Basic Pragmatics Concepts (Part 4 of Biblical Language Linguistics)  

April 8, 2022 // The Biblical Languages Podcast


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In this episode of the Biblical Languages Podcast, Kevin Grasso shares core concepts that are essential for doing the task of pragmatics.


"What did they mean by that? It’s a relatively common question, and it’s precisely the subject of the field of pragmatics. In order to know what someone meant by what they said, it’s not enough to know the meanings of the words (semantics) and how they have been strung together into a sentence (syntax); we also need to know who uttered the sentence and in what context, and to be able to make inferences regarding why they said it and what they intended us to understand. There’s one piece of pizza left can be understood as an offer (“would you like it?”) or a warning (“it’s mine!”) or a scolding (“you didn’t finish your dinner”), depending on the situation, even if the follow-up comments in parentheses are never uttered. People commonly mean quite a lot more than they say explicitly, and it’s up to their addressees to figure out what additional meaning they might have intended. A psychiatrist asking a patient 'Can you express deep grief?' would not be taken to be asking the patient to engage in such a display immediately, but a movie director speaking to an actor might well mean exactly that. The literal meaning is a question about an ability (“are you able to do so?”); the additional meaning is a request (“please do so”) that may be inferred in some contexts but not others. The literal meaning is the domain of semantics; the “additional meaning” is the domain of pragmatics." (Birner 2013:1)
From Birner's quote, we can see that pragmatics has more do to with how we communicate than just what words mean. Of course, words and sentences are part of how we communicate, but as we will see, there is a lot more to communication than just the meaning of words.
In our episode on semantics, we ended with truth-conditional meaning, and we said that to know the meaning of a sentence is to know what the world would have to be like for it to be true. Semantics and pragmatics has traditionally been divided based on this criterion. If a meaningful element affects truth-conditions, then it is said to fall under semantics. If the meaning does not affect truth-conditions, it falls under pragmatics. We can use Birner's example There's one piece of pizza left in order to illustrate this distinction. The truth conditions for this sentence are straightforward. In order for the sentence to be true, there needs to be one piece of pizza left. If we changed the sentence to There are two pieces of pizza left, then the truth conditions would change. There would then need to be two pieces of pizza left in order for the sentence to be true. However, if we put stress on pizza, so the sentence was There's one piece of PIZZA left, then there is an additional inference that we normally make, even though the truth conditions remain the same as the original sentence. There still has to be one piece of pizza left in order for the sentence to be true, but we may now naturally infer that there is something else available to eat besides pizza. This additional meaning is pragmatic meaning because it is a real inference, but it is distinct from truth-conditional meaning. While researchers have long-recognized that this distinction between truth-conditional and non-truth-conditional meaning is too simplistic, it is a useful starting place for us, and as many other introductory works do, we will assume it throughout our discussion.
Like the other fields we have discussed, the secondary literature in pragmatics is massive, and there is no way we can do justice to everything that has been said. We will begin with some key terms and concepts, and then we will move to how pragmatics interacts with morphology, syntax, and semantics. The goal in these last sections is to demonstrate the interconnectedness of language. While we cannot specialize in everything, you have to know at least something about the various sub-disciples in linguistics if you are going to do serious linguistic analyses. While we will touch on what are called different "interfaces," such as the syntax-pragmatics interface, these interfaces are not unique to the field of pragmatics. There is also a syntax-semantics interface, for example, where people research how syntax and semantics interact (and this is actually my main area of focus). Whatever sub-discipline in linguistics you might be interested in, being familiar with at least the basic terminology in the various sub-disciplines will greatly aid your analyses.


  1. Key terms
    • Conventional and conversational implicatures
    • Speech acts, illocutionary act, and sentential mood
    • Common ground and presupposition
    • Information structure (topic and focus)
  2. Morphology-pragmatics interface
  3. Syntax-pragmatics interface
  4. Semantics-pragmatics interface

Conventional and Conversational Implicatures

Conversational implicature - An inference made based on the specific context in which the statement is made, but which may be cancelled.
Conventional implicature - A non-truth-conditional aspect of meaning.
  1. Conversational implicature: "Some/Most of the kids went to the park. +> Not all kids went to the park."
  2. Conventional implicature: "The kids want to go outside, and/but it is raining."
Grice's Cooperative Principle - "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which is occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." (Grice 1975:45)
Grice's conversational maxims:
  1. Quantity - amount of information
  2. Quality - truth of information
  3. Relation - relevance of information
  4. Manner - how information is conveyed
  1. We make real inferences based on how something is said (so it would be wrong to interpret language without these inferences).
  2. Maxims may be flouted to convey additional information, e.g. Elijah's use of sarcasm (1 Kings 18:27)

Speech Acts, Illocutionary Act, and Sentential Mood

Speech act - The action performed when an utterance is made, e.g. make a statement, ask a question, give a command.
Illocutionary act - The act that the speaker is intending to perform.
Sentential mood/force - The prototypical act associated with the sentence type, e.g. Declaratives = make a statement; interrogative = ask a question; imperative = gives a command (Portner 2009)
  1. I want pizza.
  2. Can you give me another slice of pizza?
  3. Give me another slice of pizza.
The illocutionary act may not always align with the sentential force of the utterance.
See: Austin 1975; Searle 1969; Portner 2009; 2018

Common Ground and Presupposition

Common ground - The set of propositions that both interlocutors accept as true.
Presupposition - To assume the truth of a proposition and to assume that the addressee will also assume it.
Assertion - Content that is put forward by a speaker to be added to the common ground.

a. I have a cat, and I had to bring my cat to the vet.
b. #I had to bring my cat to the vet, and I have a cat.

a. I had to bring my cat to the vet because it was sick.
b. ?I had to bring my gorilla to the vet because it was sick.

a. Susie (doesn't) know that her husband is returning today.
b. Susie (doesn't) believe that her husband is returning today.

