While both pragmatic theory and experimental investigations of language using psycholinguistic methods have been well-established subfields in the language sciences for a long time, the field of Experimental Pragmatics, where such methods are applied to pragmatic phenomena, has only fully taken shape since the early 2000s. By now, however, it has become a major and lively area of ongoing research, with dedicated conferences, workshops, and collaborative grant projects, bringing together researchers with linguistic, psychological, and computational approaches across disciplines. Its scope includes virtually all meaning-related phenomena in natural language comprehension and production, with a particular focus on what inferences utterances give rise to that go beyond what is literally expressed by the linguistic material.
One general area that has been explored in great depth consists of investigations of various ‘ingredients’ of meaning. A major aim has been to develop experimental methodologies to help classify various aspects of meaning, such as implicatures and presuppositions as compared to basic truth-conditional meaning, and to capture their properties more thoroughly using more extensive empirical data. The study of scalar implicatures (e.g., the inference that some but not all students left based on the sentence Some students left) has served as a catalyst of sorts in this area, and they constitute one of the most well-studied phenomena in Experimental Pragmatics to date. But much recent work has expanded the general approach to other aspects of meaning, including presuppositions and conventional implicatures, but also other aspects of nonliteral meaning, such as irony, metonymy, and metaphors.
The study of reference constitutes another core area of research in Experimental Pragmatics, and has a more extensive history of precursors in psycholinguistics proper. Reference resolution commonly requires drawing inferences beyond what is conventionally conveyed by the linguistic material at issue as well; the key concern is how comprehenders grasp the referential intentions of a speaker based on the referential expressions used in a given context, as well as how the speaker chooses an appropriate expression in the first place. Pronouns, demonstratives, and definite descriptions are crucial expressions of interest, with special attention to their relation to both intra- and extralinguistic context. Furthermore, one key line of research is concerned with speakers’ and listeners’ capacity to keep track of both their own private perspective and the shared perspective of the interlocutors in actual interaction.
Given the rapid ongoing growth in the field, there is a large number of additional topical areas that cannot all be mentioned here, but the final section of the article briefly mentions further current and future areas of research.
Experimental Semiotics (ES) is a burgeoning new discipline aimed at investigating in the laboratory the development of novel forms of human communication. Conceptually connected to experimental research on language use, ES provides a scientific complement to field studies of spontaneously emerging new languages and studies on the emergence of communication systems among artificial agents.
ES researchers have created quite a few research paradigms to investigate the development of novel forms of human communication. Despite their diversity, these paradigms all rely on the use of semiotic games, that is, games in which people can succeed reliably only after they have developed novel communication systems. Some of these games involve creating novel signs for pre-specified meanings. These games are particularly suitable for studying relatively large communication systems and their structural properties. Other semiotic games involve establishing shared meanings as well as novel signs to communicate about them. These games are typically rather challenging and are particularly suitable for investigating the processes through which novel forms of communication are created.
Considering that ES is a methodological stance rather than a well-defined research theme, researchers have used it to address a greatly heterogeneous set of research questions. Despite this, and despite the recent origins of ES, two of these questions have begun to coalesce into relatively coherent research themes.
The first theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to acquire features that are similar to key features of natural language. Most notably, they tend (a) to rely on the use of symbols—that is purely conventional signs—and (b) to adopt a combinatorial design, using a few basic units to express a large number of meanings. ES researchers have begun investigating some of the factors that lead to the acquisition of such features. These investigations suggest two conclusions. The first is that the emergence of symbols depends on the fact that, when repeatedly using non-symbolic signs, people tend to progressively abstract them. The second conclusion is that novel communication systems tend to adopt a combinatorial design more readily when their signs have low degrees of motivation and fade rapidly.
The second research theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to begin systematically with motivated—that is non-symbolic—signs. ES investigations of this tendency suggest that it occurs because motivation helps people bootstrap novel forms of communication. Put it another way, these investigations show that it is very difficult for people to bootstrap communication through arbitrary signs.
Interest in the linguistics of humor is widespread and dates since classical times. Several theoretical models have been proposed to describe and explain the function of humor in language. The most widely adopted one, the semantic-script theory of humor, was presented by Victor Raskin, in 1985. Its expansion, to incorporate a broader gamut of information, is known as the General Theory of Verbal Humor. Other approaches are emerging, especially in cognitive and corpus linguistics. Within applied linguistics, the predominant approach is analysis of conversation and discourse, with a focus on the disparate functions of humor in conversation. Speakers may use humor pro-socially, to build in-group solidarity, or anti-socially, to exclude and denigrate the targets of the humor. Most of the research has focused on how humor is co-constructed and used among friends, and how speakers support it. Increasingly, corpus-supported research is beginning to reshape the field, introducing quantitative concerns, as well as multimodal data and analyses. Overall, the linguistics of humor is a dynamic and rapidly changing field.
