Combative approach navigates linguistic minefield

Pragmatics
December 2, 2005

Pragmatics is the field that analyses the use of language. What could be simpler and less contentious? In fact, pragmatics is complex and riven with fierce controversy - not so much a field as a minefield. In this excellent book, Louise Cummings provides a lucid guide to many of these disagreements. Traditional linguistics textbooks often treat pragmatics as an afterthought.

In one popular text, pragmatics arrives only on page 390 along with fields such as psycholinguistics, which are described as "neighbouring disciplines". This is because language structure - sounds, syntax and so forth - can be investigated systematically. Many people believe that the use of language cannot: it falls under "performance", rather than "competence", to use Noam Chomsky's famous distinction. If this suggests that pragmatics is a marginal sub-field of linguistics, nothing could be further from the truth. The biennial conferences of the International Pragmatics Association often attract about a thousand people, far more than meetings in other branches of linguistics. One reason is that pragmatics has crucial links with other fields. This book aims to explore such links, in particular with philosophy, psychology, language pathology, artificial intelligence, argumentation and social theory.

Cummings does this convincingly, in my view, but the chief merit of the book is a different one. Rather than an introduction to the subject, this is an advanced textbook that engages with some of the hottest topics in language use. What is more, it argues strongly against some positions - notably relevance theory and Habermas's critical social theory. The book could have been called "Controversies in Pragmatics" (or perhaps, "Pragmatics: Stepping Through the Minefield"). As an advanced textbook should, this book presents the live issues and argues carefully and rationally for the author's own positions. Presumably the book has grown out of Cummings's advanced classes: her students are very lucky to have such a committed and lucid teacher. The link between philosophy and pragmatics lies at the heart of the book. The style and energy that Cummings brings to the study of language are similar to the kind of careful and abstract debate that drives philosophy. In addition, questions about our knowledge of language, and what part it plays in our use of language, are, quite rightly, central to the book.

These are questions about which philosophers have much to say, and indeed, the work of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam underlies many of the positions that Cummings takes.

Two features of the book left me slightly uneasy. The first is the small amount of data, particularly in the early chapter that deals with theories of meaning. Cummings could perhaps have picked a particular area of language for detailed study.

My second worry is the chapter on language pathology. The focus here is on various clinical conditions that leave language structure intact (patients produce perfect sounds and grammatical sentences) but affect language use (the sentences are incoherent). Cummings takes these conditions as providing vital evidence about how language is organised in the mind. The benefit is all one way, though: students of pragmatics can learn things from language pathology, but what can speech therapists gain from pragmatics?

The book is far from alone in this respect, however, and perhaps anything that makes linguistics students aware of language pathology is a step in the right direction.

This is an outstanding book that will challenge students in exactly the right way. I hope that it inspires some equally combative textbooks in other fields of linguistics.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, Brighton University.

Pragmatics: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. First edition

Author - Louise Cummings
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 336
Price - £45.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 7486 1681 0 and 1682 9

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