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Thursday’s posts look at sociolinguistics or child language acquisition: accents, stereotypes and how children learn to speak

Pragmatics is the study of everyday conversation; or how more is communicated than is said.

For example, consider the statement:

John even helped tidy up today!

The statement itself is simply about someone helping tidy. However, the speaker presumably means for the utterance to carry more meaning than that. The word even suggests that John helping tidy up is a rare occurrence. This means that the utterance communicates more than is actually said.

Pragmatics studies the ways in which this happens: the conventions of language, and the ways people break these conventions to communicate more meaning.

It’s a relatively recent endeavor in linguistics, having been born as a discipline in the 1950s.

This is because language is everywhere. Implicature (as in the utterance above) happens pretty much every time you open your mouth can you close the door doesn’t question someones ability to open the door, but is a request to do so. If you try to notice this in conversation, you begin to notice that it happens more often than not.

This ubiquity meant that people didn’t notice their own language use. It’s everywhere and it’s constant; it was a case of ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’.

Ethiopian Tribes, Suri

We exoticise cultures different from our own as being ‘other’ when we don’t even know how our culture works.

What they did instead was they would write an article on anthropology. They would get on a boat and sail to an area of the Amazon where no-one had seen a white person before, and study the way the open conversation. Or study the conventions surrounding silence in a Native American tribe. Then they would return to their white community and write up their findings.

It wasn’t until much more recently that people began to question: how do we open conversation? What are our conventions surrounding silence?

A friend recently told me a proverb from the bible: Matthew 7:3, Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

I think this is particularly relevant when it come to language.