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Review of  Handbook of Pragmatics

Reviewer: Chaoqun Xie
Book Title: Handbook of Pragmatics
Book Author: Jef Verschueren Jan-Ola Östman Jan Blommaert Chris Bulcaen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 14.3179

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Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2003 08:00:36 +0800 (CST)
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.

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.