Speech Acts Essay.
There are all sorts of things we can do with words. We can make statements, requests, ask questions, give orders, make promises, give thanks, offer apologies, and so on. In his famous work, How to do Things with Words 1953), J. L. Austin outlined his Theory of Speech Acts and the concept of performative language, in which to say something is to do something. To make the statement “I promise that p” (in which p is the propositional content of the utterance) is to perform the act of promising as opposed to making a statement that may be judged true or false.
Performatives cannot be true or false, only felicitous or infelicitous.
Austin creates a clear distinction between performatives and constantives, statements that attempt to describe reality and can be judged true or false. But he eventually comes to the conclusion that most utterances are performative in nature. That is, the speaker is nearly always doing something by saying something. For Austin, what the speaker is doing is creating social realities within certain social contexts.
For example, using an explicit performative, to say “I now pronounce you man and wife” in the context of a wedding, in which one is marrying two people, is to create a social reality, i. . in this case a married couple.
Austin described three characteristics, or acts, of statements that begin with the building blocks of words and end with the effects those words have on an audience. Locutionary acts: “roughly equivalent to uttering a certain sentence with a certain ‘meaning? in the traditional sense. ” Illocutionary acts: “such as informing, ordering, warning,etc. , i. e. utterances which have a certain (conventional) force. ” Perlocutionary acts: “what we bring about or achieve by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring or surprising”.
Austin focused on illocutionary acts, maintaining that here we might find the “force” of a statement and demonstrate its performative nature. For example, to say “Don? t run with scissors” has the force of a warning when spoken in a certain context. This utterance may also be stated in an explicitly performative way, e. g. , “I warn you, don? t run with scissors. ” This statement is neither true nor false. It creates a warning. By hearing the statement, and understanding it as a warning, the hearer is warned, which is not to say that s/he must or will act in any particular way regarding the warning.
Austin maintained that once “we realize that what we have to study is not the sentence but the issuing of an utterance in a speech situation, there can hardly be any longer a possibility of not seeing that stating is performing an act”. This conclusion expresses his belief that studying words or sentences (locutionary acts) outside of a social context tells us little about communication (illocutionary acts) or its effect on an audience (perlocutionary acts). John Searle, who continued Austin’s theory, claims the illocutionary act is “the minimal complete unit of human linguistic communication.
Whenever we talk or write to each other, we are performing illocutionary acts”. Illocutionary acts are performed with intentionality. Also according to Bach and Harnish, people “don? t speak merely to exercise their vocal cords. ” Some reason always exists, and this reason is called the communicative presumption: the mutual belief that whenever one person says something to another, the speaker intends to perform an illocutionary act. In fact, almost any speech act is the performance of several acts at once, distinguished by different aspects of the speaker’s intention: here is the act of saying something, what one does in saying it, such as requesting or promising, and how one is trying to affect one’s audience.
In general, speech acts are acts of communication. To communicate is to express a certain attitude, and the type of speech act being performed corresponds to the type of attitude being expressed. For example, a statement expresses a belief, a request expresses a desire, and an apology expresses a regret. As an act of communication, a speech act succeeds if the audience identifies, in accordance with the speaker’s intention, the attitude being expressed.
Some speech acts, however, are not primarily acts of communication and have the function of affecting institutional states of affairs. They can do so in either of two ways. Some officially judge something to be the case, and others actually make something the case. Those of the first kind include judges’ rulings, referees’ decisions etc, and the latter include firing, appointing etc. Acts of both kinds can be performed only in certain ways under certain circumstances by those in certain institutional or social positions.
The theory of speech acts aims to do justice to the fact that even though ords (phrases, sentences) encode information, people do more things with words than convey information, and that when people do convey information, they often convey more than their words encode. Although the focus of Speech Act Theory has been on utterances, especially those made in conversational and other face-to-face situations, the phrase ‘speech act’ should be taken as a generic term for any sort of language use, oral or otherwise. Speech acts, whatever the medium of their performance, fall under the broad category of intentional action, with which they share certain general features.
An especially pertinent feature is that when one acts intentionally, generally one has a set of nested intentions. For instance, having arrived home without one’s keys, one might push a button with the intention not just of pushing the button but of ringing a bell, arousing one’s spouse and, ultimately, getting into one’s house. The single bodily movement involved in pushing the button comprises a multiplicity of actions, each corresponding to a different one of the nested intentions.
Or suppose, for example, that a bartender utters the words, ‘The bar will be closed in five minutes‘. He is thereby performing the locutionary act of saying that the bar will be closed in five minutes (from the moment he’s speaking). In saying this, the bartender is also performing the illocutionary act of informing the patrons of the bar’s imminent closing and perhaps the act of urging them to order a last drink. In fact, the bartender intends to be performing the perlocutionary act of causing the patrons to believe that the bar is about to close and of getting hem to order one last drink. He is performing all these speech acts just by uttering certain words.
There seems to be a direct relationship in this example between the words uttered (‘The bar will be closed in five minutes’), what is thereby said, and the act of informing the patrons that the bar will close in five minutes. Less direct is the connection between the utterance and the act of urging the patrons to order one last drink. Clearly there is no linguistic connection here, for the words make no mention of drinks or of ordering.
This indirect connection is inferential. There is a similarly indirect connection when an utterance of ‘It’s getting cold in here’ is made not merely as a statement about the temperature but as a request to close the window or as a proposal to go some place warmer. Whether it is intended (and is taken) as a request or as a proposal depends on contextual information. The examples considered thus far suggest that performing a speech act, in particular an illocutionary act, is a matter of having a certain communicative intention in uttering certain words.
Such an act succeeds, if the audience recognizes that intention. This is not by magic, of course. One must choose one’s words in such a way that their utterance makes one’s intention recognizable. However, as illustrated above, the utterance need not encode one’s intention. So, in general, understanding an utterance is not merely a matter of decoding it. Austin did not take into account the central role of speakers’ intentions and hearers’ inferences. He supposed that the successful performance of an illocutionary act is a matter of convention, not intention.
Indeed, he held that the use of a sentence with a certain illocutionary force is conventional in the peculiar sense that this force can be ‘made explicit by the performative formula’ In making this claim Austin was overly impressed by the special case of utterances that affect institutional states of affairs, and perhaps should have not taken them as a model of illocutionary acts in general. Austin was especially struck by the character of explicit performative utterances, in which one uses a verb that names the very type of act one is performing.