Report on 2015 Pragmatics Conference

The 14th International Pragmatics Conference was held in Antwerp (Belgium), July 26-31. A truly international event which takes place every second year, the 2015 conference attracted 1,277 linguists and semioticians from 62 countries. All the continents were represented, bearing witness to the relevance of the International Pragmatics Association (IPrA) to the numerous scholars who study the use of language in actual contexts and the ways in which meaning is produced and transformed both in face to face and mediated interactions. Multimodality was a pervasive theme across the sessions that were dealing with comprehensive research involving gestures, sounds, artefacts, and the innumerable kinds of new human interaction modes brought about by the Internet. This was a truly semiotic conference, something that can be expected whenever the focus shifts from linguistic abstractions to actual instances of communication in context. The program and the book of abstracts can be found here

Naturally, the sheer number of plenaries, parallel panels, individual papers, and posters listed in the program makes it impossible for anybody to offer an exhaustive report on this remarkable event. However, as an attentive attendant and active participant in the conference, I can propose a general, albeit selective account. My highly positive impression was fully shared by all of those with whom I interacted in the context of the panels or chatted during the coffee and lunch breaks.

Compared to similar associations with which I have been involved in the past, the Pragmatics association is a model of integrity, democracy, and organization. The Consultation Board members and the President are elected through a vote online with ample pre-notice time to consider the various candidates and their respective qualifications and agendas. Rather than hurrying such election during an annual meeting in which only the local members and those who could afford to travel to a distant place can have a vote, those who manage IPrA make sure that all members have a fair opportunity of taking part in the shaping and destiny of their association. The same integrity is applied to the selection of the panels and individual papers and undoubtedly accounts for the excellence of the presentations, most of which were efficiently supported by unfailing Power Point illustrations. In the twenty-five or so sessions I attended, including some heuristically chosen at random, the level of scholarship was very consistent and I did not witness any disruption caused by technological dysfunctions. For this smooth proceeding, lots of credit must go to Jef Verschueren, and Ann Verhaert who were the local organizers. They were helped by an exemplary team of volunteers.

Party with the organizing crew for the IPrA conference in Antwerp
Party with the organizing crew for the IPrA conference in Antwerp


A sure sign of the importance and credibility of scholarly associations is the presence at their annual meetings of extensive exhibits by major academic publishers. The International Pragmatics Association attracted a fair number of them. Browsing through the book displays of Oxford University Press, Bloomsbury Academic, Springer, de Gruyter, Routledge, Palgrave, John Benjamins, and Cambridge University Press, for instance, is a more rewarding experience than scanning the cover pictures that the Amazon robot flashes to your screen when it “remembers” what you bought online in the past and tries to entice you with books on “the same” kind of topic.

Coming now to the specifics, keeping in mind the caveat I expressed above, there were significant clusters of panels and sessions bearing upon argumentation, conversation, discourse analysis, gestures, humor, multimodality, narratives, pronouns and other deictic tools, systems of address, and typology. English was the language of communication but there were nevertheless a fair number of papers dealing with examples from other European and Asian languages.

The focus on narratives included a four-session panel dealing with the use of narratives to investigate identity as well as panels on conversational narratives, narratives of vicarious experience, identity construction, and storytelling. This general topic was also partially covered in panels on humor, the positioning of the self, telecinematic discourse, and tourist communication.

As it can be expected in a pragmatics conference, the deictic dimension of language was the subject of several panels, most of which addressed the problem from a comparative perspective: “You, we, and the others”, “Interpersonal pragmatics of social interactions in Chinese”, “Address, variation, and adaptability”, “The dynamics of self-expression across languages”, “Positioning the self and others”, and “The social dynamic of pronominal systems”.

Another well-represented research was the investigation of multimodality. Actual oral communications involve indeed more than language. Issues such as facial expressions, gestures, artefacts, mediating technologies, and, more generally, contextualization, were repeatedly addressed. However, the most productive of these approaches was concerned with multimodal argumentation, the way in which the rhetoric of persuasion draws from all the semiotic resources available to human sensorial capabilities.

