Mey( 2001) gives us a full account of how pragmatics developed from the “waste-basket of semantics” into an independent and important domain of the linguistic research.
At the beginning, the semantics was called the “waste-basket of syntax”. In the late fifties and early sixties, linguists tried to make linguistics a science. Thus they applied many mathematical methods to the linguistic study. Linguistics was ideally considered as an algebra of language. In the mid-fifties, Chomsky developed his famous theory of generative-transformational grammar. Although he knew the domain of his research is somewhat limited, he concentrated his attention on grammar and pay no attention to the study of meaning. In this way, semantics came to be called the “waste-basket of syntax”. In the early seventies, some linguists began to try to turn the study of meaning into the foundation of the linguistic study instead of syntax. Semantics mainly concerns about the conditions under which a sentence could be true or false. In the semantic research, linguists found that many language phenomena could be explained by semantic theory, but these phenomena didn’t attract much attention at that time. All their unsolved questions were thrown into a new basket, pragmatic basket. Some natural language does make sense, but we can’t prove it to be true. These problems kept bothering the linguists, but were left to be unnoticed. Later these unsolved questions became the main items of the pragmatic study. In this sense, pragmatics became the waste basket of semantics.
“In the Chomskyan linguistic tradition, well-formedness plays the role of the decision-maker in questions of linguistic ‘belonging’: a language consists of a set of well-formed sentences, and it is these that ‘belong’ in the language; no others do.”(Mey, 2001:25). In 1968, Lakoff published an article, entitled “Presupposition and relative well-formedness”. Lakoff , for the first time, publicly rejects in writing the formal-logic criterion of syntactic “well-formedness”. Chomsky considers this criterion as the ultimate standard to judge a linguistic production. However, what we perceive as correct in the real communication often collides with the correctness as prescribed by some grammarians. For example, according to English grammar we should us who when we are dealing with a noun which is human (and naturally animate), whereas we use which for a noun-human (possibly also non-animate) referent (Mey, 2001:25). But sometimes we don’t obey the rule in the ordinary language. For example, we usually use who to refer to our motherland or our pet. If not, it would be unacceptable.
The semantics and pragmatics may be somewhat alike in terms of the subject of the research. Both of them deal with the meaning, but what the semantists only concern about is whether the sentence is true or false. Then some problems arise. Some sentences don’t have true value, but it does make sense in the natural language in a certain situation. Some sentences have the same ‘true conditions’(that’s to say they are logically equivalent), but these sentences clearly don’t have the same meaning. Some semantists noticed these problems, but they just left them unsolved. Only when we take the language user and the context into consideration, can we find the answers to these questions. Later, these unsolved questions became the main issues of the pragmatic study.
Concerning the relationship between syntax, semantics and pragmatics, semantics was once regarded as the waster-basket of syntax, while pragmatics was once called the waster-basket of semantics. From syntax to pragmatics, the domain of the linguistic research is enlarged step by step and the study becomes more and more practical. In fact, syntax is the foundation of syntax, and pragmatics is based on the research of syntax and semantics. And linguistics gradually develops into a versatile subject covering almost every aspect of knowledge concerning language.