Introduction to the class

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This "module" is a bit different from the others, and is not even really a module. This is intended for the first day of class, so there is nothing students need to read or watch before the class. Thus, unlike other modules, all that's included in this one is an in-class discussion activity (and, unlike other modules, the instructor—rather than the students—will lead the activity). This is just a fun little discussion to introduce what the class is about.

In-class activities

(This example is taken directly from Noveck (chapter 1).)

Show this letter to the class and read out what it says: "Mary, you really are a great person. I hope we can keep in correspondence. I said I would write. Your friend always, Jonathon, Nova Scotia '85."

A handwritten water, somewhat warped by water. See main
				text for transcription.

Then explain the context of the letter. This letter, while apparently written in Canada in 1985 (if we are to believe the writer), was found inside a bottle that washed up on a beach in Europe in 2013!

Put the students into small groups and have each group think of at least two explanations of what the letter means. (They can think of more than that if they want to.) After some time, have them share ideas with other groups and then with the whole class.

Students probably won't have trouble thinking of various ideas. If suggestions are needed, here are three different ways of interpreting the letter that Noveck suggests:

Anyway, students should figure out the following main points from this activity (and these points can be emphasized in the wrap-up at the end of the discussion):

  1. What something or someone means might be very different from what it literally says;
  2. Considering the context can help us figure out what something might mean (note that we would not have gotten many of the potential meanings of the letter if we did not know that it had been found in a bottle on the other side of the world from where it was written); and
  3. Considering the speaker's attitude and feelings also helps us figure out what something might mean.

These are some of the core ideas of pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of how we figure out what an utterance means. ("Utterance" usually means something a person writes or says—not necessarily a sentence, because we could also analyze the meaning of something longer, like Jonathon's letter—but some pragmaticists also are interested in nonverbal communication, like nodding.) The rest of the semester will be focused on learning some ideas about how this happens, and some of the ways that we can use pragmatics concepts to shed light on some interesting phenomena in language and communication.

Here are a bunch of sentences slightly modified from Levinson (chapter 1.2). Have students get into groups and figure out which of these sentences are weird, and try to explain what makes them weird. (In particular, do these sentences have any grammar problems—e.g., do they break grammar rules? Do they have any meaning problems—e.g., are they false? Or something else?)

  1. Come there please!
  2. It's raining now, but I don't believe it.
  3. Fred's children are hippies, and he has no children.
  4. Fred's children are hippies, and he has children.
  5. I order you not to obey this order.
  6. I hereby sing.
  7. As everyone knows, the earth please revolves around the sun.

(While students should, of course, not be expected to be able to explain all of this stuff yet, hopefully they will at least figure out that all of these sentences are weird and none of them are weird because of grammar or meaning [i.e., they are all grammatical and most of them are "meaningful"]; throughout the semester we will learn more concepts that will help explain what makes these sentences sound weird. If necessary, you may also contrast these sentences with sentences that have purely truth-conditional problems, like "I ate a red apple but I didn't eat any apples" or "Paris is a city in Japan".)

What is said and what is meant ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2021-10-19. CC-BY-4.0.