  1. Information is organized and asserted or presupposed based on what we think the addressee will easily accommodate or not.
  2. Presupposition still holds under negation.
See: Stalnaker 1978; 2014; Krifka 2007

Information Structure (Topic and Focus)

Information structure - "a phenomenon of information packaging that responds to the immediate communicative needs of interlocutors." (Krifka 2007:13)
Topic - "The topic of a sentence is the thing which the proposition expressed by the sentence is about." (Lambrecht 1994:118)
Focus - "Focus indicates the presence of alternatives that are relevant for the interpretation of linguistic expressions." (Krifka 2007:18)
Frame setting (also sometimes called topic) - "used 'to limit the applicability of the main predication to a certain restricted domain.'" (Krifka 2007:46; quoting Chafe 1976)
  • My daughter wants pizza vs. MY daughter wants pizza vs. My DAUGHTER wants pizza vs. My daughter WANTS pizza vs. My daughter wants PIZZA
  • a. Aristotle Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy.
    b. Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. (Krifka 2007:41)
  • In terms of what my daughter wants, she (always) wants pizza.
  1. Focus may be marked in different ways.
  2. Subjects are often topics.
  3. Frame-setting is not topic (Casus pendens).
See: Lambrecht 1994; Krifka 2007; Rooth 1992

Morphology-Pragmatics Interface

Morphology-Pragmatics Interface - the interaction between pragmatic meaning and the form of words.
Genesis 1:3: יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר

Morphemes may mark certain pragmatic meanings.

Syntax-Pragmatics Interface

Syntax-Pragmatics interface - The interaction between pragmatic meaning and the order of morphemes.
  1. Ruth 4:17: יֻלַּד בֵּן לְנָעֳמִי
Explanation: "In contrast, within the SV framework developed in this study, a few SV clauses may actually be basic and thus pragmatically neutral, but any VS clause without a syntactic or semantic trigger must contain a Topic or Focus operator." (Holmstedt 2009:138)

Certain syntactic positions are associated with pragmatic meanings.

Semantics-Pragmatics Interface

Semantics-pragmatics interface - The interaction between semantic (truth-conditional) and pragmatic (non-truth-conditional) meaning.
Matthew 28:1: ἦλθεν Μαριὰμ ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ καὶ ἡ ἄλλη Μαρία θεωρῆσαι τὸν τάφον.
Mark 16:1: Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ καὶ Μαρία ἡ τοῦ Ἰακώβου καὶ Σαλώμη...ἔρχονται ἐπὶ τὸ μνημεῖον
John 20:1: Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ ἔρχεται πρωῒ σκοτίας ἔτι οὔσης εἰς τὸ μνημεῖον

Scalar implicatures are real, and you need a good reason to explain them away.


In this episode, we focused on pragmatics, or how language is used to convey meanings that are not truth-conditional. We looked at some key terms and concepts in the field of pragmatics. First, we talked about implicatures, which are inferences that are not truth-conditional. Conversational implicatures arise from the context of use by virtue of participants accepting Grice's maxims found in the cooperative principle, and conventional implicatures are associated with the meaning of certain words or morphemes. Next, we moved on to speech acts, illocutionary acts, and sentential mood. We said that speaking also involves doing, and there are certain prototypical actions that we do with sentence forms, which we called sentential mood. For example, the interrogative mood is prototypically used to ask a question, though we also saw that the intended act, the illocutionary act, may or may not coincide with the prototypical act associated with the form of the sentence. Our third topic was the common ground and presupposition. We saw that the common ground is the set of propositions accepted by the interlocutors, and presuppositions and assertions help to organize how information is structured in discourse. Finally, we looked at information structure, focusing mainly on topic and focus. We defined topic as the thing that the sentence is about, and we specifically said that this is not the same as "frame-setting," though that is also sometimes called "topic" in the literature. Focus, on the other hand, was a way to negate different sets of alternatives.
To wrap up these introductory episodes on biblical language linguistics, we touched on how pragmatics interfaces with morphology, syntax, and semantics. This was to illustrate that these four sub-disciplines in linguistics are interrelated, and the correct explanation for a given phenomenon in language may involve concepts in some or all of these domains. For example, if we are looking strictly at syntax, we may not have a reason for a form like a jussive being in the initial position in the sentence. We may use vague language to say that it is "highlighted" or "emphasized," for example, when in reality, the initial position of the jussive occupies a syntactic slot that we can provide a well-defined meaning for with the tools we have developed. The problem is that our explanations are always constrained by the limits of our own theories and frameworks, and without being familiar with the variety of concepts found in these related fields, our explanations often become too simplistic or vague. I hope that through these episodes you have begun to see some of the concepts necessary for solid linguistic analysis, so that, ultimately, you can have a better understanding of the biblical languages and a firmer grasp on the truths that God has conveyed through them.

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The Biblical Languages Podcast hosts discussions and interviews related to learning the biblical languages and issues relevant to biblical exegesis. Episodes cover topics in 4 major categories: language acquisition, linguistics, cultural backgrounds, and exegesis.

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