IPrA, the International Pragmatics Association, at 25

Jeff Verschueren

25? There are different ways of calculating a person’s age: from birth, or from the moment of conception. The same goes for institutions, organizations, associations, though for the latter ‘conception’ is harder to pin down, as it takes place in the more abstract world of ideas.

A very brief history

The International Pragmatics Association (http://ipra.ua.ac.be), if its date of birth is considered criterial, is exactly 25 years old. It was established as a not-for-profit organization in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1986. Its acronym, IPrA, was meant to distinguish it from the International Phonetic Association or the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA – well-known among linguists). The small ‘r’ served the purpose of avoiding confusion with the International Peace Research Association (IPRA, an abbreviation that later turned out to stand for a wide range of organizations, from the International Public Relations Association to the International Professional Rodeo Assocation). But the idea on which its establishment was based has an older history. My own involvement in pragmatics-related organizational work dates back to 1979, when Herman Parret enlisted Marina Sbisà and me to co-organize a conference on “Possibilities and limitations of pragmatics” in Urbino, Italy (July 8-14, 1979). Another pivotal event was the 1984 workshop “Between semantics and pragmatics” which Johan van der Auwera co-organized with Svenka Savić in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia (May 7-18, 1984). This workshop led to the 1985 “International Pragmatics Conference”, co-organized with Marcella Bertuccelli Papi in Viareggio, Italy (September 1-7, 1985). Meanwhile, a Pragmatics Documentation Center had been established in 1984 at the University of Antwerp where, in collaboration with Jan Nuyts, a comprehensive bibliography of pragmatics was being produced, a 2197-page work, published in 1987 by John Benjamins Publishing Company (and still updated annually online, in editorial collaboration with Frank Brisard and Michael Meeuwis). The success of the Viareggio conference, in terms of the unexpected number of participants as well as the richness of content, confirmed the belief that, in spite of the fragmentary appearance of pragmatics as a science of language use, it provided a mobilizing idea for collaborative and trans-disciplinary research relevant for addressing true problems of human communication. This belief was the basis for the establishment of an International Pragmatics Association.

IPrA immediately attracted hundreds of members. Its establishment also brought along critical reactions. Thus Thomas Sebeok wrote a note expressing his disapproval, as he did not see how a field of pragmatics could flourish outside of semiotics. In principle, he was right. How can one detach the use of signs from a close consideration of the signs themselves? Of course, one cannot. It is for the same reason that detaching a focus on cognition from social context is in principle impossible, just as most social issues cannot be dealt with without taking cognition into account. But would that be a sufficient reason to regard the notion of cognitive linguistics, as distinguishable from pragmatics, as a bad idea? Clearly, there is nothing wrong with highlighting a specific perspective, as long as one realizes that it is a perspective and that perspectivization requires full awareness of the defocused aspects of the ‘reality’ it bears on.


Handbook of Pragmatics

The attentive reader will have noticed that the Viareggio conference did not have a number. There were at least three reasons for that. First of all, It was not part of the plan, at that moment, to start a series of similar events; remember that the Association was not yet a fact. Second, calling it the 1st International Pragmatics Conference could have been seen as downplaying the relevance of earlier events. And last but not least, giving a number felt too much like a premature institutionalization, artificially creating a tradition where there was not one yet; the thought was even voiced that it might be counterproductive to create a ‘tradition’, as academic events should not be organized just because they are expected to happen. This last, perhaps idealistic, thought was maintained through the 1987 International Pragmatics Conference (Antwerp, Belgium, August 17-22, 1987, organized in collaboration with Alessandro Duranti and Jan Nuyts) and the 1990 International Pragmatics Conference (Barcelona, Spain, July 9-13, 1990, chaired by Helena Calsamiglia and Amparo Tusón). It was not until the 1993 conference that a number was assigned to the event. For the Japanese organizers it was important for funding purposes that their conference could indeeds be seen as part of an established tradition. It was then decided that Viareggio should be taken as the starting point. That is how the 4th International Pragmatics Conference emerged (Kobe, Japan, July 25-30, 1993, chaired by Paul Takahara and Masayoshi Shibatani), followed by the 5th (Mexico City, July 4-9, 1996; Fernando Castaños), the 6th (Reims, France, July 19-24, 1998; organized directly from Antwerp), the 7th (Budapest, Hungary, 9-14 July 2000; Ferenc Kiefer), the 8th (Toronto, Canada, July 13-18, 2003; Monica Heller), the 9th (Riva del Garda, Italy, July 10-15, 2005; Marina Sbisà), the 10th (Göteborg, Sweden, July 8-13, 2007; Karin Aijmer and Jens Allwood), the 11th (Melbourne,  Australia, July 12-17, 2009; Keith Allen), and the 12th International Pragmatics Conference (Manchester, U.K., July 3-8, 2011; Maj-Britt Mosegaard-Hansen).

