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Review of  Handbook of Pragmatics

Reviewer: Chaoqun Xie
Book Title: Handbook of Pragmatics
Book Author: Jan Blommaert Jef Verschueren Jan-Ola Östman Chris Bulcaen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 14.1179

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Date: Sat, 19 Apr 2003 08:37:06 +0800

From: chaoqun xie

Subject: Handbook of Pragmatics: 2000 Installment

Verschueren, Jef, Jan-Ola Ostman, Jan Blommaert and Chris Bulcaen, ed.

(2002) Handbook of Pragmatics: 2000 Installment. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Chaoqun Xie, Fujian Teachers' University

This is a follow-up to my review of _Handbook of Pragmatics: Manual and Annual Installments Through 1999_ posted at

I remember in that review, I expressed a hope of seeing more installments come out soon. And now we got one more. This 2000 installment provides an up-dated Cumulative Table of Contents (1995-2000) and also a new version of User's Guide. I also remember in the same review, I pointed out that "this Handbook appears to devote less ink to those influential practitioners". Actually, the editors have been fully aware of this inadequacy, which can be self-evident when we find that this latest installment includes five key figures as follows: Mikhail Bakhtim (Bjorklund), Michel Foucault (Martín Rojo and Gabilondo Pujol), Paul Grice (Brisard), Morris (Petrilli), and de Saussure (Harris). Few readers might disagree with me when I say these five radically influential figures with their prolific publications and profound thoughts are too important to be neglected in terms of their implicit or explicit contributions to the development of pragmatics.

First, we talk about Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtim. It is generally acknowledged that Bakhtin has made great contributions to literary studies with his theory of dialogue, heteroglossia, polyphony, metalinguistics, speech genres, chronotope and carnival, among others. However, as argued by Bjorklund, today's linguistics is benefiting from what Bakhtin has left with us; pragmatics is no exception. Aronsson and Thorell (2002), for instance, draw upon Bakhtin's analysis of multivoicedness to investigate children's role play. Actually, given that Bakhtin's theory of utterance is somewhat if not strikingly similar to pragmatics, the French literary critic Tzvetan Todorov (Ning, 2000: 171) once claimed that Bakhtin should be regarded as the founding father of pragmatics!

Next we talk about Michel Foucault. To interpret Foulcault is never an easy matter, whose thoughts are at once profound and unique and whose works have allegedly been translated into more than 60 languages. Indeed, Foucault has shed new insight upon how we perceive and approach language, knowledge, power, discourse, politics, among many others, and I am extremely intrigued by Foucault's conceptualizations of discourse, the order of discourse, and its close links to knowledge and power. As a matter of fact, one of the most important Foucautian insights as regards power is that hidden power is more effective. And for me, the power of discourse is omnipresent, pervasive and can never be overlooked or underestimated in the sense that discourses are not discourses ONLY: "Discourses act. They do things". If we go a step further, we might say that discourse shapes our life worlds and vice versa. Recently, Johnstone (2002) argues for adopting a heuristic approach to the analysis of discourse. Another point that should be borne in mind when it comes to power is that the exercise of power is not necessarily a conscious act; it can be an unconscious or subconscious one as well. In other words, power for me is a practice.

Now we come to H. Paul Grice, another hard nut to crack. As shown by current literature concerned, Grice's major contribution lies in his 'ordinary language' philosophizing. Specifically, throughout his life, Grice has, as introduced by Brisard, given continuous thoughts to an extensive anatomy of meaning, the conversationalist hypothesis, rationality, creature construction, and absolute value (cf. Turner, 1999: 637). There are, however, at least two points that need to be taken into account when it comes to evaluating Grice's legacy, one, as indicated by Frisard, little emphasis is placed upon the "rational grounding of Grice's philosophical project"; two, as insightfully and sharply pointed out by Turner (2002), that Grice's principal interest is in the formulation of a theory of conversation is widely and mistakenly assumed; in actual fact, several of Grice's themes remain well untouched upon. In other words, at present, what we know about Grice is a mere iceberg of his broad and profound ideas. Besides, reading Grice, one might be reminded of a hard fact, namely, social sciences for most of the time, study the ordinary and the obvious, and it is these obvious and ordinary stuffs that are really hard to tackle simply because what appears ordinary and disordered turns out to be extraordinary and systematic, for which Conversation Analysis undoubtedly is a powerful example.

