LINGUIST List 14.3179

Thu Nov 20 2003

Review: Pragmatics: Verschueren et al. (2003)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. 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

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


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.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue