Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis Chapter 9

Speech Act Theory

0. Preambles

The topic to be considered in this and the following lectures form both the older and the newer theme in pragmatic investigations. Older because it was, and sometimes still is, studied within a theoretical framework called the Speech Act Theory (SAT), which was conceived by John Austin between 1930s and 1950s with a posthumously edited book published in 1962 (Austin 1962). The study of speech acts forms the bulk of pragmatics in the 1970s and 1980s. Topics related to speech acts received newer treatments under the more general name of propositional attitude, e.g. in Sperber & Wilson (1995/1986), Clark (1991) and Jaszczolt (1999, 2000). As a result, there is a vast amount of literature and very diversing proposals. The story presented here is necessarily eclectic and contains much room for further revisions. The older concerns with SAT is discussed in this chapter, while studies on propositional attitudes are covered in the next chapter.

1. Performative Utterances

It was in Austin's monumental work (Austin 1962) as well as in his earlier papers (Austin 1961) that the notion of performative utterance was proposed and investigated. According to Austin, we use language not just to make statements but also to perform deeds directly. For example, a king declaring war with another state; a priest marrying a couple; a VIP naming a ship; a judge issuing an order, a verdict, a sentence; anyone giving a promise, the permission of doing sth., a warning; or the act of betting, pledging, firing a person, etc., etc:


(1) The King: I hereby declare war on France.

(2) The Priest: I hereby marry you husband and wife. [But note Urmson's footnote in Austin 1962] {The right form is "I pronounce you man and wife".}

(3) Distinguished Person: I hereby name this ship Queen Victoria.

(4) Policeman: I order you to disappear in five seconds.

(5) Judge: I sentence you to 2 years of imprisonment.

(6) I promise to talk about cognitive semantics next week.

(7) I warn you that you are talking too much in the classroom.

(8) I bet you six hundred dollars that the recruitment is another fake.


In all the above cases, things are done through producing utterances, and no alternative acts can be taken instead. That is, you cannot get these things done without producing these utterances. Therefore, these utterances are called performative utterances by Austin or simply performatives, in contrast to constative utterances, or constatives, the latter being used as statements, typically as descriptions of states of affairs. According to Austin, constative utterances are evaluated by truth conditions(TCs) -- whether an utterance is true (to the fact) or not, but performative utterances are evaluated only in terms of felicity conditions(FCs) -- whether an utterance is appropriate or not. There are different versions of FCs, [Cf. (Levinson: 1983) for details on the version given by Austin, and the one given by J.R. Searle ]. In Austin's version, FCs include the issuing of an utterance by the rightly-appointed person, on the right occasion, who must issue his utterance with the right wording, in the right order and be sincere about its content. So FCs are highly conventional and culture-specific.


But what are the conventional forms of a performative utterance ? Austin first thought that the conventional form in English constitutes the following ingredients:

a. the use of first person singular pronoun as subject
b. the use of simple present tense, i.e. in imperative mood
c. the use of the word 'hereby'
d. active voice


However, there can be many exceptions ignoring some or all of the requirements given above:

(9) War is hereby declared on France.

(10) You are hereby invited to the party.

(11) Referee to a football player: Out!

(12) Bidder at an auction: Done.

(13) Judge: 2 years.

(14) Member of a jury: Guilty.

(15) I will talk about cognitive linguistics.


To salvage these non-standard forms, Austin argued that we can always recover the standard forms by prefixing some "shortened" utterances with "I hereby + performative verb" while converting some other "non-standard forms" into such a form.


But there is a snag, as discovered by Austin. What are performative verbs ? Besides the more "standard" performative verbs such as "naming", "declaring", "sentencing", etc, should we also count in "stating", "saying" and "asking" ? But these verbs possess the defining features of constative utterances. If we do, every utterance can be converted into a performative. So there is probably not that big a difference between performative and constative utterances.


Revising his theory, Austin proposed that there is a performative element in every utterance. Any utterance can be described as a combination of three speech acts simultaneously performed: a. a locutionary speech act: the issuing of the utterance, with its sentential meaning, including the assignment of reference to pronouns, etc. b. an illocutionary speech act: an act performed in saying something. That is, doing things with the utterance and bringing about certain consequences because of the utterance, c. a perlocutionary speech act: an act performed by saying something. That is, any effects or follow-up happenings incurred after the utterance.


Locutionary speech act, defined by Austin as the act of saying something, involves the uttering of a sentence, giving meaning to all the linguistic expressions in the sentence as well as the sentential meaning, including the assignment of reference to pronouns and definite expressions.

Illocutionary speech act, defined by Austin as the act performed in saying something, brings about a happening that can only be carried out by words. Therefore, besides saying things, an utterance can also carry some force -- the power of changing things. That is why the term illocutionary force is often used in the literature of pragmatics.