Here comes Charles Morris, to whom "[t]he modern usage of the term pragmatics is attributable" (Levinson, 1983: 1). Petrilli briefs Morris's behavioristics and pragmatics before moving on to compare and contrast Morris's pragmatics and Peirce's pragmaticism, indicating that Morris's behavioristics and Peirce's pragmatism are similar in terms of 'general orientation'. Petrilli then covers pragmatic philosophy in the United States, highlighting Morris's behavioral semiotics in the light of his pragmatic philosophy. This contribution concludes with a discussion of Morris's views on the relations among pragmatics, signs and values. It should be emphasized here that Morris does not exclude nonverbal signs in his study of pragmatics, nor does he take no account of 'the ethic and esthetic dimensions' in the course of considering the pragmatic dimension to verbal and nonverbal signs.

The last key figure discussed in this 2000 installment of the Handbook of Pragmatics is Ferdinand de Saussure, widely acknowledged as the founder of modern linguistics. Harris, an expert on Saussure, focuses on twelve major propositions advanced by Saussure, including language as a unique, holistic structure, language and thought, langue and parole, arbitrariness and linearity, language and writing as two distinct systems of signs; the linguistic sign as a psychological entity (See Beaugrande, 1991, Chapter 2 for a discourse-oriented interpretation of Saussurian ideas). In an effort to reevaluate or reinterpret 'The Saussurean legacy', however, one may find the co-existence of completely different arguments, for which the interested reader may be referred to Harris (2001). For instance, some (e.g. Liu, 1995, Chapter 4) entertain that the most outstanding contribution made by Saussure lies in his theory of general linguistics, while for others such as Meillet, as pointed out by Harris, Saussure fails to provide 'a comprehensive account of general linguistics'. One more thing of particular note is that Harris says in his contribution that _Grundzüge der Phonologie_, the posthumous work of N. S. Trubetzkoy, one of the founders of the Prague School, has got much inspiration from Saussure when in fact Trubetzkoy (2001: 255) once complains in a letter written to Roman Jakobson, another founding father of the Prague School, that "most of it [Grundzüge der Phonologie] is the old rubbish"! To be sure, although his ideas are encountering more and more challenges, Saussure has played an influential and far-reaching role in the development of linguistic thought, whose impact can also be strongly felt in pragmatics: Leech's (1983: 25) notion of 'convention' is the same as Saussure's concept of 'arbitrariness'.

The other topics dealt with in this new installment include 'borrowing' (Treffers-Daller), 'causality' (Vandepitte), 'frame analysis' (Ribeiro and Hoyle), 'implicature and language change' (Kearns), 'indeterminacy and negotiation' (Zanotto and Moura), 'intentionality' (Nuyts), 'metalinguistic awareness' (Mertz and Yovel) and, 'prosody' (Couper-Kuhlen). Take 'frame analysis' as an example. In their contribution, Ribeiro and Hoyle discuss various understandings of the notion of frame, cognitive, linguistic, sociological, anthropological and sociolinguistic, arguing for adopting a dynamic perspective on frames in ordinary interaction, in play, and in institutional discourse, among others. In point of fact, frames have been enthusiastically applied to account for a great variety of phenomena including politeness (e. g. Escandell-Vidal, 1996; Terkourafi, 1999). If my understanding serves me right, frames are not necessarily predetermined but context-sensitive and interactively achieved, that frames are vital to our understanding of how interactants negotiate and coordinate their meaning and construct their social membership and identity, and that frames can ultimately be regarded as an emergent phenomenon.

