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Why use English when French says it better? An introduction to Pragmatics

There are certain situations in which English speakers switch to using French. We will say, admiringly, that something has ‘a certain je ne sais quoi’, or we might wish someone bon voyage when they set off on a journey. There is a variety of reasons for preferring a French way of saying things, and one of these is revealed in the following examples from our corpus:

Lower waistbands are flattering for fuller stomachs and derrieres.
Arkwright uses a ladder and a box of chocolates in a last ditch attempt to gain entry to Gladys’s boudoir.
I found them sunbathing on the patio, au naturel.

Cases like these seem to reflect a British attitude towards sex, bodies and nudity, where humour is used to disguise feelings of embarrassment (mixed, perhaps, with a sneaking suspicion that this is something the French  are less inhibited about than the buttoned-up Brits). It’s a particular form of euphemism – and note also the use of fuller in that first quotation above: this is a euphemism too, a way of avoiding the harsher word fat. What we are looking at here is one tiny corner of a very large field; one of many strategies or devices that come under the broad heading of ‘pragmatics’.

We use language to convey meaning – but not only that. In many cases, the words we choose reveal a great deal about our attitudes and intentions, and this is one of the areas that pragmatics is concerned with. It’s a large field, which encompasses things like humour and irony, understatement and exaggeration, vagueness and hedging, and much else. Why do we use euphemisms, what methods do we employ to add emphasis to a statement, how do we indicate that we disagree with someone or disapprove of their behaviour, while appearing to remain polite? These are just some of the questions which the study of pragmatics seeks to answer. And as the examples shown at the start of this post suggest, there is a significant overlap between pragmatics and culture: why, for example, do some speakers feel the need to use foreign or archaic language to cover their embarrassment, and is it true (as we discussed in an earlier post) that British speakers are more likely to use understatement than Americans?

We have occasionally looked at aspects of pragmatics before, and MED Magazine includes an essay on the subject by an expert in the field. In the coming months, the Learn section of the blog will discuss the topic in a little more depth. To a certain extent, some pragmatic features are already covered in the Macmillan Dictionary: at the general level in boxes that list various ways of making suggestions or expressing disagreement, or at entries for individual words (such as bureaucrat or drama queen) where a definition of the meaning is followed by a second sentence which explains the speaker’s attitude. But it’s fair to say this is an aspect of language where dictionaries have not yet done enough.

We’ll be talking about a wide range of topics under this general heading, and we’ll be especially interested to get your views on the cross-cultural aspects of pragmatics and to hear any suggestions you may have about effective ways of explaining this important area of language.

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Michael Rundell


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