From the Antwerp 1987 conference onwards, attendance averaged between 600 and 1000 participants, with an all-time low of roughly 400 in Toronto, due to the SARS epidemic that hit in the months preceding the event and cut anticipated participation in half, and with a record attendance approaching 1100 in Manchester.


A flux of ideas


While large conferences serve an important networking function, they also provide a prismatic view of developments in academic fields of inquiry and teaching. As to linguistic pragmatics, IPrA’s major strength has always been its ability to bring together a truly interdisciplinary community of scholars sharing an interest in problems of language use, approached from a multitude of different angles, in view of pure understanding of structures and processes as well as a wide range of fields of application, from language teaching to intercultural and international communication, language pathology, computer communication systems, and media old and new. This interdisciplinarity has been clearly in evidence during every one of the conferences, with participants from linguistics, (developmental) psychology, sociology, anthropology, computer science and philosophy. Conference announcements always state that, in addition to the special theme of the conference, presentations on any topic relevant to the field of pragmatics in its widest sense as the interdisciplinary (cognitive, social, and cultural) science of language use are welcome. Undoubtedly, it is the mix of backgrounds that remains one of the major appeals for participants. Though scholars with related interests tend to stay together, they cannot avoid learning from others as well. The special themes of the conferences themselves, for that matter, usually build in an aspect of interdisciplinarity. They have included, for instance, “Cognition and communication in an intercultural context” (Kobe 1993), “Language and ideology” (Reims 1998), “Linguistic pluralism: policies, practices, and pragmatics” (Toronto 2003), “Pragmatics and philosophy” (Riva del Garda 2005), “Language data, corpora, and computational pragmatics” (Göteborg 2007), to mention just a few.

Because of the constant flux of ideas, obliging an observer to look in innumerable directions at the same time, it is hard to identify clear patterns of development over the years. There are, however, a few things that can be pointed out quickly (leaving a detailed historical analysis to some overambitious future doctoral student).

First of all, pragmatics in the 1980s was already moving away from a speech acts oriented and sentence-level look at what it is to do things with words. Yet, speech acts, while taken out of the somewhat restrictive context of orthodox speech act theory, have survived as topical anchoring points. These days, it is specifically an interest in individual types of speech acts (apologies, compliments, complaints, etc.), often approached comparatively across linguistic communities, but almost always placed in an interactive context, that remain topics of discussion and research.

Second, the other pillar of linguistic pragmatics, Grice´s conversational logic, remains influential. It is rarely relied upon in its original formulation. But a variety of neo-Gricean pragmatic theories, mostly reducing the number of principles that are invoked to explain language use, flourish: Sperber & Wilson´s relevance theory (relying on one principle, relevance); Horn’s two-principled theory (replacing Grice´s maxims with a Quantity- and a Relation-principle: make your contribution sufficient, saying as much as you can, but also make your contribution necessary, saying no more than you must); Levinson´s three-principled pragmatic theory (hinging on the notions of Quantity, Informativeness, and Manner).

Third, the single most-used notion to define the field of pragmatics, the notion of ‘context’  (remember the rather simple opposition between semantics as meaning without context versus pragmatics as meaning in context) keeps permeating almost all of the work that calls itself pragmatic. Correspondingly, the single most-used reproach in criticism of others’  work is that context is not sufficiently, or wrongly, taken into account. This constant point of reference, however, does not mean the notion has not changed. In fact, while it is still too often used in a vague manner, the notion of context has been considerably enriched over the years. The main change has been growing emphasis on contextualization, a continuous process, in opposition to a static context-out-there. Potentially relevant context is endless, but a language user’s active orientation towards specific aspects of this borderless potentiality defines what is actually relevant context in a given situation. There is widely shared agreement on this principle, but the main current challenge is to turn this awareness into empirical ways of tracing language user´s orientations.

