Language use as act: The Speech Act Theory

Language use as act:
The Speech Act Theory
Shaozhong Liu, Ph.D. (Pragmatics) /
Ph.D. (Higher Education)
College of Foreign Studies,
Guilin University of Electronic Technology
Email: [email protected]
essentials in pragmatics, fall 2011
What’s speech acts?
• Speech acts are “inferences about what speakers
are trying to accomplish with their utterances”
(Peccei, 1999/2000, p.42)
• “The phenomenon to be discussed is very
widespread and obvious, and it cannot fail to
have been already noticed, at least here and
there by others. Yet I have not found attention
paid to it specifically.” (Austin, 1975, p.1)
• Austin tackles the phenomenon and issue rising
behind in 1955 and posthumously published in
• Warming-up exercise: How do you perform the
following actions?
• 1) Congratulate someone
• 2) Call someone’s attention to the television set.
• 3) Forbid someone to enter a room.
(1), by saying “Congratulations!” or by giving someone a
pat on the back or the thumbs up sign.
(2) By saying “Look at the television” or by pointing to it.
(3) By saying “I forbid you to enter” or by wagging your
finger at the person (as often happens to inappropriately
dressed visitors to Italian churches).
*It is possible to both say and do things!
• Proverbs such as “Action speaks louder than
words” and “Easier said than done” seem to
make a clear distinction between speaking
and acting.
• However, Austin thinks otherwise. He points
out that, contrary to popular belief, there is
often no clear distinction between the two.
• He was one of the first modern scholars to
recognize that “words” are in themselves
actions and that these speech acts can and
should be systematically studied. (Peccei,
1999/2000, p.42-43)
Are statements merely statements?
• To grammarians, the following are statements.
But think of some contexts where each of the
following assertions does more than simply state
or describe a state of affairs:
1) There’s a spider in your hair. (warning)
2) Someone’s eaten all the ice-cream. (accusing)
3) I’ve got a gun. (threatening)
4) You’re an idiot. (insulting)
5) I need the salt. (requesting)
Request via various sentence types
• 3 types of sentences: declaratives, imperatives,
• Decide the type of sentence the following belong to
and then decide what the speaker is using the
utterance to do:
1) You can pass the milk.
2) Why don’t you pass the milk?
3) Have you got the milk?
4) I could use the milk.
5) Get me the milk.
6) Send the milk down here.
3 types of speech act
• Austin points out the need to draw a distinction
between locution and illocution.
• The locution means “the actual form of words
used by the speaker and their semantic
meaning.” (Peccei, 1999/2000, p. 44)
• “The illocution (or illocutionary force) is what the
speaker is doing by uttering those words:
commanding, offering, promising, threatening,
thanking, etc.” (Peccei, 1999/2000, p.44)
An example of locution and illocution
• Mike (to Annie): Give me some cash.
• Locution = Mike utters the words “Give me some cash”
which can be semantically paraphrased as “Hand some
money over to me”, with “me” referring to “Mike”.
• Illocution = Mike performed the act of requesting Annie to
give him some cash.
• It is necessary to draw a distinction between locution and
illocution, because the “request” example displays that
“different locutions can have the same illocutionary force.
Similarly, the same locution can have different illocutionary
forces depending on the context. For example, ‘it’s cold
here’ could either be a request to close the window or an
offer to close the window.” (Peccei, 1999/2000, p.44)
• Austin also distinguished a third part of a speech act,
the perlocution.
• “This is the actual result of the locution.” Peccei,
1999/2000, p.44)
• The result (as is showcased in the perlocution) may or
may not be what the speaker wants to happen but it is
nevertheless caused by the locution.
• For example: Mike’s utterance could have any of the
following perlocutions: “Mike persuaded Annie to give
him the money”; “Annie refused to give him the
money”; “Annie was offended”, etc.
• The perlocution is defined by the hearer’s reaction.
Constatives vs. performatives
• Constatives or constative utterances are
expressions that state or in which something
is stated.
• Performatives or performative utterances are
expressions that perform or in which
something is performed.
Examples of constatives and performatives
1a. I promise to be there.
1b. I’ll be there.
2a. I admit I was foolish.
