Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding

Author: Georgia M. Green
Year: 1996
Genre: Linguistics

It's pretty clear that the meaning of words is conventional. I use the word computer to refer to this thing that I'm typing on because when I write that word to you, you know what I mean. The first time I realized this important fact about language, it seemed like the end of the discussion because it explains so much. On the contrary, though - it's just the beginning.

Pragmatics is the field of linguistic inquiry that explores how language is used to construct meaning between individuals. This can mean the flexibility in the meaning of individual words: we know what computer means, but when I talk about the New York Times, do I mean:

  • a copy of the newspaper (I bought the Times today)
  • the information contained in it (I can get the Times online)
  • the paper's editorial board (The Times says the Democrats are right)
  • the business that publishes the paper (The Times owns the Boston Globe)
  • or what?

Mostly, I judge from the context of the conversation and from what I know of you to determine what you're probably trying to express. This sort of conversational mind-reading guessing game is going on all the time; it's what allows us to express nonverbal ideas in a verbal medium, and to produce infinitely many thoughts with a finite number of words.

Pragmatics also deals with the ways people use language to achieve social goals, from a simple request to an attempt to persuade or change someone's mind. The assumptions we make about other people's prior knowledge are pragmatic, as are the form and function of politeness.

Georgia Green's book explores all this and more. It's a rewarding read for anyone who is interested in the hidden details of language and the assumptions behind its use, as long as they're not put off by a modicum of technical language or too cool to read textbooks for fun. (I'm clearly not.)

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