Fourth, armchair pragmatics is almost banned these days. Technical developments have had a profound effect on the ways in which actual language use can be investigated. On the one hand, audio- and video-recording has enabled the detailed scrutiny of real-world spoken interaction. The use of such tools has become mandatory for any scholar who wants to make empirical claims about conversation. On the other hand, computer tools have facilitated the study of large-scale corpora, often consisting of written data, but increasingly also spoken. The complexity is further increased by the growing demands of taking multi-modality into account. Somewhat ironically, the new media, which naturally attract more and more attention, favor a return to the armchair: for current research purposes it is sometimes no longer felt necessary to go out to collect data.

Fifth, whereas in the early 1980s it was still possible to draw a line between so-called Anglo-American and Continental European pragmatics (the former concentrating on a restricted set of meaning phenomena that were felt not to be explainable in purely semantic terms, the latter opening the doors of linguistics widely towards society, cognition, and culture),  such a distinction has become less and less tenable over the last couple of decades. If a distinction can still be made at all, it is by no means geographically anchored.

A sixth (and for the current purposes final) point also has to do with geography. Pragmatics, like so many other fields of inquiry, has been heavily dominated by a narrowly defined Western world (mostly North America and Europe). Though skepticism in relation to the universality of theories and findings, often assumed in spite of their localized origins, was already visible thirty years ago (mostly in the work of anthropological linguists), it has been steadily spreading. In this context, and ‘emancipatory pragmatics’ movement has emerged which focuses precisely on the cultural embeddedness of analytical concepts and which, by way of thought experiment, consciously applies specific non-western notions of language use in theory building and empirical research.


Such developments in the flow of ideas are reflected in the multitude of publications in the field of pragmatics. IPrA has not only been contributing in that area indirectly through the conferences with innumerable publication spin-offs, but also directly. From the start in 1986, the idea of a Handbook of Pragmatics was conceived “as a tool in the search for coherence, at least in the sense of cross-disciplinary intelligibility, in this necessarily interdisciplinary field of scholarship.” It was not until 1995 that the HoP ‘Manual’ was published (by John Benjamins Publishing Company, co-edited with Jan-Ola Östman and Jan Blommaert) with encyclopedic articles on a wide range of disciplines and research methods that had contributed to the field, as known by that time. This was followed by annual loose-leaf installments, gradually building up an overview of major topics and concepts relevant to pragmatics. Meanwhile, flexibility and expandability of the Handbook have been greatly increased by the production of an online version (see www.benjamins.nl/online), while accessibility has been improved with a ten-volume topically arranged paperback set of HoP ‘Highlights.’ The Handbook of Pragmatics is no longer the only tool of its kind; handbooks or encyclopedias of pragmatics have been published (at least) by Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, de Gruyter, Pergamon, and Routledge.

IPrA also launched its own non-commercial journal in 1987, the IPrA Papers in Pragmatics, published twice a year and edited by Sandro Duranti and Bambi Schieffelin. In 1991 this was converted into the quarterly Pragmatics, now in its 21st year of publication. Duranti and Schieffelin stayed on as editors through 1991. Among the editors who succeeded them, Gunter Senft has been in service uninterruptedly until today, making him effectively editor-in-chief. Others include Adriana Bolívar (since 2006), Charles Briggs (1998 until today), Frank Brisard (since 2010), Patricia Clancy (1996-1997), Walter De Mulder (2002-2009), Helmut Gruber (2002 until today), Chungmin Lee (1997-2005), Sophia Marmaridou (1998 until today), Marcyliena Morgan (1992-1995), Masayoshi Shibatani (1992-1996).

Throughout the history of IPrA, it has been painful to see the persistent inequality of access to academic information. Membership in the Association has always been geographically biased, with very few paying members from the poorer parts of the world. The same is of course true for conference participation. That is why the IPrA publication, Pragmatics, has been kept away from commercial publishing interests. Its completely independent and non-commercial nature allowed us to look for means of distribution that could reach more people than through paying membership. In a wide range of countries, non-paying membership was installed in combination with local distribution centers where the IPrA publications could be reproduced without limitations. This worked well in some countries, but not so well in others, depending on the local availability (and accessibility and cost) of means of reproduction. Going online (see http://ipra.ua.ac.be/main.aspx?c=*HOME&n=1360) turned out to be a partial solution. Non-paying members can now be given direct access to the most recent issues. Another recent move has been to place all issues of IPrA Papers in Pragmatics and of Pragmatics in open access as soon as they are one year old. The platform that is used for open access is eLanguage (see http://elanguage.net/journals/index.php/pragmatics/issue/archive), operated under the flag of the Linguistic Society of America from Germany (on the initiative of Dieter Stein and administered by Cornelius Puschmann). A one-year embargo period is handled to safeguard the income that IPrA needs for its own functioning.