Perlocutionary speech act, defined by Austin as the act performed by saying something, talks about the follow-up actions as a result of the illocutionary speech act. It is in many times beyond the control of the speaker. If I order someone to shoot another person, the ordering act takes effect immediately, as this is an illocutionary act. But the addressee may shoot, or he may refuse to shoot -- these are possible perlocutionary effects, a term often used in preference to perlocutionary speech act. Rarely are the circumstances in which the speaker has the perlotionary effects completely within his control. For one instance, if a country declares war on another, the effect is that the two countries will be in a warring state. The other country cannot refuse to have war with the former country. For another instance, it is said that in countries with Islamic customs, a husband can divorce his wife simply by saying for three times " I divorce you". After that, the perlocutionary effect is that the two are divorced.

2. Indirect Speech Acts

The person who contributed most to the study of speech acts after Austin is J. R. Searle. Here we only introduce his study of indirect speech acts. Searle (1975) observes that there are utterances which carry two illocutionary forces, e.g.

(16) Can you pass the salt ?

In (16), what the speaker is superficially doing is to ask a question, but what he is actually doing, at a dinner table, is to issue a request for someone to pass the salt. So we have two illocutionary forces here: asking about one's ability and requesting. The former is an explicit illocutionary force; the latter, implicit. But it is really the implicit illocutionary force which is what the speaker wants to convey. So the implicit illocutionary force is the primary illocutionary force, while the explicit force is the secondary illocutionary force. Searle called such an ambivalent utterance an indirect speech act. It should be noted that (16) can sometimes be used just for the purpose of asking for information, e.g. to a person who has just recovered from a broken arm. In that case, it would only have one illocutionary force and would not be an indirect speech act. However, if (16) is used for requesting, it would be inappropriate for the addressee to simply answer 'yes' while not doing anything. Another complexity is that one can reply to (16) both/either as a request and/or as a yes/no question:

(17) Yes. [Passing the salt.]
(18) Yes I can. [Passing the salt.]
(19) Here you are. [Passing the salt.]
(20) Of course. [Passing the salt.]
(21) With pleasure. [Passing the salt.]
(22) Of course I can. [Passing the salt.]
(23) Yes, of course. [Passing the salt.]
(24) !Sorry I can't.
(25) ?Sorry I can't reach it.
(26) ?Why can't you do it yourself?

Needless to say, with a usual speech act (i.e., a direct speech act) there is no point in talking about primary and secondary forces.


Other examples:

(27) Would you mind passing the salt ? [not asking about a mental state but issuing a request]

(28) Could you kindly pass the salt ? [not asking about one's ability but requesting a favour]

(29) Would you mind terribly if I ask you to pass the salt ?

(30) If you can get me some cigarettes. [not stating a conditional but requesting a favour]

Searle thought that people use indirect speech acts so as to put things in a more polite way. An indirect speech act is less face-threatening than a direct one. We can even say that its illocutionary force is somewhat weakened. The addressee would have a less sense of being ordered about, and the speaker, if turned down, would also feel less uneasy. Searle pointed out that the more people use these indirect speech acts, the more they get used to them, so these expressions get conventionalized and idiomatic as time goes by. People would go directly for the primary but implicit illocutionary force and would fail to notice the other force. But then, the politeness element may also gradually lose its charm. For example, to say (31) - (33) would even carry the implicature that you should have known that already as a matter of truism. The speaker may appear condescending, rather than polite.

(31) Would you mind not talking to each other during the lecture ?

(32) Would you mind coming to the class on time ?

(33) Would you please stop smoking in the bus ? There are other people around !

Indirect speech acts are conventionalized, so they may differ from language to language. It is not likely that new forms come into being in large numbers, but here is a newer form:

(34) If you can work on this project. [not stating a conditional but issuing a command]

According to Searle, indirect speech acts have some identifying features for people to recognize the primary illocutionary force. For example, the use of past form for the modal verbs, i.e. could, would, and the use of polite words such as 'please', 'terribly'(mind), etc. These are called illocutionary force indicating devices, shortened as IFIDs. Languages differ a lot in this respect.


Austin, J. L. (1961). Performative Utterances, in J.O.Urmson and G.J. Warnock (eds.) J.L. Austin: Philosophical Papers. Oxford University Press. First Edition 1961, Second Edition1970. Originally a transcript of an unscripted talk delivered in the Third Programme of the B.B.C. in 1956.

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Edited by J.O. Urmson. Oxford: Clarendon.

Clark, W. (1991). Relevance theory and the semantics of non-declarative sentences. Doctoral dissertation. University College, London.

Jaszczolt, K. (1999). Discourse, beliefs, and intentions : semantic defaults and propositional attitude ascription. Oxford & New York : Elsevier.

Jaszczolt, K. (ed.) (2000). The pragmatics of propositional attitude reports. Oxford & New York : Elsevier.

Levinson, S. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press.

Searle, J. (1975). Indirect Speech Acts. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (eds.) Syntax & Semantics. Vol. 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press. 59-82.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1995/1986). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

楊玉成 (2002)《奧斯汀:語言現象學與哲學》,北京:商務印書館。

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