2b. I was foolish.
3a. I warn you, this gun is loaded.
3b. This gun is loaded.
4a. I apologize.
4b. I am sorry.
The “a” utterances in each pair are performatives,
while the “b” utterances in each pair constatives.
Characterizing performatives
• The fact that an utterance containing a
performative verb does not necessarily make
the utterance itself performative.
• In Austin’s view, only the “a” utterances in the
following are performatives:
• 1a. I admit I was wrong.
• 1b. I think I was wrong.
• 1c. I know I was wrong.
Performative verbs
• The problem with 1b and 1c is that while
admitting is an action that can be performed
by speaking, thinking and knowing are not.
• “Think”, and “know” are not performative
• “To be performative, the verb must describe
an action which is under the control of the
speaker.” (Peccei, 1999/2000, p.46)
The performer
• In order to be performative, the subject of the
verb (I or we) must be the speaker. Hence “He
admits he was silly” is not a performative,
though it contains the performative verb
Present tense
• Even when the subject of the performative
verb is “I” or “we”, the verb must be in the
simple present tense not the past tense.
Hence, if you were expecting an apology fom
me, you prefer “I apologize” instead of “I
The “hereby test”
• Austin finds that it is quite reliable to consider a
performative performative, if and only if the
utterance can be inserted with the word “hereby”
before the verb.
• The addition adds oddity to the utterance, which
draw one of the attacks on his theory or way to
distinguish the two types of sentence,
performatives and constatives. (Peccei,
1999/2000, p.46)
• Austin was critiqued by John Searle (1969; 19975;
1979), among others, who improved his theory.
• Utterances can be analyzed as speech acts, a
framework originally proposed by J. L. Austin.
• Speech acts can be analyzed on three levels: the
locution (the words the speaker uses); the
illocution or illocutionary force (what the speaker
is doing buy using those words); the perlocution
(the effect of those words on the hearer).
• Austin proposed to classify utterances into two
broad types: performatives and constatives.
• Performatives like “I apologize”
simultaneously state and perform the
• Constatives can also be used to perform an
illocution but, unlike performatives, they do
not explicitly name the intended illocutionary
act (Searle, 1969; 19975; 1979). (Peccei,
1999/2000, p.47)
Felicity conditions
• Felicity conditions = necessary conditions
• Austin’s idea that it is possible to state the
necessary conditions for a particular illocution
to ‘count’ was developed further by John
Searle (1971) (Searle, J. Ed. 1971. Philosophy
of language. Oxford: OUP)
4 felicitous conditions
• General conditions: the speaker must not be
acting nonsensically or pretending to be
someone else and the hearer must be capable
of understanding the locution.
• Preparatory conditions: The speech act must
be about something that would not ordinarily
happen, and it must be about an act that
would be beneficial to the hearer.
• Content conditions: In the example of a
‘promise’ it has to be about a future act.
• Sincerity conditions: The speaker must be
What might make each of these
‘promises’ infelicitous?
• a. Ti prometto di pulire a cucina. (‘I promise
you that I’ll clean up the kitchen’ – spoken to
someone who the speaker knows does not
understand Italian.) (GC—should not be
pretentious, gu nong xuan xu)
• b. I promise that I’ll punch you in the nose. (PC
– should be something not ordinarily happen
and beneficial to the hearer)
• c. I promise that the sun will come up
tomorrow. (PC – should be something not
ordinarily happen and beneficial to the
• d. I promise that I started the dishwasher. (CC
– should be present tense)
• e. I promise that you’ll make a wonderful
dessert. (CC—should be the speaker “I”)
• f. I promise that I’ll jump over that skyscraper
if I pass my exam. (SC – should be a genuinely
–intended-to-carry-out act)
3 basic categories of illocutions
(acts performed via other acts)
• Representatives: speakers represent external
reality by making their words fit the world as they
believe it to be (stating, describing, affirming)
• Commissives: speakers commit themselves to a
future act which will make the world fit their
words (promising, vowing, threatening, offering)
• Directives: speakers direct hearers to perform
some future act which will make the world fit the
speakers’ words (commanding, ordering,
requesting, warning, suggesting)
3 expanded / extended illocutions
• Expressives: speakers express their feelings by
making their words fit their internal psychological
world (thanking, apologizing, congratulating,
• Rogatives: speakers ask for information in
rogatives, while hearers make the words fit the
world (asking, querying, questioning)
• Declaratives: speakers utter words that in
themselves change the world (naming ships,
marriages, sentencing, a referee’s ‘calls’)
Relationship between ‘words’ and ‘worlds’
Speech act
Words and worlds Who’s responsible for
Words change
Words fit (outside) Speaker
Words fit (psycho)
Words fit world
World fit words
World fit words
Typical linguistic expressions of speech acts
• Declarations:
• declarative structure with speaker as subject
and a performative verb in simple tense
• E.g.:
• We find the defendant guilty.
