Key terms in pragmatics

Key terms in pragmatics. By Nicholas Allott. New York: Continuum, 2010. Pp. viii, 251. ISBN 9781847063786 $24.95.

Reviewed by Kanavillil Rajagopalan, State University at Campinas

This volume is part of the Key terms series aimed primarily at undergraduate students. In keeping with the general layout of the series, it is divided into three parts: ‘Key terms’, ‘Key thinkers’, and ‘Key works’, preceded by a brief, sixteen-page introduction to the field. Finally, the book is rounded off with an index of important terms and topics covered in the book, with page references for quick consultation.

The introductory chapter begins by highlighting the multiplicity of orientations in the field of pragmatics, which the author says, following Deidre Wilson, could take any of the following three approaches: philosophical, linguistic, or cognitive-psychological. Mention of the sociological orientation, as advocated by Jef Verschueren and Jacob Mey, among others, is conspicuous by its absence, though their books are recommended in the bibliography. Nor are there any entries under rubrics like ‘social’, ‘societal’, and ‘sociological’. Pragmatics itself is defined as speaker meaning minus semantics.

The two key figures whose contributions to the field loom large over the book are John Langshaw Austin and Paul Grice, and rightly so. Apart from detailed discussion of such topics as ‘implicature’, ‘speech act and illocutionary force’, and ‘intentions and communication’, terms like ‘behabitive’, ‘cancellability’, ‘commissive’, ‘constative’, ‘conventional implicature’, ‘conversational maxims’, and so forth (in a long, alphabetically arranged list), attest to the centrality of the two philosophers in current research in pragmatics.

Explanations offered for the key terms vary in size and occasionally in depth. In some cases, the author has been diplomatically cautious and careful in his choice of words, as when he writes: ‘Performatives do not seem to be true or false, […]’ (137) (emphasis added), making it clear that he wants to steer clear of all controversy over whether or not they can be credited with any truth-value at all. The entry on ‘context’ runs into five pages, while that for ‘cognitive environment’ takes up merely four lines, with a recommendation to the reader to look up the entry on ‘manifestness’. Separate entries on ‘sentence’, ‘simile’, and ‘stimulus’ may raise some eyebrows, as it is by no means evident just how important they are from a pragmatic perspective.

Equally questionable may turn out to be the inclusion of the entry on ‘Noam Avram Chomsky’ among the meagerly short list of key thinkers in pragmatics, especially in view of the absence of so many other more relevant names.

Under ‘Key works’, the author presents the reader with an eleven-page bibliography of important books of interest to aspiring researchers, some of which are marked with single or double asterisks to indicate their importance and centrality to the field.

There can be no doubt that the book must go a long way in helping undergraduate students find their way about as they venture into the field of pragmatics. It should also help researchers in other areas tide over petty problems encountered while perusing relevant literature.