Speech Pathology – The Study of Pragmatics

Pragmatics is an interesting field of Speech Pathology. It involves the study of how context contributes to meaning. Within a conversation the transfer of meaning depends, not only on the linguistic knowledge, that is grammar and lexicon, but also the context of the utterance, the knowledge of the status of those involved and the inferred intent of the other party. As we know, the substance of a conversation can, at times have the potential of becoming vague and irrelevant. Pragmatic competency occurs when there is predictive assumption made regarding topic comment and underlying opinion between two speakers. Pragmatic competency, although a later developing skill in the young child, develops naturally and progressively with experience and practise.

Our language is full of ambiguity. If someone says, you “have a green light” they may mean,

  • You are holding a green light
  • You can now go ahead with your project
  • You can now drive, as the traffic signal has changed

The true meaning depends upon understanding the context and the speaker`s intent.


Without words, Pragmatics can convey:

  • The speaker`s meaning without focus on the phonetic or structural form
  • The speaker`s intentions and beliefs
  • The distance, status and dominance of a speaker, so as to determine what is said and at times, more importantly, what is not said
  • Who leads a conversation in a group, who supports and who may be the passive contributor.


Pragmatic language becomes relevant when assessing and treating the child with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome. An autistic child may develop the physical and structural forms of language, however, they often struggle with the basic aspects of pragmatics.

Referential language presence or absence is perhaps the initial sign of a pragmatic disorder.

When the child is not using basic language form to refer to basic objects or person. There seems to be a lack of intent or inclusion of others in their communicative attempt; a loss of meaning or relevancy in topic, activity, needs, wishes or intentions. Difficulties initiating a conversation, maintaining topic, topic shifting, topic relevancy and the mechanics and awareness of turn taking within the conversational parameters are evident on functional language assessments. Making inferences, assumptions, generalisations, rationalisations and appreciating the subtleties of irony, sarcasm, humour and underlying meaning within a verbal exchange, are all challenging skills yet to be developed.


Pragmatics versus Semantics

Both of these terms refer to the study of meaning within a verbal exchange or comment.

Semantics tends to focus upon the actual object or idea that a word refers.

Pragmatics, attempts to understand the relationship between words and their users.

Charles Morris states, that Semantics is the literal meaning of an idea, whereas Pragmatics is the implied meaning of the given idea.

Whether it is Chomsky`s distinction between surface structure and deep structure or Deleuze and Guattari`s, comment that every aspect of language albeit semantic, syntactic or phonemic interacts with pragmatics, the appreciation of its presence and role in communication disorders remains a fascinating field of study.


Mr Craig Gorman

Speech Pathologist

Melbourne Speech Clinics


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