LINGUIST List 14.3179

Thu Nov 20 2003

Review: Pragmatics: Verschueren et al. (2003)

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  • Chaoqun Xie, Handbook of Pragmatics: 2001 & 2002 Installments

    Message 1: Handbook of Pragmatics: 2001 & 2002 Installments

    Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2003 14:52:43 -0500 (EST)
    From: Chaoqun Xie <>
    Subject: Handbook of Pragmatics: 2001 & 2002 Installments

    Verschueren, Jef, Jan-Ola Ostman, Jan Blommaert and Chris Bulcaen, ed. (2003) Handbook of Pragmatics: 2001 & 2002 Installments, John Benjamins Publishing Company.

    Announced at

    Chaoqun Xie, Fujian Normal University

    [Chaoqun Xie's reviews of the 1999 and 2000 installments of the Handbook of Pragmatics appear in and --Eds.]

    These two most recent installments of Handbook of Pragmatics under review are the last two paper editions because, as stated in the 2002 version of the User's Guide, the loose-leaf paper version will not be expanded from now on and future additions will be published electronically only. In fact, readers should be aware that the Handbook of Pragmatics Manual and its subsequent eight installments, together with another important project of IPrA, the expanded and updated Pragmatics Bibliography, have been converted into electronic format and are now available online from John Benjamins.

    These two installments collect altogether 27 contributions by old hands in pragmatics research. As usual, these articles present state-of-the- art overviews of the topics chosen for discussion, touching upon the past, present and future of various fields concerned. Most of the contributions contain a large number of important and useful references with regard to the topics under discussion. And the topics covered are vast, ranging widely from metaphor and appraisal to intertextuality and clinical pragmatics, from language acquisition, language contact and language change to language ideologies, language dominance and minorization, from primate communication to computer-mediated communication and non-verbal communication, from perception and language to cerebral representation of language, and from Benveniste and Wittgenstein.

    In point of fact, flipping through the table of contents, one may be convinced once again that the very notion of pragmatics here is defined in its broadest sense as ''the study of linguistic phenomena from the point of view of their usage properties and processes'' (Verschueren 1999: 1). Following this line of thought, can we say that anything can be, if not should be, discussed under the cover term 'pragmatics', or, in other words, that anything can be, if not should be, explored pragmatically? Everything is pragmatic? This is a question (cf. He 1988). Actually, and paradoxically, any definition is at once good and bad, good that a certain definition may provide some guidance for understanding the object observed, bad that this very definition has limited our understanding towards the object under study. We are living in a world of paradoxes, a world of conflicts, a world of contradictions, a world of wars, wars against others and against ourselves. Often, human beings have to admit, if not lament over, the incompleteness, the inadequacy and the inaccuracy of human understanding and expression in dealing with things within and without them.

    In what follows, I would not follow the usual chapter-by-chapter reviewing format. It goes without saying that I am not in a position to make comments on the vastly expanding field of pragmatic studies; it seems a paradox to utter that the more you read, the more you feel that what you already knew is actually very little. Thus, what I attempt to do in the following paragraphs is to demonstrate that, by means of sorting out some contributions for a scrutinized investigation in line with my current research interests, these installments, as with their previous ones, are not only wonderful state-of-the-art overviews of various domains or practitioners contributing to furthering the development of research in pragmatics; they also force us, as we read on, to think about the very foundations of our pragmatic research and 'scientific' studies in general. These installments are sources of critical thinking.

    I find that these two supplements include several articles devoted to what may be called 'syntax-pragmatics': ellipsis, emphasis, emergent grammar, iconicity, information structure, predicates and predication, and word order. Take emergent grammar as an instance. Marja-Liisa Helasvuo's contribution is brief (10 pages only) but to the point. In emergent grammar, grammar does not exist a priori but emerges in discourse; grammar is social and interactive in nature. For me, what emergent grammar argues also underlies interactional grammar (see Selting and Couper-Kuhlen 2001), and both emergent grammar and interactional grammar have posed a great challenge to traditional approaches to grammar studies which have been dominating, and fettering in fact, our understanding of what grammar means to us language users. If we accept what emergent grammar and interactional grammar propose, we need to (re)consider the true meaning of grammar; we need to (re)consider our approaches to grammar study.