Manchester 2011

The 12th International Pragmatics Conference, held in Manchester, July 3-8, 2011, and chaired by Maj-Britt Mosegaard-Hansen, could not have chosen a theme more suitable to the IPrA mentality: “Pragmatics and its interfaces.” A quick glance at the program (downloadable – with the full set of abstracts – from  http://ipra.ua.ac.be/main.aspx?c=.CONFERENCE12&n=1411) will convince anyone that interfaces, looked at in an intradisciplinary as well as an interdisciplinary way, are a key issue of present-day pragmatics as represented by IPrA. The choice of plenaries, for instance, speaks for itself: Laurel Brinton on historical pragmatics, Nick Enfield on the way in which communicative practices create and maintain social statuses (‘distributed agency’), Sachiko Ide with suggestions on how to use the Japanese concept of ‘ba’ (field) for a better understanding of the interactive creation of a story, Hans Kamp on where and how to draw a line between semantics and pragmatics, Sotaro Kita on gesture and culture in language use, Rosina Marquez Reiter on negotiating strategies in telesales, and Wes Sharrock on the role of ethnomethodology for an understanding of lay and professional discourses.

At the intradisciplinary level, the interfaces of pragmatics with a variety of other angles from which to look at language linguistically pass the review. Selecting just a few (and looking for this purpose only at pre-organized panels) we find:

The interface with morphology (as in Nana Aba Appiah Amfo & Clement Appiah’s “Morphopragmatics of diminutives in African languages”)

The interface with grammar and typology (as in Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen and Jacqueline Visconti’s “The pragmatics of negation”)

The interface with semantics (as in Patricia Mayes’ “The limits of agency: Exploring the interface between semantic and social constructs of agency”)

The interface with studies of language change (as in Kate Beeching’s “The role of the left and right periphery in semantic change”, Andreas Jucker and Irma Taavitsainen’s “Diachronic corpus pragmatics”, Celeste Rodriguez Louro and Chad Howe’s “Perfect evolution across languages and dialects: Semantic change and pragmatic motivations”)

At the interdisciplinary level, we find (amongst other examples, and with the same restriction as above):

The interface with cognitive science (as in Stavros Assimakopoulos’ “Cognitive pragmatics and its interfaces in linguistics”, or Iris Bachmann, Christina Anders, and Martina Schrader-Kniffki’s “Perception of language”)

The interface with developmental psycholinguistics (as in Asta Cekaite and Ann-Carita Evaldsson’s “Affective stances, accountability and moral order in adult-child interaction”)

The interface with a wide range of socio-cultural and socio-political approaches (as in Xinren Chen and Dániel Kádár’s ”Identity as resource in Chinese discourse”, Charles Coleman’s “The Obamas and an American identity dilemma”, Cornelia Ilie’s “Gendering discourses at the private-public sphere interface”, Jacob Mey and Hermine Penz’ “Situating societal pragmatics culturally and interculturally”, Ruth Wodak, Michal Krzyzanowski and Helmut Gruber’s “The pragmatics of (new) genres in political communication”)

The interface with literary stylistics (as in Siobhan Chapman and Billy Clark’s panel by that name)

In addition, a lot of attention was paid to areas of application which are by definition at the interdisciplinary end of the scale, in particular in teaching (as in Jan Berenst, Fritjof Sahlström, and Myrte Gosen’s “Joint reasoning in educational settings”), therapy (as in Charles Antaki’s “The conversational practices of psychotherapy”), courtrooms (as in Susan Berk-Seligsen’s “Language and criminal justice systems” and Sigurd D’hondt and Fleur van den Houwen’s “Quoting from the case file: Intertextual practices in courtroom discourse”), computer-mediated communication (as in Wolfram Bublitz and Christian Hoffmann’s “The pragmatics of quoting in computer-mediated communication”), news media (as in Svetlana Kurtes and Teodora Popescu’s “Breaking the news on European televisions: Cross-cultural perspectives”), translation (as in Anne Mäntynen and Hélène Buzelin’s “Language policy, editorial processes, and translation”)

