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Or why what you think you’re saying means more than what you’re saying

In colloquial usage, pragmatic means to be practical, to deal with things sensibly and realistically with all practical concerns taken into consideration. While I rather love this form of pragmatics, another pragmatics was made. In the land of Mordor, in the fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged in secret… linguistic pragmatics is something somewhat but not altogether different.  

In fact, in linguistics, pragmatics refers to the practical usage of language, in the sense of how people actually use language – conveying meaning based on personal ideology and belief, local or personal frames of reference, implication, and even non-verbal communication. This is so much true that you can use pragmatics to say something altogether different than what someone else may interpret and you can use something extremely vague to say something extremely specific, providing other people in the conversation understand your frame of reference.  

For the simplest introduction to this phenomenon, take 3 minutes to allow Viva La Dirt League to explain it to you:  

Pragmatics essentially allow language to communicate:  

  • The speaker’s intentions/beliefs regardless of the grammatical structure of the spoken statement (That durned thing over yonder) 
  • Communicating around frame of reference between two “In” groups (Take a left where the Aldi used to be)  
  • The implication of added meaning without expressing that meaning (Netflix and chill?)  
  • The ability to leave out words because the person knows what is being discussed (Can I take the Chevy? Instead of “Can I drive your car when I go to the party tonight instead of taking the bus?”)  
  • The ability to determine what is not meant by a statement (“I could eat a horse”) 
  • The monitoring of Entities mentioned (“Sarah is wearing green again”, “Yes, I really like how she matches everything”, “She’s always wearing green”, *new person walks in, “I think her grandmother just gives her a lot of green”, *new person “who is she??”) 

And so on. Pragmatics basically allow us to translate syntactic or lexical ambiguity based on our expectation and understanding of the other person’s frame of reference. Without that context, headlines like the following can become downright comical:  

  • Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim  
  • Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge  
  • French Push Bottles Up German rear (WWI) 
  • Miners Refuse to Work After Death  

(Yes, all of these are real headlines). Theoretically, with a bit of squinting (or reading the article), you’d immediately understand what was meant.  

But pragmatics can get a lot worse than that. “I’m going to the city” “driving to the beach”, “give me the usual”, etc. 

Nowhere does that become more interesting (I lie, it is interesting in many more ways, I’ll get to those later because I don’t know how to shut up) than in the phenomenon of genericide.  

Genericide: The death/immortalization of a brand  

What do zippers, band-aids, Google, aspirin, Velcro, and Jell-o have in common? They are all brands that have suffered a fate known as genericide – where the brand name subsumes the product name, because it’s the version of the product everyone uses. Genericide isn’t universal. In the U.K. you hoover the room instead of vacuuming it and you use plasters not band-aids, but in when genericide happens, it gets an awfully lot harder for the brand to rank on Google Search. In fact, under U.S. and U.K. law, brands can even lose copyright exclusivity to their name once it becomes significantly generic enough. Which is why you can buy aspirin and Aspirin and Band-Aid bandaids.

That’s a similar but (opposite) phenomenon to Antonomasia, which also relies on pragmatics. Here, a named thing is replaced by a vague title or phrase. E.g., “the Big Apple”, “the Dark Knight”, “the Emerald City”, or “the Ring Bearer”. Here, the vague name relies on the fact that the audience knows exactly what is being spoken about, because they have the same reference, whether problematic billionaires running about crashing a city in the name of their dead parents or short sturdy humanoids who get a bad rep because they don’t stoically face evil without complaining about it. And frankly, this form of pragmatism is a delight because it allows us to greatly reduce the number of times we refer to a thing by name – thus reducing the amount of repetition we have to commit to in order to be understood. Of course, we achieve quite a bit of that already with pronouns.  

Dani said Dani wanted to get Dani new shoes at the mall when Dani goes tomorrow.  

Dani said she wanted to get herself new shoes at the mall when she goes tomorrow.  

(Take that hopefully non-existent anti-pronoun crusaders) But, admittedly, pronoun usage is not nearly as fun as thinking of vague phrases by which to refer to your friends when re-referencing them in conversations.

Pragmatism and the Language Game  

One of the other more interesting ways in which pragmatism affects language (see, told you I’d get to something else) is the “language game”. This theory was first proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1953, and quite simply consists of the idea that: “language does not correspond to reality and concepts do not need clarity for meaning, instead, the speaking of a language is an activity, a form of life, and the act of doing so gives language its meaning”.  

In short, any word spoken has no meaning outside of its interpretation.  

His example, “Water!” (Is this an answer to a question? A request for water? A sighting of water? A declaration of thirst? Without attached frame of reference in a living, acting communication, you have no clue) 

This concept basically says that any usage of language is a game between the speaker and the hearer, a dance if you will, in which the speaker attempts to use words that can be interpreted by the version of the language game used by the listeners.  

And, anyone who goes to work knows a little bit about how that goes. Switching from “the stakeholders really like the new circular initiative”, or “we forgot to cover the product owner’s backlog in our end-of-sprint retrospective”, to “is this a bear market bounce?” require significant shifts in frame of reference – and that holds true for any technical activity where jargon might have developed. E.g., what would you do if I ask you to effiler the green beans? Probably nothing because it’s not like I could pronounce it anyway.  

Pragmatics also become very interesting in some other contexts. For example, persons with autism quite notoriously struggle to differentiate between “language games” and therefore struggle with interpreting new pragmatics or adapting to pragmatics between social groups. Some studies show that teaching a split between social and linguistic pragmatics (essentially social interpretation versus grammatical interpretation) improves understanding while reducing language gaps.  

  • What do the words strung together in this order with this punctuation/inflection mean based on rules? 
  • What is the person saying these words trying to say based on all of the context clues that I have regardless of those rules? 

That latter question is why language is a two-way street. It’s not enough to simply say things and hope to be understood, one is impelled to try to understand the other’s frame of reference, to keep track of how they follow a conversation, and to make adjustments as you go along, to meet them as close to halfway as egalitarianism and mutual skill enable – pragmatism is the map by which you try to ensure everyone ends up in the same place, whilst, occasionally praying that your partners in communication perhaps learn how to read maps along the way.