All in all, this is again an excellent collection of papers presenting high-quality sketches of central topics in the study of pragmatics and therefore is an ideal reference book anyone doing language in general and pragmatics in particular should not miss! It goes without saying, of course, that many more topics can be included in future installments, such as tense and aspect, interactional grammar, iconicity, argumentation, non-verbal communication, most of which are in fact, as far as I know, being enthusiastically prepared. It goes without saying, too, that there are many more people making remarkable contributions to pragmatics, such as Erving Goffman, Harvey Sacks, Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name just a few. Fortunately, these and other VIPs, are also being prepared and will probably appear in future installments. And I think at least two more can be added, namely, Pierre Bourdieu and Jürgen Habermas. While Habermas (1998, 2000; cf. Cooke, 1997) is famous for his formal pragmatics and pragmatics of social interaction, among many other things, Bourdieu (1977, 1991) is noted for his theory of practice and of the symbolic power of language. Don't forget, by the way, one of the oeuvre panels for the 8th International Pragmatics Conference to be held on 13-18 July 2003 at the University of Toronto in Canada is devoted to the work of Bourdieu and its relevance for pragmatics!

Reading this Handbook, one cannot help thinking about the current heated debate concerning pragmatics as a discipline (e. g. Stamenov, 2003), be it autonomous or heterogeneous, which has long been perceived after, if not before, pragmatics came into existence. What should be included in the umbrella term of pragmatics and what should not is a matter of long-standing controversy. For me, the question of what pragmatics is not is as difficult as, if not more difficult than, the question of what pragmatics is, otherwise there might not be a school of thought asserting that PRAGMATICS IS ABOUT EVERYTHING (Turner, 1999: 635)!


Aronsson, Karin, Thorell, Mia, 2002. Voice and collusion in adult-child talk: Toward an architecture of intersubjectivity. In: Blum-Kulka, Shoshana, Snow, Catherine E. (Eds.), Talking to Adults: The Contributions of Multiparty Discourse to Language Acquisition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp. 277-293.

Beaugrande, Robert de, 1991. Linguistic Theory: The Discourse of Fundamental Works. Longman, London.

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Cooke, Maeve, 1997. Language and Reason: A Study of Habermas's Pragmatics. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Escandell-Vidal, Victoria, 1996. Towards a cognitive approach to politeness. Language Science 18, 629-650.

Habermas, Jurgen, 1998. On the Pragmatics of Communication. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Habermas, Jurgen, 2000. On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction: Preliminary Studies in the Theory of Communicative Action. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Harris, Roy, 2001. Saussure and His Interpreters. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Johnstone, Barbara, 2002. Discourse Analysis. Blackwell, Malden and Oxford.

Leech, Geoffrey N., 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. Longman, London and New York.

Levinson. Stephen C., 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Liu, Runqing, 1995. Schools of Linguistics. Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, Beijing.

Ning, Yizhong, 2000. On Bakhtin's theory of utterance. Foreign Language Teaching and Research 32, 169-175.

Stamenov, Maxim I., 2003. Quo Vadis, pragmatics? Alternative conceptions in making sense of a heterogeneous discipline. Journal of Pragmatics 35, 263-297.

Terkourafi, Marina, 1999. Frames for politeness: a case study. Pragmatics 9, 97-117.

Trubetzkoy, N. S., 2001. Studies in General Linguistics and Language Structure. Duke University Press, Durham and London.

Turner, Ken, 1999. Review of Jacob Mey (ed.), Concise Encyclopedia of Pragmatics, 1998. Journal of Linguistics 35, 634-639.

Turner, Ken, 2002. A note on the neo-Gricean foundations of societal pragmatics. International Journal of Pragmatics 12, 1-17.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Chaoqun Xie is a lecturer with the Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University, Fuzhou, China. His main areas of research interests include pragmatics, sociolinguistics, culture, communication and translation and has published extensively in these fields.