Dániel Z. Kádár
Politeness comprises linguistic and non-linguistic behavior through which people indicate that they take others’ feelings of how they should be treated into account. Politeness comes into operation through evaluative moments—the interactants’ (or other participants’) assessments of interactional behavior—and it is a key interpersonal interactional phenomenon, due to the fact that it helps people to build up and maintain interpersonal relationships. The operation of politeness involves valences: when people behave in what they perceive as polite in a given situation, they attempt to enactment shared values with others, hence triggering positive emotions. The interactants use valenced categories as a benchmark for their production and evaluation of language and behavior, and valence reflects the participants’ perceived moral order of an interactional context/event, that is, their perceptions of ‘how things should be’ in a given situation. Thus, the examination of politeness reveals information about the broader in-group, social, and cultural values that underlie the productive and evaluative interactional behavior of individuals. As politeness is a social action that consists of both linguistic and non-linguistic elements and that embodies a social practice, the research of politeness also provides insights into the social practices that surround individual language use.
Pragmatics-based research on politeness started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has become one of the most popular areas in pragmatics. The field has undergone various methodological and theoretical changes. These include the “first wave” of politeness research, in the course of which researchers either attempted to model politeness across languages and cultures by using universal frameworks, or engaged in culture-specific criticism of such frameworks. In the “second wave” of politeness research, researchers attempted to approach politeness as an individualistic, and often idiosyncratic, interactionally co-constructed phenomenon. A key argument of the second wave is that politeness can only be studied at the micro-level of the individual, and so it may be overambitious to attempt to model this phenomenon across languages and cultures. In the “third wave” of politeness research, scholars attempt to model politeness across languages and cultures, without compromising the endeavour of examining politeness as an interactionally co-constructed phenomenon.
Key phenomena studied in politeness research include, among others, impoliteness, intercultural interaction, cross-cultural similarities and differences of politeness, the gendered characteristics of politeness behavior, and convention and ritual. Politeness research is a multidisciplinary field that is engaged in the examination of a wide variety of data types.
Agustin Vicente and Ingrid Lossius Falkum
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
Polysemy is characterized as the phenomenon whereby a single word form is associated with two or several related senses (e.g., run a marathon, run some water, run on gasoline, run a store, etc.). It is distinguished from monosemy, where one word form is associated with a single meaning, and homonymy, where a single word form is associated with two or several unrelated meanings, represented as different lexemes (e.g., bank). Although the distinctions between polysemy, monosemy, and homonymy may seem clear at an intuitive level, they have proven difficult to draw in practice. For instance, none of the linguistic tests devised for this purpose give clear-cut answers, either because they are context-sensitive (sometimes, only a slight manipulation of the context may give rise to a different sense), or because they do not track the intuitive distinctions, identifying some kinds of polysemy as monosemy and others as instances of homonymy.
Polysemy proliferates in natural language: virtually every word is polysemous to some extent. Still, the phenomenon has been largely ignored in the mainstream linguistics literature, as well as in related disciplines. One notable exception is the cognitive linguistics framework, where polysemy has played an important role in theorizing from the outset. However, it is only recently that polysemy has been seen as a topic of relevance to linguistic and philosophical debates regarding lexical meaning representation, compositional semantics, and the semantics-pragmatics divide.
Early accounts treated polysemy in terms of sense enumeration: each sense of a polysemous expression is stored as an individual representation in the lexicon (this approach has been called the Sense Enumeration Lexicon, or SEL, for short). Polysemy and homonymy are treated on a par, both being resolved by language users selecting a sense from among the list of lexically stored senses, which then feeds into the semantic composition process.
The SEL approach has been strongly criticized on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Today, most researchers converge on the hypothesis that the senses of at least many polysemous expressions derive from a single meaning representation. One contemporary debate revolves around the status of this representation: Are the lexical representations of polysemous expressions informationally scarce and under-specific with respect to their different senses? Or do they have to be informationally rich in order to store and be able to generate all these polysemous senses? Alternatively, are senses computed from a literal, primary meaning via semantic or pragmatic mechanisms such as coercion, modulation, or ad hoc concept construction?
A related issue that has recently attracted interest is how polysemy is generated or constructed in the course of discourse, a question that has important implications for accounts of semantic change. If this process is not entirely arbitrary (i.e., the senses are related to each other in semi-predictable ways), what are the underlying mechanisms? While it is widely agreed that two important sources of polysemy are metaphor and metonymy, the question of what consequences the source of a polysemy may have (if any) for lexical representation and sense activation remains a largely unexplored question.