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Pragmatic Coherence


Efforts to make the words uttered meaningful within the situational and cultural context of the exchange are efforts to establish pragmatic coherence. Coherence is not given in speakers' utterances, it is created in the minds of speakers and hearers by the inferences they make based on the words they hear. Thus, whereas semantic cohesion relates word to word (see Chapter 2), pragmatic coherence relates speaker to speaker within the larger cultural context of communication.

The speaker's efforts to establish pragmatic coherence through the use of contextualization cues can have an inclusionary effect, such as in the following exchange among friends:


Chad: I go out a lot

Deborah: I go out and eat

Peter: You go out? The trouble with in e is if I don't prepare and eat well, I eat a lot ... Because it's not satisfying. And so if I'm just eating like cheese and crackers, I'll just stuff myself on cheese and crackers. But if I fix myself something nice, I don't have to eat that much.

Deborah: Oh yeah?

Peter: I've noticed that, yeah.

Deborah: Hmmm ... Well then it works, then it's a good idea

Peter: It's a good idea in terms of eating, it's not a good idea in terms of time.

(Tannen, Deborah. Talking Voices. Repetition, Dialogue, Imagery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989, page 71)


Through a remarkable crisscross of lexical and phonological repetitions (I go out a lot - I go out and eat - I eat a lot), that gives their talk semantic cohesiveness, Deborah and Peter, who both share the same New York Jewish culture, reinforce each other's cues. The semantic cohesion of the words the speakers utter, combined with a shared cultural background, establishes a deep pragmatic coherence through what the speakers do. The way they echo each other, piggyback on each other's words and phrases, continue each other's sentences, leads each one to infer that what is important in this conversation is not so much the information their words convey (which in fact shows that they disagree with one another), but their sense of being on the same conversational wavelength and belonging to the same culture.

Contextualization cues can also serve to highlight the discrepancies in participants' inferences and frames of expectations, and thus lead to coherence breakdowns in cross-cultural encounters:

An African-American student has been sent to interview a black housewife in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. The contact has been made over the phone by someone in the office. The student arrives, rings the bell, and is met by the husband, who opens the door, smiles, and steps towards him:


Husband: So y're gonna check out ma ol lady, hah?

Student: Ah, no. I only came to get some information. They called from the office.

(Husband, dropping his smile, disappears without a word and calls his wife.)


(Gumperz, John J. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press 1982, page 133)


Failing to infer from the husband's stylistic cues (intonation, pronunciation typical of Black English Vernacular, lexical choice of 'ol lady' instead of 'wife', 'check out' instead of 'visit') the husband's offered solidarity from one African-American to another, the student responds in White Standard English ('I' instead of /a/, 'get' instead of /gi::t/), thereby showing that he is from an academic culture that is not the husband's. The student later reported that the interview that followed was stiff and quite unsatisfactory. Being black himself, he knew he had 'blown it'. However, as we shall see in Chapter 6, the issue is not just one of recognizing contextualizing cues appropriately. In this case, the student had to choose between his identity as an African-American and his identity as a professional academic. The two may have seemed to him incommensurable at the time, and for the sake of sounding professionally reliable he might have felt he had to forego sounding ethnically trustworthy.

Between people from different national cultures, the same contextualization cues may lead to different inferences and may occasion serious misunderstandings, since they tend to be attributed to personal attitudes or character traits. The resulting lack of pragmatic coherence generally leaves the participants baffled and perplexed, or frustrated and angry. Thus, in an encounter at the bank between an Asian customer and a British cashier, the unexpected tone of voice and emphases of the Asian-English speaker may lead to misunderstanding and frustration on the part of the British-English speaker:


Customer: Excuse me

Cashier: Yes sir

Customer: I want to deposit some Money.

Cashier: Oh. I see. OK. You'll need a deposit form then.

Customer: Yes. no, no. This is the wrong one.


(Gumperz, John J., T. C. Jupp, and Celia Roberts. Cross-Talk. A Study of Cross Cultural Communication. London: The National Centre for Industrial Language Training 1977, page 21)


The Asian-English speaker's voice rises and falls on 'some Money' and this word is also marked by loudness, whereas a British-English speaker's voice would be lowered on 'money' and the emphasis might be on 'deposit'. Using his own system of interpretation, a British-English speaker might think the Asian-English speaker is stating the obvious and might associate his tone of voice with pushiness, where an Asian cashier would not hear this sentence as either rude or pushy. In turn, the Asian-English customer may make the wrong inferences about the British-English speaking cashier:


Cashier: Sorry?

Customer: I got my account in wembley

Cashier: Oh you need a Giro form then

Customer: Yes Giro form

Cashier: Why didn't you say so first time?

Customer: Sorry. Didn't know.

Cashier: All right? Customer: Thank you



Tone of voice is usually interpreted as a direct cue to attitude, and therefore, a piece of intended behavior. The Asian customer may hear the cashier's emphasis on the word 'Giro' as indicating an over-emotional and irritated reaction, and his emphasis on 'All right?' as indicating rude dismissal.

The study of contextualization cues not only brings to light the way in which speakers give pragmatic coherence to their respective utterances; it also gives us a hint at the way participants in verbal interactions co-construct cultural roles for themselves all the while they cooperatively construct the topic of the conversation.


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