Activity types and pragmatic acts

Jacob L. Mey
Table of contents

Editors’ note: In this Handbook entry, the late Jacob Mey addresses a central, if not the most central, issue in pragmatics: how, and on what basis, do language users come to regard certain utterances as actions? It documents a personal journey through the field that eventually resulted in the formulation of key notions such as pragmatic act and pragmeme. The entry opens by revisiting Levinson’s notion of activity type (1979), drawing attention to the role that the social situation plays in this process; because of this, action can never be explained exclusively in terms of a limited number of pre-existing categories, as is the case in classical speech act theory. From there, the text moves on to pointing out how certain types of actions may be specific to a particular social situation, and how actions may in turn be implicated in dynamically bringing about and defining situations. Next, this structuring role of the situation is elaborated in a discussion of indirect speech acts, and of the impossibility of imposing a priori constraints on the range of context-dependent meanings that can be inferred from them. Eventually, this leads to the formulation of a pragmatic concept of speech act, or pragmatic act for short. Intersubjectivity, then, is guaranteed by the pragmeme that these pragmatic acts instantiate (see also Allan 2019). The latter stands for a form of “generalized pragmatic act” (Mey 2001: 221) inspired by Trubetzkoy’s notion of phoneme, which is defined here as “[a mapping of] situations onto individual activities” (ibid.) that sets out the interactional affordances available in a particular situation and that allows the interactants to mutually adapt to that situation.

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