    For so many years, grammar has been enthusiastically researched in decontextualized situations; for so many years, grammar has been studied at the utterance or sentential level rather than at the discourse level; As a result, what emerges is misrepresented grammar; or, in other words, what we have is artificial grammar only, in the sense that many, many researchers have been inventing examples in their account for the grammatical phenomenon under study instead of collecting data from natural discourse settings, which, for most of the time, has resulted in failing to reflect truthfully the language in use. Failure to represent truthfully the language in use entails the danger of producing or reproducing a social reality misrepresented, if not distorted. This is a shame. For so many years, we have been searching for a universal grammar only to find that nothing is universal. In striving for the universal, we have disregarded the particular. Universalism is a myth. Language is a myth, too.

    My next comment concerns the notion of adaptability. For the past 20- odd years, Jef Verschueren has been exerting unremitting efforts to research into pragmatics ''as a theory of linguistic adaptation'' (1985, 1999). In ''Adaptability'', Jef Verschueren and Frank Brisard explore how humans adapt to language and how language adapts to humans. They argue for the close link of language to biological adaptability before examining how the concept of adaptability operates in day-to-day interaction. Finally, they talk about how an adaptability perspective can contribute to the study of human-computer interaction, political rhetoric, language acquisition, social psychology, and language disorders. The interested reader can be referred to Mey (1998) to see that the present contribution under review covers much more than that one with the same title, namely, 'adaptability' and hence that different writers may have different thoughts about what should be included and what should be excluded as regards the same topic. This latter view can be confirmed by a comparison of this Handbook of Pragmatics and another one recently published with the same title (Horn and Ward 2003). In my view, whatever perspective they take to approach language studies, and whatever they discuss from the perspective they choose, researchers and scholars should, if not must, have social commitment in mind. This is all that really counts. Any serious scholarly research should above all mirror truthfully, if not help change for the better, the social reality we are living with. Otherwise, what is the point of scientific research?

    And it is at this point that I would like to say that I find Jocelyne Vincent Marrelli's contribution ''Truthfulness'' most illuminating and refreshing. In this article, Vincent Marrelli deals with, among other things, a variety of types of both truthfulness and untruthfulness. More significant, this excellent overview, containing an exhaustive list of references concerning truth, lying and deceiving, forces us to ponder over the very foundation of pragmatics and human interaction in general. For many years, we have been fettered by the lopsided and misleading view that language users tell the truth in their communication with other people, that there exist mutual trust among interlocutors and that interaction is characterized by cooperation, probably derived from Grice's (1989) quality maxim, only to find that lying and deceiving, well-intentioned or ill-intentioned, are here and there in our life, in our communication with other people. It is this very notion of cooperation that has for about 30-strong years dominated and opinionated numerous people in their account for numerous phenomena in the social world. We have to admit that cooperation is sometimes if not often very costly. If we accept the view that human beings lie to others and to themselves, deceive others and themselves, we might as well stop for a rest and ponder over how far we have gone in our journey towards a genuine understanding of human interaction.

    My next comment is about Paul Chilton's essay entitled ''Manipulation'', which is equally revealing and thought-provoking. I agree with Chilton's claim that manipulation is not inherent in language. It is not language that manipulates; it is the subject speaking the language that manipulates. Chilton claims that the well-known Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues for the inseparability of language and thought, is hard to ''demonstrate experimentally''. However, can language be totally and unequivocally separated from thought as argued by Chilton? We doubt. This indeed is a tough nut to crack. In discussing manipulation and counter-manipulation, Chilton rightly mentions that thought manipulation is not necessarily predictable. For me, the notion of (un)predictability in current research into social science merits second thought.

    To conclude, these two installments, together with the Handbook of Pragmatics Manual and the other annual installments, are excellent resources for pragmatic research. These stellar contributions are revealing and thought-provoking. Not only do they dwell on the past and present of various research topics under the heading of pragmatics defined in its broadest sense, they also help open up new avenues for future studies. Hopefully, these publications would help push forward the studies in pragmatics and enhance the understanding of the social reality and of the world within and without us.


    Grice, H. Paul. 1989. Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    He, Ziran. 1988. Yuyongxue gailun [A survey of pragmatics]. Changsha: Hunan Jiaoyu Chubanshe.

    Horn, Laurence R., Ward, Gregory (eds). 2003. The handbook of pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Mey, Jacob L. 1998. Adaptability. In: Mey, Jacob L. (ed.), Concise encyclopedia of pragmatics. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 5-7.

    Selting, Margret, Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth (eds). 2001. Studies in interactional linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Verschueren, Jef. 1985. Pragmatics as a theory of linguistic adaptation. Antwerp: International Pragmatics Association.

    Verschueren, Jef. 1999. Understanding pragmatics. London: Edward Arnold.


    Chaoqun Xie is a lecturer with the Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian Normal University, China. His current areas of research interests include pragmatics and interactional sociolinguistics.