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Introduction to pragmatics by Betty J. Birner (review)

From: Language
Volume 89, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 953-957 | 10.1353/lan.2013.0067

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This book is a text-book, so my remarks focus on how effectively it works for that purpose. I used it very successfully in my fall 2012 pragmatics class, a combination of an advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate class. This is the first major North American pragmatics textbook since Green 1996, and it is very welcome.

The book is organized into chapters on topics such as implicature, reference, presupposition, and speech acts, in the style of Levinson 1983. While Ariel 2010 criticizes the topic-centered approach to defining pragmatics as being simply stipulative rather than explanatory, pedagogically it is useful to be able to examine the topics separately as well as in relation to each other. Birner adds chapters on information structure, inferential relations, and dynamic semantics to the topics covered by Levinson.

The first chapter, ‘Defining pragmatics’, situates the book’s focus as the boundary between semantics and pragmatics. B gives a brief introduction to lexical and sentence semantics within the truth-conditional approach, including propositional and predicate logic. It was a useful review for the students who had had a semantics course, but also worked for students who had not taken semantics. B introduces the border issue by focusing on the roles of context dependence and truth conditions, showing that these two criteria are sometimes in conflict. Thus, anaphoric pronouns are context-dependent but essential to truth conditions, while conventional implicatures are context-independent but arguably non-truth-conditional.

Implicature is discussed in two chapters. Ch. 2, ‘Gricean implicature’, is an introduction to Grice 1975. I presented my own introduction to scalar and clausal implicatures as worked out in the 1970s by Laurence R. Horn and Gerald Gazdar, taken from Levinson 1983. That, in conjunction with reading Grice’s original paper, meant that we did not have to discuss this chapter during class, although the issue of what constitutes truth in court stimulated interesting discussion.

Ch. 3, ‘Later approaches to implicature’, introduces neo-Gricean theory and relevance theory. The focus is on contributions to the study of scalar implicatures by Horn (e.g. 1984), such as his Q- and R-principles, and his division of pragmatic labor. Levinson’s (2000) theory is introduced briefly, but it would have been useful to have more discussion on how his theory of default meanings differs from Horn’s views. It would also have been useful to have more emphasis on relevance theory (Sperber &Wilson 1995). As an integrative thread, B explains that all three theories propose that language use reflects a resolution of a tension between minimization of effort and maximization of effect. B holds the interesting view that for neo-Griceans, the tension is based in the different interests of speaker and hearer, whereas for relevance theorists the tension is internal to the hearer.

Returning to the issue of the semantics-pragmatics boundary, B contrasts the views of Griceans, neo-Griceans, and relevance theorists on distinguishing different aspects of nonnatural meaning. Grice distinguished what is said (semantic) from what is implicated (conventionally or nonconventionally—pragmatic), neo-Griceans distinguish conventional (what is said or conventionally implicated—semantic) from nonconventional (pragmatic) meaning, and relevance theorists distinguish what is encoded (semantic) from what must be inferred (pragmatic) and within the latter what is explicated (truth-conditional) from what is implicated (non-truth-conditional).

I would like to see some discussion of relevance theory’s procedural meaning vs. conceptual meaning pertaining to lexical items like discourse particles, to round out the discussion of conventional implicatures, which focuses solely on ‘but’. Without such discussion, my students were not convinced that conventional implicatures are not truth-conditional. The fact that some theorists do view conventional implicatures as truth-conditional (e.g. Bach 1999) is not mentioned, although it would have been very relevant.

Ch. 4 is on reference. A section on deixis presents a list of examples of deictic expressions. There could have been more emphasis on the need to resolve indexicals to arrive at truth conditions, especially on how extensive inference is required to resolve many deictic expressions: a short list of contextual parameters is often not enough. Another section discusses definiteness, and contrasts familiarity theories with unique identifiability theories. B takes neither familiarity nor...



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