Pragmatics in Conversation


the study of contextual factors in communication. (situational and social factors)

Grices Model

Conversations have one overarching principle, called the cooperative principle. Assumption of cooperation underlies almost all communication. Few exceptions: arguments, hostile witness

Number of conversational maxims (ways to achieve cooperation):

1. maxims of quantity

a. make your contribution as informative as is required

b. don’t make your contribution more informative than is required.

2. maxims of quality

try to make your contribution one that is true.

a. don’t say what you believe to be false.

b. don’t say that for which you lack adequate evidence

3. maxim of relation

it has to be relative

4. maxim of manner

be perspicuous – avoid obscure expressions, ambiguity, be brief, be orderly

Violation of maxims

Ex. My aunt is an elephant.

Apparent violation of quality.  But if speaker is following the cooperation principle then the listener will make an implicature (a context-specific inference). Aunt might be large, has a good memory, likes peanuts.

Linguistic Politeness

Forms of requests may vary….depending on the size of the request or who we’re asking (asking bro for a quarter or a stranger for a dollar)

One strategy: be indirect

“Can you pass the salt?”

class of utterances are called indirect speech acts

Requests for action stated obliquely : do you know what time it is?

Can you tell me when you close?

such utterances minimize the imposition on the hearer

Requirements for indirectness varies across languages

Another pragmatic principle:

The given-new contract proposed by Haviland and Clark (1974)

A speaker will tell a listener something already known (the given part) ……and add something the listener doesn’t know (the new part).

Reflected in word order.

English is a subject-verb-object languageSVO

We have to keep track of given-new info for each person we know.

Done by monitoring the common ground we share with others. (clark)

Shared knowledge and beliefs.

long assumed language was unique to people

research shows that many species possess elaborate communication systems

An example: the language of bees

Described by Karl von Frisch (Nobel Prize, 1973)

Dance indicates the direction, relative to the sun, of the nectar source

speed of dance: quality of the nectar source

impressive but not productive

Bee’s can’t talk about anything else (distance to nectar source, predators)

so not a true language

Can animals learn language?

The kellogs and a chimpanzee infant named Gua (1930’s)

raised along with their son donald

Gua provided with several years of intensive training

Acquired a three-word vocabulary (mama, papa, and cup)

Only really understood by the Kelloggs


shape of the vocal tract of apes makes them unable to produce many phonemes of human language. But apes can make fine hand movements.

Could they learn a manual human language, like American Sign Language (ASL)?

Project WASHOE

1966 Gardners of UN RENO began work with Washoe

taught via operant conditioning

Could reliably use about 250 signs

But was it productive use of language

An example:

washoe sees a swan at the zoo

makes a new sign, “water bird” to refer to it

but is it “Water +bird” or “Water, bird”?

Intentionally difficult to establish

Washoe didn’t seem to appreciate word order.

Washoe primarily used language to get things from others.

Later Developments

Koko (Penny Patterson) – Also taught ASL, Understands spoken language,

Koko will lie to protect herself

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