Seriously semiotic pragmatics in practice

Jef Verschueren
Jef Verschueren

The development of linguistic pragmatics from the 1960’s onwards may be interpreted, in a way, as a ‘glottocentric’ move away from its parental home, the science of signs or semiotics. In principle, a focus on language was easy enough to justify. The complexity of its relation to its use and users carried the promise of decades of fruitful research on linguistic sign systems, abstracted from the multidimensional signing and sign-interpreting life of humans (or, for that matter, humans and other animals).

However, once a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to linguistic pragmatics started to take root, considering the cognitive, social, and cultural functioning of verbal signs, the glottocentric walls had to come tumbling down. There is not a specific moment when that happened. But a number of identifiable tendencies contributed to this development. The emergence of new research tools, such as audio- and especially video-recordings, revived an interest in gesture (which had been a hot topic in the 19th century already) and added attention to posture, gaze, and proxemics as interactional features equally relevant to verbal exchanges as pauses, hesitations, repairs, and overlaps. An ethnographic perspective was introduced into the study of language use. The communicative role of changing channels of communication, especially in view of emerging new media, was recognized. And an entire field of multimodal analysis entered upon the stage, no longer to be ignored by pragmaticians.

Briefly, if an institutionalization of linguistic pragmatics (with its own associations, journals, handbooks) resulted in the construction of a pragmatic house adjoining the semiotic village, the villagers’ concerns (if not the villagers themselves) have long since been frequent – and welcome – visitors to the house.

Consider the program of the 13th International Pragmatics Conference to be held in September 2013 in New Delhi (a provisional version of which is available through the IPrA website). In addition to the numerous panels, lectures, and posters dealing with conversational interaction and inevitably including paralinguistic and non-verbal phenomena in their analysis, many contributions focus explicitly on such phenomena.

For instance, a panel entitled Fonocortesia (phono-politeness) (convened by Adrián Cabedo) will explore the role of phonic phenomena (segmental, suprasegmental and paralinguistic) in processes of intensification and mitigation in relation to politeness. Also in the domain of paralinguistic features, Mie Nielsen will analyze how rhythmic organization (in ‘roller coaster intonation’) contributes to communication about sensitive issues, and Gareth O’Neill will open our eyes to the five distinct speech channels in Pirahã: normal speech, humming speech, whistling speech, musical speech, and yelling speech. In the margins of speech, John Rae and Israel Berger ask how silence contributes to the performance of sincerity in psychotherapy, while Dennis Kurzon wonders whether it is possible in all languages to qualify something left unspoken while talking as something the speaker is silent about.

Moving into the clearly non-verbal, there will be Matthew Burdelski’s panel with contributions on how Japanese language socialization involves not only language but also the body, as well as a panel (convened by Igor Z. Zagar, Leo Groarke and Paul van den Hoven) on non-verbal (visual, musical, gestural, emotional, and physical) means of argumentation, and even one (convened by Polly Szatrowski) on the verbal and non-verbal negotiation of assessments and categories in stories about food in Japanese and in English. Gesture is the topic of a paper by Ittay Gil, exploring the relation between lexical aspect and gestural behavior, while the role of laughter as a listener’s contribution towards reaching consensus is investigated by Ayako Namba. Similarly, Songthama Intachakra studies the way in which honorifics are displayed not only linguistically by also by means of non-verbal and contextual cues, as well as through the non-use of certain culturally proscribed forms.

Some papers will go into the relationship between language and music, and even dance. William Beeman explores the relationship between words and music in the practices underlying the pragmatic linguistic skills of song composers. Mythili Anoop goes into the pragmatics of classical Indian dance performances in urban and ‘global’ contexts, emphasizing strategies for capturing audience attention and the enactment of stories, for which verbal means are mobilized in addition to the bodily discourse. Moving to an evolutionary perspective, Maurício Benfatti, Elena Godoi and Aristeu Mazuroski Jr. suggest that there may be a common ancestor for music and language, i.e. ‘musilanguage’ or the gestural musicality that enables people to use the emotional features of musical communication in a rational way.

Multimodality appears in numerous forms. Focusing on the visual representation of speech as script, Rukmini Bhaya Nair asks how oral repertoires of cultures are reconstituted by acts of writing. The interplay between textual and visual features is studied by Li Fu and Nan Chen in the case of some Chinese posters, described as ‘semiotically thick.’ Using the more dynamic example of a TV commercial, Kuniyoshi Kataoka analyzes the making of a narrative through multimodal signs.

Predictably, an increasing amount of attention is devoted to the relation between technological innovations and the pragmatics of communication. Communicative mobility, for instance, is focused on by Sigurd D’hondt and Koen Stroeken, who ask how it affects notions of space and responsibility in the context of post-election violence in Kenya. The potential for ‘being connected’ underlies a panel (convened by Christina Davidson and Susan Danby), which inquires how children accomplish social activities through their everyday use of digital technologies. Similarly, Anna-Malin Karlsson asks how even physical activities are reshaped by the very possibility of ‘sharing-while-doing’ through telling, commenting and showing. A panel convened by Karin Aronsson and Elizabeth Keating enters the complex indexical field of gaming, the coordination of real and virtual spaces, and its relation to socialization, while another panel (convened by Theresa Heyd and Christian Mair) investigates the role of web-based communication in present-day diasporas. The influence of new media on political discourse is the topic of a panel organized by Anita Fetzer, Elda Weizman and Lawrence N. Berlin. The pragmatics of social media is further addressed in a paper by Maximiliane Frobenius and Richard Harper, as well as a panel convened by Nicole Baumgarten, Nadine Rentel and Juliane House, concentrating on the combination of written language with emoticons, non-standard punctuation, pictures and videos, briefly ‘image-enabled’ conversations.

Clearly, the above is a highly selective and somewhat random dip into a 5-day and 600-paper program. It shows, however, that in practice, linguistic pragmatics has become – if it has not always been – seriously semiotic. Present-day pragmatics certainly has a lot to offer the world of semiotics, and input from the wider field of semiotics will keep stimulating the development of pragmatics.

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