Speech acts theory. Classification of speech acts
For much of the history of linguistics and the philosophy of language,
language was viewed primarily as a way of making factual assertions, and the
other uses of language tended to be ignored. However, the acclaimed work of the
philosopher J. L. Austin (1911-1960) led philosophers to pay more attention to the
way in which language is used in everyday activities. J.L. Austin claims that many
utterances (things people say) are equivalent to actions. When someone says: “I
name this ship” or “I now pronounce you man and wife”, the utterance creates a
new social or psychological reality. Speech acts theory broadly explains these
utterances as having three parts or aspects: locutionary, illocutionary and
Locutionary actsare simply the speech acts that have taken place.
Illocutionary actsare the real actions which are performed by the utterance,
where saying equals doing, as in betting, plighting one’s troth, welcoming and
Perlocutionary actsare the effects of the utterance on the listener, who
accepts the bet or pledge of marriage, is welcomed or warned.
Some linguists have attempted to classify illocutionary acts into a number of
categories or types. David Crystal, quoting J.R. Searle, gives five such categories:
representatives, directives, commissives, expressives and declarations.
Representatives– here the speaker asserts a proposition to be true, using
such verbs as: affirm, believe, conclude, deny, report.
Directives– here the speaker tries to make the hearer do something, with
such words as: ask, beg, challenge, command, dare, invite, insist, request.
Commissives– here the speaker commits himself (or herself) to a (future)
course of action, with verbs such as: guarantee, pledge, promise, swear, vow,undertake.
Expressives– the speaker expresses an attitude to or about a state of affairs,
using such verbs as: apologize, appreciate, congratulate, deplore, detest, regret,thank, welcome.
Declarations– the speaker alters the external status or condition of an
object or situation, solely by making the utterance: I now pronounce you man and wife, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you be dead, I name this ship...
Other scholars identify more pragmatic types of sentences. They include
constatives, promisives, menacives, requestives, injunctives, offertives,
permissives, prohibitives, and quesitives.
Constativesare statements about something. They are always assertions,
never questions or inducements. e.g. This is my cat.
Promisivesare sentences containing a promise. Just like constatives, they
are always declarative. e.g. We’ll get you a new book.
The same is true for menacives– sentences containing a threat. e.g. You’ll
Directivesinduce the addressee to some action. e.g. Open the door. Come
Two types of directives are usually differentiated: requestives– sentences
containing a request, and injunctives– sentences containing an order.
Cf. Please help me with this suitcase. Get out of here!
Offertivesare sentences containing an offer. e.g. Have a cigarette.
Permissivesare sentences containing a permission or asking for a permission.
e.g. You may take this apple.
Prohibitivescontain prohibition. e.g. You are not allowed to go outside
after 10 p.m.
Quesitivesare sentences containing a question. e.g. What’s your name?
It should be noted that the specifics of pragmatic contents of an utterance
can impose some formal restrictions on the sentence. For example, a constative can
never be a question, promisives and menacives always refer to future and contain
future tense forms.
An interesting type of illocutionary speech act is that of performatives.
These are speech acts of a special kind where the utterance of the right words by
the right person in the right situation effectively is (or accomplishes) the social act.
In some cases, the speech must be accompanied by a ceremonial or ritual action.
Whether the speaker in fact has the social or legal (or other kind of) standing to
accomplish the act depends on some things beyond the mere speaking of the
words. These are felicity conditions.
Here are some examples from different spheres of human activity, where
performatives are found at work. These are loose categories, and many
performatives belong to more than one of them:
Universities and schools: conferring of degrees, rusticating or excluding students
The church: baptizing, confirming and marrying, exorcism, commination (cursing) and Excommunication
Governance and civic life: crowning of monarchs, dissolution of Parliament,
passing legislation, awarding honours, ennobling or decorating
The law: enacting or enforcing of various judgements, passing sentence, swearing
oaths and plighting one’s troth
The armed services: signing on, giving an order to attack, retreat or open fire
Sport: cautioning or sending off players, giving players out, appealing for a dismissal or declaring (closing an innings) in cricket
Business: hiring and firing, establishing a verbal contract, naming a ship
Gaming: placing a bet, raising the stakes in poker
In these expressions, the action that the sentence describes (nominating,
sentencing, promising) is performed by the sentence itself; the speech is the act it
effects (unlike in so-called constantives that only carry a piece of information). In contrast, perlocutionary speech acts cause actions that are not the same as the
Felicity conditionsare conditions necessary to the success of a speech act.
They are conditions needed for success or achievement of a performative. Loosely
speaking, felicity conditions are of three kinds: preparatory conditions, conditions
for execution and sincerity conditions.
Preparatory conditionsinclude the status or authority of the speaker to
perform the speech act, the situation of other parties and so on. Only certain people
are qualified to declare war, baptize people or sentence convicted felons.
The situation of the utterance is important. If the US President jokingly
“declares” war on another country in a private conversation, then the USA is not
really at war. This, of course, happened (on 11 August 1984), when Ronald
Reagan made some remarks off-air, as he thought, but which have been recorded
for posterity: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed
legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
One hopes that this utterance also failed in terms of sincerity conditions.
Conditions for executionrequire that external circumstances must be
suitable. “Can you give me a lift?” requires that the hearer has a motor vehicle and
is able to drive it somewhere and that the speaker has a reason for the request.
Sincerity conditionsshow that the speaker must really intend what he or
she says. In the case of apologizing or promising, it may be impossible for others
to know how sincere the speaker is. Moreover sincerity, as a genuine intention
(now) is no assurance that the apologetic attitude will last, or that the promise will
be kept. There are some speech acts – such as plighting one’s troth or taking an
oath – where this sincerity is determined by the presence of witnesses.
Date: 2015-12-17; view: 1997