Methodologically, conversation-analytical approaches found themselves very much in the spotlight (with panels ranging from Jack Bilmes, Edward Reynolds, and Richard Fitzgerald’s “Lies and liars: A conversation analytic approach”, Galina Bolden and Jenny Mandelbaum’s “Numbers in (inter)action”, and Arnulf Deppermann and Susanne Günthner’s “Temporality in interaction”, to Paul Drew, Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen and John Heritage’s “Constructing social action in conversation”, which attracted such a large audience that a larger auditorium had to be found and that there was a shortage of handouts, slightly compensated later by their being placed on the conference website – see  http://ipra.ua.ac.be/main.aspx?c=.CONFERENCE12&n=1422).

Needless to say that all the classics were also present (speech acts, speaker meaning, aspect, evidentiality, modality, discourse markers, modal particles, genres, discourse coherence, narrative, humor, silence, to name just a few), as well as all the relative newcomers (such as multimodality and new media).

In addition, a serious amount of reflection on the practice of doing pragmatics was also present. Like on at least two earlier occasions, there was an ‘emancipatory pragmatics’ panel (running for a full day), namely Scott Saft and Sachiko Ide’s “Emancipatory pragmatics: Cultural and interactional context revisited”. As suggested before, this endeavor aims at the development of perspectives and theories that are based on languages other than the ones whose language-, culture-, or community-internal notions have determined much of pragmatic thinking in the past. Some of the accepted beliefs about concepts such as turn-taking, politeness, deixis, speech acts, and the like, are thus reflexively questioned. One of the main ideas behind this edition was that analyses of the proposed kind could also shed light on the very notion of context, taking it – where necessary – beyond the contextual details that are ‘visible’ in interaction.

Another reflexive endeavor was represented by Jan-Ola Östman and Michael Bamberg’s “Responsibility and ethics” panel. In addition to looking at responsibility, accountability, and agency in discourse practices (especially narratives and institutional interactions), the purpose was to also address responsibility and ethics with respect to the positioning of the linguistic researcher, as insider or outsider, in relation to data gathering, data interpretation, and intervention. In a way, the questions asked follow almost directly and quite naturally from a much more general question, namely “What is pragmatics good for?”

In spite of a clear concern with the position of pragmatics as a relevant academic perspective, there were not many foundational philosophical papers. This is somewhat strange, and certainly regrettable, given the fact that so many of the basic notions in pragmatics have their origin in the philosophy of language. Marina Sbisà tried to revive a strong interest in philosophical issues when she chaired the 9th International Pragmatics Conference in Riva del Garda. But this must remain a point of attention for the future.

A final remark about the Manchester meeting: posters were a great success. From 1987 onwards, IPrA has been struggling with the search for a good formula to include posters in the conference programs. The present formula, which after its second or third implementation can be said to work well, consists in putting up the posters in a centrally located area that is often visited by conference participants (because that is where they have coffee, and/or that is where the book exhibit is). They stay up for the whole week. But on one specific day a poster period is reserved during which no other conference activities take place and authors are expected to be physically present close to their posters. The result is that interesting discussions are generated and lasting contacts are made, often providing posters with more exposure and a stronger impact than the more traditional presentations.

The road to Delhi

On September 8-13, 2013, New Delhi will host the 13th edition of the International Pragmatics Conferences (note the numbers!), chaired this time by Rukmini Bhaya Nair. The special theme will be “Narrative pragmatics: Culture, cognition, context”, but as always the conference will welcome any topic relevant to pragmatics in its widest sense.

Ann Verhaert

On the road to Delhi, not much will change in the management of IPrA affairs (handled almost single-handedly by Ann Verhaert in the Antwerp secretariat). But a new President will be elected soon, to succeed Sachiko Ide (Tokyo, see http://sachikoide.com), who was preceded from 2000 to 2005 by Susan Ervin-Tripp (Psychology, Berkeley), from 1995 to 1999 by Ferenc Kiefer (Linguistic Institute, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest), from 1991 to 1994 by Sandra Thompson (Linguistics, Santa Barbara), and from 1986 to 1990 by John Gumperz (Anthropology, Berkeley).


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