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Speech act theory attempts to understand the ways in which meaning is created in context. The term 'speech act' refers not only to an utterance that is made, but the total situation surrounding it. This allows us to take into account the fact that, whenever we say something, we are also doing something.

The prototypical way of 'doing something' through language is to utter a 'performative'. By uttering a performative, we perform an action through language. For example, when we apologise to someone, we perform the speech act of apologising; when a vicar weds a couple, they perform the act of pronouncing their marriage by doing exactly that – 'I now pronounce you man and wife'. By announcing on behalf of a nation that 'we declare war on terror', a politician does just that.

Utterances that are not performatives still perform a speech act – just in a more indirect way. When someone says 'It's a bit hot in here', they may be performing the speech act of a request ('Please open the window') indirectly through the use of a statement. The person making this request may choose to use this less direct speech act as it seems like less of an imposition on the person they are talking to. Clearly, speech act theory can get a bit tricky here: in order to try to understand how different speech acts work, Austin (1962) suggested classifying them using the following three-part framework:

  • Locution – the precise words that a speaker actually speaks ('It's a bit hot in here').
  • Illocution – the actual meaning, or intention, of the utterance (the speaker wants someone to open the window).
  • Perlocution – the effect that the words spoken have on the hearer (whether or not the hearer does actually open the window, or whether they misinterpret the illocution of the words spoken and simply agree or disagree with the locution – 'Yes, it is a little warm').

As we can see from the window example, sometimes the illocutionary force of a speech act does not match up with the locution. Yet we invariably manage to understand such speech acts. Searle (1969) attempted to explain how we manage this with his suggestion of conditions which we bear in mind when working out what someone means by what they say:

  • Propositional act – what act is it that the speaker is proposing?
  • Preparatory condition – is the act being proposed something that is beneficial to the hearer?
  • Sincerity condition – is the act something that the speaker genuinely believes can be achieved?
  • Essential condition – what is the actual nature of the act being proposed?

These conditions are known as 'felicity' conditions: speech acts cannot be 'true' or 'false', but they can be felicitous or infelicitous. For example, if a teacher tells a pupil that they must stay behind after class for a detention, then we (although perhaps not the pupil!) might deem this felicitous – the teacher is in a position of power that enables them to perform this action. However, if the same individual went up to someone in the street and said 'You must stay after class!', then we would probably judge this as infelicitous – the speech act of detaining cannot ordinarily be performed by an individual to a passerby.

Recommended reading

Based on Austin's original lectures, this collection is a readable introduction the how speech acts work:

Austin, John Langshaw. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Searle's text develops some of the ideas in Autin's lectures:

Searle, John R. 1979. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas's introduction to the linguistic study of interaction provides an accessible account of how speech acts work:

Thomas, Jenny. 1995. Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics. Harlow: Longman.

References

Searle, John R. 1969. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

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