Speech Acts – Theory & Use
One of the most revolutionary ideas in the development of linguistics as a discipline has been the departure from a purely linguistic approach towards a pragmatic and functional study of language.
The emphasis of the Speech Act Theory is on the “act” or the function of a linguistic expression and not the grapheme, phoneme, morpheme or lexeme. It suggests a departure from linguistic analysis based on words and sentences and their semantic meaning to the meaning of “utterances” that originates from the function they fulfil, the purpose they serve or the intention with which they are used.
The Speech Act Theory has its basis in the idea that language is an instrument which is put to various uses. In other words, language is used an instrument to achieve various goals or perform various functions.
The theory is based on and brings to the forefront important facts about language:
- that language and its components do not have an intrinsic meaning or validity, but that they are conventions that are agreed upon by a linguistic community that:
- the meanings are assigned to words or linguistic expressions;
- the conventions for assigning of meaning to sounds and graphemes are arbitrary and are not based on any scientific reason or divine source.
Further, this theory makes certain important assertions about the nature of language and which form the fundamental premises of this and other theories that build on it:
- Surely we admit that the same linguistic expression can have varied uses and hence different meaning in different situations and contexts, depending on how they are used;
- Over and above the semantic meaning of an expression, there is a certain pragmatic meaning that an expression or utterance assumes by virtue of the intention with which it is used. In other words, the pragmatic meaning is that meaning that an expression derives by the way it is used or what it is used to convey.
To elucidate this point, let us take the example of a simple utterance – “Wow!” or “Great job!” At the face of it, these expressions have a certain semantic meaning which we are familiar with; they are used to fulfil the function of praising or congratulating someone. However, the very same words, when used with sarcasm and in a situation that calls for contempt and disapproval, are used to criticize, castigate and demean the hearer. In another situation, the same linguistic instruments may be used to mock and ridicule the listener. We see, therefore, that apart from the hitherto agreed upon semantic meaning of the words have only a partial role to play in the overall meaning (which we now call pragmatic) in terms of the function these expressions fulfil.
The words highlighted in the above explanation are what are known as Speech Acts! They are acts we perform when we say something. They are acts that we perform while and in using language! Praising, congratulating, criticizing, castigating, demeaning, mocking and ridiculing are few of the innumerable “acts” we can perform with the help of language. There is so much we can do with language – the list is endless and limitless.
In the sections that follow, we shall discuss in detail, the various aspects of this theory and how it is relevant. The theory has opened up a plethora of possibilities in the area of communication, psychology and philosophy. In the field of linguistics and communication, it forms the basis of discourse analysis from the point of understanding what writers and speakers do or try to achieve with their writings and speeches. In the field of psychology, various theories of interpersonal communication have become possible with the help of the understanding of speech acts. Finally, from a philosophical perspective, the theory has formed the basis for language philosophy and borders with esoteric studies of mysticism.
An important finding of the speech act theory, as discussed above, is that the meaning of the word is not intrinsic to it, but merely a loose connection between form and content. Even the arbitrary meanings assigned to linguistic forms are not always the same, and the meaning depends on and is assumed only when it is used for and towards a certain communicative function. Further, the theory lends itself to the philosophical questions as to how language can be understood universally even by members of the same linguistic group, when it can be interpreted differently, especially for expressions that mean and refer to more abstract ideas. How can the intended function and intention be correctly received by the hearer or reader? Doesn’t language accord the same level of reality to all nouns, be they tangible, intangible or abstract? And in that sense, isn’t language misleading us to believe in the validity and the reality of the concepts and ideas to be the same as tangible objects? (Grimminger, Rolf; 1995, 175)
These ideas have led many thinkers in the past to be sceptical about language, and they have wondered whether language is a reliable instrument of communication at all?
The Speech Act theory is an analysis of language at the meta-level, which means, we are studying language, i.e., language is the object of our analysis and observation. Ironically, in order to examine or evaluate language, one must make use of language itself as the medium analysis! Language becomes both the object as well as the instrument of observation! The observer is the observed!