Other topics of interest were the objects of papers given in the context of sessions on “Information structure”, “Experimental pragmatics”, “Social media”, “ Doctor-patients discourse”, “Metaphor”, “Intercultural pragmatics”, “Gender”, “Film discourse”, “Intertextuality and metatext”, to name only a few representative subjects addressed in this rich and diverse conference. Last but not least, a special panel was devoted to the memorial celebration of the contribution of Charles J. Fillmore (1929-2014) to the advancement of linguistics and pragmatics.

The plenaries offered a brilliant array of distinguished scholars, bearing witness to the acumen of the organizing committee. Plenaries are important highlights of international conferences. Their selection must ensure that the speakers are actual movers at the frontier of the various disciplines concerned with pragmatics or semiotics in the broad sense. This, however, cannot be taken for granted as it happens at times that choices of speakers for plenaries are dictated by political and opportunistic considerations. For example, as hard it may be to believe, the members of the executive committee of the International Association for Semiotic Studies and the organizers of the 11th congress in Nanjing (October 4-9, 2012) had programmed themselves, with a few exceptions, as plenary speakers. This would be inconceivable in the context of IPrA, an association run by selfless scholars in the service of the international community of researchers whose works come under the purview of pragmatics and semiotics. 

A view of the plenary lecture by Professor Stephen Levinson, "Turn taking and the pragmatic origin of language"
A view of the plenary lecture by Professor Stephen Levinson, “Turn taking and the pragmatic origin of language”


In any review, critically constructive remarks are in order. Pragmatics as a whole is rich in empirical research but somewhat suffers from a theory deficit. The taken for granted definition of pragmatics as the study of how language is used in context raises an intractable paradox as it implies that language pre-exists to its uses. But the case can be made that, as Saussure repeatedly insisted, natural language is exclusively oral language. There is a general agreement that this specific human competency of obscure origin progressively appeared some two million years ago. Natural languages are made and evolve orally, that is, as forms of interactions in context, and each natural language is represented in the brains of the community which share this particular means of communication and manipulation at a given time. As it was suggested by Stephen Levinson, pragmatics should be defined as the study of language in the making. Natural languages undergo constant changes under the pressure of individual variations or external influences. Changes may tacitly be selected by the group and continuously transform imperceptibly the current norm. For a community whose members are almost constantly in contact with each other, these changes are not noticeable as they are automatically integrated. When groups split and thus create a communication gap, languages diverge and become mutually unintelligible with time. Written languages are human artefacts produced by scribes over the last few millennia with the explicit purpose of stabilizing and normalizing for a larger community of speakers (and writers) the dysfunctional lability of natural languages. The artefactual rules of written languages are constantly broken whenever language run free as it does now, for instance, in Twitter and other similar means of verbal communication right under the eyes of horrified scribes. Things, of course, are more complicated but the idea of a grammatically consistent language whose norms would stand in isolation as a well ordered resource that speakers can tap as needed is likely to be a mere epistemic delusion.  

From the methodological point of view, pragmatics produces countless empirical research primarily aimed at describing the way in which humans interact orally. More and more attention is paid to the multimodal nature of these interactions. But the constraints of the artefactual context are all too often glossed over. Forms of interactions between the passengers in a car or subjects lined up on a bench in front of a camera are largely determined by the physical structure of the context and can hardly serve as means of uncovering a natural typology of conversations. This lack of situational awareness on the part of the experimenters may lead at times to mindless conclusions reached at a high cost. More can be done to improve the awareness of the biases introduced in a research by its very empirical apparatus.

More importantly, pragmatics has produced and keeps producing an impressive documentation on the ways humans interact multimodally but these phenomenological descriptions which tend to uncover regularities or even universals are short of explanatory power. It was symptomatic that there was no noticeable input at the Antwerp conference from the cognitive neurosciences, game theory, or evolutionary psychology, to name only a few domains which currently strive to explain human behavior, including the whole spectrum of symbolic (or semiotic) interactions. Perhaps, the next congress of IPrA could tap the resources offered by specialists in these cutting-edge fields when the organizers select their roster of plenaries.   

Participants enjoyed a gastronomic dinner at the restaurant Horta


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