Semantics vs. pragmatics

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Wed Aug 06 1997 - 05:01:05 EDT

Mari Broman Olsen wrote:

<I applaud Rod's attempt to keep the two separate, and offer the
<following definition, which I believe him to be using (and is pretty
<accepted in the linguistics literature).
<I'm sure this will open up the logic discussion again, but I just
<wanted to put in my 2c on maintaining the semantics/pragmatics
<distinction, as a theoretical construct.

Dear Mari,

What is a cave? A hole in the rock. But a hole is nothing. Yet this
"nothing" is defined in relation to the rock. However, the rock is not the
cave but the hole. From one point of view aspect is "nothing", it is a
hole, a peephole through which we see the whole or a part of an event or
state. And it creates problems when we confuse the abstract concept
"aspect" with the real world where semantics and pragmatics rule. This
confusion is comparable to confusing the word with the thing in the world
that it denoes.

It was Rod who said that my definition of the aspects was a confusion of
semantics and pragmatics. When I defended this "confusion", the word always
was put in quotation marks, which, as I outlined in my last posting to Rod,
would signal that I meant it was just as irrelevant to bring in
semantics/pragmatics when defining aspect, as it would have been to say
that someone confuses the rock with "nothing" when defining a cave. I
agree with all you write above. I participate in a weekly seminar in
semantics with the leading linguists of Norway and our basic principle is
the distinction between pragmatics and semantics. (I would like to add that
I have read Rod`s "Dissertation proposal", and my opinion is that he is
doing a very good job, so I am not attacking his thesis, just one view of

Let me ask a question: There are rules governing prepositions and mood and
also other pragmatic factor working, but does for instance pragmatics play
a role for the definition of Optative? This mood denotes an attainable
wish, and look at these examples:

(1) "Let Mari come tomorrow"
(2) "Let Mari be present tomorrow"

The wish is a strictly subjective matter, and whether the beginning is
stressed as in (1) or the resultant state as in (2) has no influence on the
nature of Optative or its definition. But the definition must be broad
enough to encompass all situations where it is used.
And similarly with aspect which also is a strictly subjective matter. If
there are examples where the imperfective aspect includes the beginning of
an event,(which I think there are) regardless of the pragmatic factors
working, a definition of imperfectivity excluding the beginning must be

Bible translation and interpretation may illustrate how easy it is for the
English mind to misunderstand. I have studied Bible translations where the
translators entertained Robertsonęs Aktionsart-view of aspect and tried to
convey this as accurately as possible into English. I am sure their
renderings would not have been different if they had subscribed to
Fanning/Porter`s modern abstract view of aspect. Their wrong view did not
affect their translation because what we see through the peephole of the
aspect is Aktionsart, and in English where aspect is not grammaticized, it
works well to translate as if aspect was Aktionsart. However, when we come
to interpretation, the picture changes completely. Without a correct
aspectual understanding we really go wrong, because aspect is NOT
Aktionsart, and aspect just gives a true picture of a PART of reality.

So I urge everybody to a strict differentiation between pragmatics and
semantics when working on the "objective" plane of events and states, but
to think abstract when it comes to aspect, and not only agreeing that
aspect is not Aktionsart but also practicing it. A good help is to compare
aspect with mood because both work on the same subjective plane.


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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