Continuing with the theory of speech acts, we speak of certain aspects of speech. Karl Bühler, a famous German philosopher, in his explication of the Organnon Model of language has explained that “language is an instrument with which objectives can be achieved and that the instrument is not separate from the speakers and listeners, or writers and readers, in performing communicative acts.” (Cutting 2008)
An analysis of language as an instrument for communicative functions reveals that every speech comprises the following elements:
- the utterance per se – the sounds, words, phrases or sentences that are uttered – (we do not necessarily talk of sentences in this theory, in contrast to traditional grammars – here every utterance even those without a proper sentence structure – counts as an utterance as long as it serves a communicative purpose and is in that sense a communicative instrument
- the communicative acts or functions that are performed with the help of the utterance; these are of three kinds:
- locutionary acts: the act of uttering words, or saying something
- illocutionary acts: the intention, or intended purpose in uttering the words
- perlocutionary acts: the impact the uttered words have on the recipient, listener or reader.
Let us try to understand this concept a bit more closely with the help of an example. Consider the following utterance (1).
- “You’ll see what I can do.”
Let us now analyze the utterance by enlisting the various acts performed by the speaker. These are represented by verbs highlighted below:
We can imagine that in uttering the words, the speaker screamed or yelled at the listener in order to warn and threaten her or him. In doing so, the speaker indirectly and perhaps unintentionally scares the listener or even coerces her / him into falling in line.
|locutionary act||scream, yell|
|illocutionary act||threaten or warn|
|perlocutionary act||scare the listener, or coerce him into submission|
In a different context, say given the background of a Hollywood movie when the heroine finds herself in a dire situation and the hero has given up and asserts that that there is nothing more to be done, the same utterance (1) above can have completely different communicative functions:
The heroine evidently mutters to herself, perhaps refusing to give up, and challenging destiny, and thereby reassures herself and perhaps the hero.
|illocutionary act|| refuse to accept destiny and
challenge the situation
|perlocutionary act|| reassure self and listener;
pull oneself together
Having understood the different kinds of acts that we perform by way of uttering something, we can now move on to analyze the central aspect of the theory. It must be noted that the central act or the acts that are the main acts performed during the utterance are the illocutionary acts. These are more potent and relevant than the perlocutionary ones. All other acts are related to the illocutionary. The illocutionary force is therefore the focal point of the speech act theory and discourse analysis.
Illocutionary acts are categorised in several ways by different grammarians and linguists. The most common classification is as below:
Declarations: Expressions that change the word by the very utterance – baptize, christen, marry someone, declare war etc.
- Representations or constative acts: Stating facts or what one believes to be true: e.g. describing, claiming, hypothesizing, insisting, predicting.
- Commissives: Committing oneself to future action; e.g. promising, offering, threatening, vowing, refusing, volunteering.
- Directives: Telling the listener to do something; e.g. commanding, requesting, inviting, forbidding, suggesting.
- Expressives: Stating what one feels; e.g. apologizing, praising, congratulating, deploring, regretting.
Another traditional classification of illocutionary acts as taught in many schools is also the classification of sentence types as given below:
- Interrogative sentences – ones that ask
- Declarative or assertive sentences (to be distinguished from the declarations of the previous categorization) – ones that state facts or describe or assert reality or fantasy (akin to the constative or representative acts in the aforementioned section)
- Exclamatory sentences – those that are an expression of surprise, delight, pain or other extreme emotion.
- Imperative sentences – ones that ask, direct or instruct some to do something (akin to directives above).(Pal and Katyal 2013, 2-6)
The focal point of these classifications is varied. Whereas the first classification is from the pragmatic perspective, the second is really from the structural and grammarian’s perspective. These two classifications have certain differences and at the same time certain overlaps. Clearly, whereas the declarations are not to be confused with the “declarative or assertive” sentences, the representations and constatives are largely akin to them. Similarly, the “imperatives” are clearly analogous with the “directives” of the first classification. The “expressives” of the first classification align well with the “exclamatory” sentence types of the second classification. The first classification lacks the “interrogative” but has an additional “commissive” category.
Irrespective of the difference in approach and categorization, what is important is to understand that each sentence has “functions”, “goals”, “objectives” and “effects” that go beyond the semantic or syntactic meaning. Speech acts signify the essence of an utterance, the purpose to which communication is put.
- Cutting, Joan. Pragmatics and Discourse. New York: Routledge, 2008.
- Grimminger, Rolf;. In Literarische Moderne. Reinbeck: Rohwolt, 1995.
- Pal, Rajendra, and H.C. Katyal. “Essentials of English Grammar and Composition.” New Delhi: Sultan Chand, 2013.
- Renkema, Jan. Introduction to Discourse Studies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2004.
- Wren, P.C., H. Martin, and N.D.V. Prasada Rao. “High School English Grammar & Composition.” Bombay: S.Chand & Company, 2008.
- Yule, George. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.