Pragmatics and Lexicon: Why What You Say (Or Can’t Say) Means So Much

Your mind is constantly churning for the “right” thing to say – even at the most inconvenient of times. As I partake in my nightly face-washing routine, I find myself trying to map out adequate words for this blog response. I turn on the radio; one of my favorite songs by rapper J.Cole comes on and my mind scurries to remember the words, so that I can recite the lyrics on beat. My iPhone beeps, I read the text message and my mind races as my fingers hover over the screen before I type a clever, succinct message.

Speaking of text, I was particularly intrigued by Radford’s featured psycholinguistic model of how linguistic competence meshes with linguistic performance. The mind begins by finding the sounds or symbols within the input; subsequently the words, the structure of the words and finally their literal meaning. However, why does this model neglect the consideration of pragmatics? For example, a text messages lacks vocal inflections, tones, volumes and such, leaving room for much ambiguity behind a message’s meaning. This explains why many a text message exchange has escalated into unnecessary misunderstandings. (See: Key and Peele skit). Moreover, the appearance of text alters the pragmatics associated with symbols. Whether particular words are bolded, underlined, italicized, CAPITALIZED and even striked out triggers the mind to distinguish one set of text from another. This is clearly exhibited when a parent texts their child to “COME HOME” versus “Come home,” as capitalization juxtaposes to one having a raised vocal tone. Particular typographical font styles serve this purpose as well; some fonts, like Curlz, Chalkduster, and Elephant are more appropriate for non-academic writings, unlike Helvetica, Times New Roman, or Arial.

The tug of war between pragmatics and semantics has also been at the heart of debates about racial and cultural epithets. Once derogatory words have become “reclaimed” and morphed to fit new meaning in 21st century contexts of discourse. The term “gay,” once meaning happy or joyous, now categorizes an individual’s sexuality. In terms of the “n” word, not only is the pragmatic value heavily emphasized, but also the phonetic form. Replacing the “a” for the “-er” suffix changes the implication of the word entirely – an argument which has made its way into widespread debates over the use of the term.

In addition to the concept of pragmatics, the term lexicon allured me. Despite taking a few undergraduate courses in grammar and linguistics, I had never been exposed to this concept. I considered the widening gap between individuals’ personal dictionaries and how these rifts came to be. The detachment exists amongst generational, socioeconomic, cultural and even educational lines. I’ve found this to be true when explaining to older family members my daily toils being a CCT student; much of what I learned and what I attempt to describe is foreign to them. It amazes me how intertwined yet independent each person’s lexicon is, and these vocabularies overlap constantly in everyday interactions. As I mentioned in last week’s discussion, the emergence of the emoji has added a new layer of possible picturesque language, thus adding a new bank in its users’ lexicons. This raises the question: Is pictorial language a more universal and easily accessible language to bridge the aforementioned gaps versus a language that uses alphanumeric symbols?



*Side anecdote/note:

I remember two summers ago, stepping out of the aircraft in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and being not only greeted by the sweltering South American heat and humidity, but also by sounds of an unfamiliar tongue: Portuguese. Yet, I wasn’t as startled as my accompanying middle-aged travelers – I had studied Spanish five years consecutively from middle to high school.

You may be reading this and saying to yourself, “I hope she knows she just referenced two separate languages.” Yes, I am aware; this is no typo. I was moderately confident in my ability to translate a portion of the foreign language, because both the Spanish and Portuguese languages operate under similar grammars. My comfort level was so evident amongst my travel group, that I somehow became the linguistic liaison between “us” and “them” (them, including our two tour guides). As Radford’s text explains, some languages possess a Universal Grammar, following similar rules for language use. What I found interesting and also neglectful was Radford’s focus on children as subjects for language acquisition. The model featured within the text explains that children are exposed to language by adults and as their language faculties develop (i.e. voice, teeth to make “th” sounds, etc.), they will soon implement the grammar of the language. Given my previously stated anecdote, I’d like to know if there is a cultural or age-based gap in learning a new language. Most primary education institutions, particularly elementary schools and even daycares, are including various languages in their curriculum. Does a particular native language make it easier to learn a new language versus another? Does the ability to readily learn a language dwindle with age? What is the difference in America’s emphasis on learning a language versus other nation’s insistence on rearing multilingual citizens? This isn’t much of a theoretical question as it is of mere curiosity and supplementary for class discussion.