Speech act theory

Speech-act-theoryDear All,
Today I would like to discuss speech act theory. In this post, I would like to sketch a general picture concerning the theory and define some key notions. I am not going to get into details or list various ramified systems of speech acts created, for example, by Searle (1975) or Meggle and Ulkan (1992).

A speech act can be defined as an utterance which serves interlocutors as a means to do or a signal for [not] doing certain things in the real world.

Some speech acts may consist of one word (e.g. GREETING: Hi!; FAREWELL: Bye!; AGREEMENT: Okay!), while others may consist of several sentences (e.g. CONGRATULATIONS: Dear Mr. Smith, first of all, let me shake your hand. All the examining committee members and I are very satisfied with your performance during the defense of your dissertation. Therefore, I am happy to announce that you have successfully passed your final oral exam.).

It is important to note, however, that the intended effect of a particular speech act and the actual outcomes may be quite different. If somebody asks for a screwdriver by saying “Give, quick,” he/she may very well receive a hammer or a spanner instead. According to Austin (1962), “[w]e must consider the total situation in which the utterance is issued – the total speech act – if we are to see the parallel between statements and performative utterances, and how each can go wrong. Perhaps indeed there is no great distinction between statements and performative utterances” (p. 52). In his work entitled “How to do things with words”*, Austin suggested dividing a speech act into three components in order to make analysis of speech acts more accurate:
1) locutionary act – the actual words, their phonetic composition and their semantic and stylistic meaning;
2) illocutionary act – the intended effect by the speaker/writer (e.g. to persuade, to calm down, to entertain, to prevent, to congratulate);
3) perlocutionary act – production of a certain effect (e.g. persuading [or, on the contrary, dissuading, despite the intention], educating, informing, inspiring, etc.).

To sum up, speech act theory holds speech acts to be functional communicative units used to perform certain actions in the real world. A speech act can be divided into locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts which combine to produce a particular communicative effect.

Austin, J.L. 1962. How to do things with words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Meggle, G. and M.Ulkan. 1992. Informatives and/or directives? (A new start in speech act classification.) Protosoziologie 4.
Searle, J.R. 1975. A taxonomy of illocutionary acts. In K.Günderson (Ed.), Language, mind, and knowledge: Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science. Minneapolis, MN. Vol. 7.

*This book was published posthumously.




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