• I resign.
Declarative structure
Tom’s eating grapes.
Bill was an accountant.
• Expressives:
• Declarative structure with words referring to
• E.g.:
• I’m sorry to hear that.
• This beer is disgusting.
Imperatives sentences
Sit down!
Fasten your seat belts.
Inerrogative structure
Where did he go?
Is she leaving?
• Commissives:
• Declarative structure with speaker subject and
future time expressed.
• E.g.:
• I’ll call you tonight.
• We’re going to turn you in.
Illustrative and consolidating examples
• 1) If you do that, I won’t eat my dessert.
• 2) Jane: Coco’s sick.
Steve: I’ll take her to the vet. (Commissive)
• 3) Mike: What’s the weather like in Dallas?
Annie: It’s raining. (Representative)
• 4) Ed: The garage is a mess.
Faye: Clean it up! (Directive)
• 5) Carmen: You’ve thrown away the paper.
Dave: I’m sorry. (Expressive)
• 6) Patrick: I got a new Nintendo game.
Virginia: Who from? (Rogative)
• 7) I now pronounce you husband and wife. (D)
I name this ship ‘Buster Brown’. (D)
I sentence you to 10 years in prison. (D)
What illocution of the 6 categories?
8) Go away.
9) My essay is due tomorrow morning.
10) Put your jacket on.
11) Did you put your jacket on?
12) Be quiet.
13) I’m very upset that so many of you are
• 14) The Democrats won.
• 15) Have you heard that the Democrats won?
16) Have you been fired?
17) Someone said you got fired.
18) I’ll pay you back.
19) Authors always pay their debts.
Direct vs. indirect speech acts
• Searle further distinguished between speech acts.
• Direct speech acts: There is a direct relationship
between their linguistic structure and the work
they are doing.
• Indirect speech acts: the speech act is performed
indirectly through the performance of another
speech act.
• In indirect speech acts, one or more of the felicity
conditions are obviously violated.
Prescribing felicity conditions
• For a ‘true’ or ‘felicitous’ directive, some
conditions should be:
1) The speaker must be in a position to direct the
hearer to perform the act.
2) The directed act must not be something which
has already happened or would happen anyway.
3) The directed act must be something the hearer
is willing or obligated to carry out if asked.
4) The directed act must be something which
the hearer is capable of carrying out.
5) The directed act must be something which is
needed by or desirable to the speaker.
• For a ‘true’ or ‘felicitous’ rogative, some
conditions should be:
1) The speaker must not already have the
information requested.
2) The speaker must have reason to believe that
the hearer can supply the information.
• Speech acts can be grouped into general
categories which are based on the relationship
between ‘the words’ and ‘the world’ and on who
is responsible for bringing about the relationship.
• Speech acts can also be classified as direct or
indirect. In a direct speech act there is a direct
relationship between its linguistic structure and
the work it is doing. In indirect speech acts the
speech act is performed indirectly through the
performance of another speech act.
• Felicity conditions are sets of necessary
conditions for an illocution to ‘count’.
• The true illocutionary force of an indirect
speech act can be inferred from the fact that
one or more of the felicity conditions of the
‘surface’ speech act have been obviously
violated, while at the same time one or more
of the felicity conditions for the indirect
speech act have been mentioned or
Topics for study
Verb usage: An SAT perspective
Verb usage dictionaries: an SAT perspective
SAT studies: The state of the art
SAT studies in China: A CKNI-based survey