Pragmatics is a relatively young branch of linguistics and basically it’s about the way we get meaning from context to understand people’s intentions – or not, of course – but it’s not a simple thing to define.
George Yule memorably described it as the study of ‘invisible meaning’ because it’s not about the meanings we get from syntax or semantics. It’s more about the relationship between the linguistic forms and the users of the language. So anyway, I chuckled when I read Laine Cole’s anecdote over at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog (where they have just started running an American English month – very exciting!) She has illustrated it perfectly. Laine grew up in South Africa and her story goes thus:
I once shared an office with two Britons and an American. We all started work at more or less the same time and we were all just getting to know each other. One day my new American friend took me aside and said: ‘Do you understand what those two are saying when they speak?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘But maybe it’s because I’m more used to the British accent’. ‘No’, he said. ‘It’s not their accent. It’s that they don’t seem to say what they mean’.
Ha! No wonder learning to speak ‘merican is hard for this Brit. And it reminded me of my favourite definition of pragmatics. I’m afraid I’ve no idea where it comes from, but it goes:
“PRAGMATICS IS THE STUDY OF HOW WE DON”T SAY WHAT WE MEAN”
Many thanks to Macmillan Dictionary Blog for the anecdote and also for including my guest post on ‘The trickiest word in American’ today