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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

perlocutionary acts.

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

be sorry.

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: 1834

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