Language in aviation:The relevance of linguistics and relevance theory

  • Carsten Breul University of Wuppertal


English and a semi-artificial sublanguage based on English play the dominant role as the means of communication in aviation, especially in the communication between pilots and air traffic controllers and in international contexts. The first part of the paper surveys this state of affairs from the viewpoint of (English) linguistics. In its course, attention is drawn to aviation incidents and accidents, some of which with extremely severe consequences, where the role of language, or of English in particular, was critical. The second part of the paper argues that insights provided by relevance theory can be effectively used in the analysis and explanation of some of the communication problems. Given that relevance theory has not figured as a conceptual tool box with which to approach such problems so far, it is argued that it ought to be employed, especially as it emphasises that linguistic expressions are semantically underdetermined in principle. This means that the utterance of virtually any linguistic expression, including those of the semi-artificial aviation sublanguage, is dependent on pragmatic inferencing for the recovery of what was intended to be conveyed, an important aspect in the evaluation of the role that such a sublanguage may play in principle.