What is Pragmatics Wastebasket?

 Q: What is Pragmatics Wastebasket?

Q: Significance of Yehoshua Bar-Hillel’s note on the field of pragmatics?

Ans: Pragmatics wastebasket means when you consider things that are just pragmatics, but not real linguistics. Some linguists say that pragmatics studies only those things which are not worthy of scientific study. In other words, they consider pragmatics as meaningless stuff. In modern terms, the meaning of pragmatics wastebasket is taken differently. For example, if someone says, ‘I am tossing that question in pragmatics wastebasket’, the meaning it seems to carry is that ‘that question is just pragmatics and therefore not worthy of scientific study. But what it really means is that ‘that question is worthy of scientific study but too hard to deal with right now, or it would take us too far afield’. The term ‘Pragmatics Wastebasket’ was used for the first time in 1970 by Yehoshua Bar-Hillel. He argued that someone needed to ‘clean the basket’. He comes up with a serious study of pragmatics. His study resulted in a book known as Pragmatics of Natural Languages.

In the beginning, semantics was considered known as the “waste-basket of syntax”. In the late fifties and early sixties, linguists considered linguistics a science. For this purpose, they applied several mathematical methods to linguistics study. At that time, linguistics was considered an algebra of language. Then in the mid-fifties, the theory of generative transformational grammar came. This theory was given by Chomsky. He did not give much attention to the study of meaning and his research was more titled towards grammar. That’s why his research domain was quite limited. This is how semantics came to be called the “waste-basket of syntax”. Some linguistics in the early seventies began to study meaning.  They considered their study as the foundation of linguistics research instead of syntax. Their main concern was only to study those conditions which can make a sentence right or wrong. For this purpose, they did not deal with any questions. Those unsolved questions were thrown into a new basket which is known as, pragmatic basket. Later, these questions were dealt with by other linguists and these questions were considered the main items of the pragmatics study. In this sense, pragmatics became the wastebasket of semantics.  

When Pragmatics was considered as a wastebasket, it implies not only that it is a pile of garbage, but also that some useful material can be extracted from some pile of garbage. Pragmatics study leads to the study of discourse structure that was once considered ‘just pragmatics. Its formal study took it out of the trash and made it a part of ‘real linguistics’. Mey (2001) states that pragmatics emerged from “waste-basket of semantics” and became part of real linguistics research. 

Yehoshua Bar-Hillel was formal linguist. He wrote a report to the US military in the late ’60s, that the effort to date on machine translation was never going to pay off, thereby stopping all research in machine translation for the next 20 years. He also wrote a little note in 1971 in Linguistic Inquiry (the home journal of Evil Chomskian Formalists), saying something like this: “We’ve been treating pragmatics as a waste-basket of random crap that we don’t bother to account for in the language. Every so often, someone goes through the waste-basket of random crap and picks out something they think they can account for in their new shiny formal syntactic-semantic theory. Instead of treating pragmatics as a waste basket, and cherry-picking it for bits to account for formally, why we don’t instead start taking pragmatics seriously and account for the stuff in the “waste basket” on its own terms?”

To conclude, pragmatics is not a wastebasket, but it is given this name because it studies those items which were left in semantics. Those items were not properly dealt with and were put in the wastebasket. Those items left many unsolved questions and those questions were not given importance. Linguistics in pragmatics answered those questions and lead to the emergence of pragmatics as a proper field.  source: pragmatics waste basket: SCRIBD.COM

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