FTA). Saving one’s positive and negative face. The positive face is the self-esteem, while the negative face is the freedom of speech.

The Theory of Model Person (MP)

This theory is related to the Theory of Politeness, and it might be considered as a subcategory of it. However, it adds to the Theory of Politeness that the Model Speaker is not only avoiding being impolite but is also avoiding being too polite which might be considered an act of impoliteness of its own. Northrup, (2008) has stated ‘an MP(Model Person) does not want to be either overly cautious or careless in choosing to redress an FTA,(Face threatening act) because that would cause an additional threat. If the strategy is too weak, the FTA is not properly handled and face is lost on both sides. If is too strong, it increases the weight of the FTA unnecessarily and with it, the risk’.

The Significance of Pragmatics

Since pragmatics is a field that is related to a level that is beyond merely meaning, it is strongly related to metacognitive. Therefore an understanding of pragmatics is vitally important for educators. So much can be gained by studying the speech characteristics of different cultures, age groups, genders etc. Likewise, studying how a certain group of people in a certain industry of field interact through their use of grammar, choice of vocabulary, their choice of structures etc. can yield so much information in the field of pragmatics. That doesn’t only help bring communities closer via better understanding and lack of ambiguity, but will also spread knowledge and education. Language therapists and counsellors can benefit from research done on pragmatics as it will help them identify what sort of learners they are dealing with, what sort of issues there are and move forwards towards improvement.

The Significance of Pragmatics in Education

“Chunking down calms the brain” Rachel Paling, Brain Friendly Grammar, (2019). Educators, can make use of theories in pragmatics to chunk down language. To begin with, we can use Speech Acts to chunk language according to, e.g. speech act; compliment, vocabulary, phrases. Then we can take that a step further to compare different cultures, ages, etc. and study, for example, how they give compliments. Furthermore, we can observe how a compliment is received by each category and how they respond to it.

Pragmatics and the performance brain

Learners acquire better when they engage the performance brain; not worrying much about the how and the technical aspect of knowledge, in fact it is the way in which children learn. The sooner learners start performing, the faster and more effectively they are going to learn. Pragmatics, as a discipline, is concerned with performance more that it is with competence. S. Levinson, (2013) states that Pragmatics could be defined as the study of the language from a functional perspective. He mentions Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance that ‘Pragmatics is concerned solely with performance principles of language use’.

Universal Norms

As mentioned above, Pragmatics is a field that has been studied from quite a few other fields such as Philosophy, Sociology, Linguistics, etc. There has been an effort made to distinguish universal norms of speech behaviour. The effort has gone further to distinguish these norms from language -specific norms to understand and evaluate interlanguage behaviour. (S. Gass and J. Neu 1995). Researchers have gathered data not only on a single speech act but rather on sets of speech acts.


Sociology plays an essential part in pragmatics. S. Gass and J. Ney 1995 mentioned two valuable points in ‘Speech Acts Across Cultures’.
1. Sociocultural ability: refers to the respondent’s skill at selecting speech act strategies which are appropriate. Given (1) the culture involved, (2) the age and sex of the speaker, (3) their social class and occupations and (4) their role and status in the interaction.
2. Sociolinguistics ability. Refers to the respondents’ skill at selecting appropriate linguistics forms to express the particular strategy used to realise the speech act.
In conclusion, I would hope that this article has kindled your interest in researching more into the field pf pragmatics. As teachers, it is our job to help students to convey meaning in context through the correct choice of words and phrases. Encouraging our students to understand the culture and social norms of the country whose language they are studying helps them to convey meaning in a way which will be not only understood but also accepted and acted upon in the way in which the speaker intended.