Speech Act Theory: A Detailed Account
by Mohamed Zayed
MA Researcher in English Linguistics
1. Definition & Origin
Speech act is a term which was developed by the language philosopher J. L. Austin. It is widely used in linguistics especially the branch of pragmatics or language in use, namely discourse analysis. Speech Act Theory is a theory which aims at analyzing the role of utterances in relation to both the behavior of the speaker as well as the hearer in a given interpersonal communication or a piece of discourse. Speech act theory states that, in our speech or communicational process, we—as speakers—are not merely expressing our ideas or giving out information. Rather, we do something with language. For example, the utterance Please, be seated serves the purpose of a polite request or command to be seated. Also, when a priest states, to newly-weds, I pronounce you man and wife he is not merely expressing ideas. Rather, the priest is doing the actions of “uniting” two souls eternally with the holy strings of marriage.
2. Versions or Degrees of Speech acts
An utterance may have three versions of action: locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary act.
Locutionary act is the act of making a meaningful utterance. It is the initial process of uttering or speaking the utterance.
Illocutionary act is the act which is performed by the speaker after the utterance has been made. It simply refers to the function of the utterance or the intention of the speaker behind the utterance. In other words, it is a question of what the utterance is trying to do. An illocutionary act may be that of promising, threatening, requesting, arresting, commanding, insulting, inciting, etc.
Perlocutionary act is the effect of the utterance on the hearer. For example, a perlocutionary act may evoke fright, happiness, persuasion, insult, etc. in the consciousness of the hearer.
· The mother said to her young daughter: “do not stay up late, dear.”à Locution “just speaking”
· The mother meant to advise and warn her daughter not to stay up late (intention)à illocutionary “speaker’s intention”
· The girl, then, replied: “Ok, mom. I won’t” which means that the girl was affected by her mother’s advice. Hence, we have the perlocution of persuasion.
3. Types of speech act meaning or functions of an utterance
A speech act or an utterance may have the functions: command, Commissive, constative, declaration, directive, expressive, and representative.
A speech act may be directive which means that the listener is trying to do something, e.g. commanding, requesting, begging, etc.
Commissive speech act means that the speaker is committing him/herself to a course of action in the future such as promising, guaranteeing, reassuring, etc.
Expressive speech act means that the speaker is expressing his/her feelings such as sympathizing, suffering, welcoming, hating, loving, apologizing, etc.
Declaration speech act means that the speech of the speaker is declaring or bringing about a new state in the external world such as marrying, resigning, sentencing one to prison or death, naming something, etc.
Representative speech acts means that the utterance represents or reflects the belief of the speaker about the truth of a proposition such as asserting, believing, hypothesizing, certainty, doubt, possibility, etc.
Directive speech acts are utterance whose purpose is to get or persuade other people to do something for the speaker. To do that, there are two means: grammatical means (e.g. commands), or semantic means (proper vocabulary such as please). Also, the means could be phonological, i.e. using persuasive or appropriate intonation.
Constative speech acts are utterances which play the role of descriptive statements or descriptions of a situation. They are often contrasted with Performative utterances since constative utterance are ‘saying’ rather than ‘doing’.
4. Verbs of action (speech act verbs)
The verbs which are employed and used to indicate and express the speech act—intended by the speaker—are known as Performative verbs such as apologize, threaten, promise, name, pronounce, declare, etc.
5. Felicity Conditions
Every speech act must have a criteria that have to be satisfied in order for the speech act to be valid, successful and achieving its intended purpose. These criteria or conditions are known as “felicity conditions” or conditions of a successful speech act. They are preparatory conditions, sincerity conditions, and essential conditions.
5.1 Preparatory conditions refer to whether the person performing a speech act actually has the authority or the power to do so. For example, one cannot possibly ‘fire’ an employee unless one has the authority of being, e.g. a manager.
5.2 Sincerity conditions refer to the degree of sincerity with which the act is performed. In other words, is the speech act performed sincerely or not, e.g. the speaker or the doer is not lying, etc.
5.3 Essential conditions refer to the behavior or the belief of the speaker after performing the speech act, e.g. accepting the object which he/she has just requested.
A speech act which does not follow the above-mentioned criteria is called infelicitous.
6. Direct vs. Indirect Speech Acts
In the classification of speech acts, an indirect speech act is an utterance whose structure or linguistic form does not reflect its purpose or function directly. For example, the utterance I’m feeling cold is an indirect speech act which serves the purpose of a request for someone nearby to close a window or a door. Also, the utterance It’s getting late is an also an indirect speech act which serves the purpose of a polite way to ask for the permission to take leave, i.e. “May I leave?”
On the other hand, if the speech act is expressed literally in a sentence, e.g. expressing the fact that someone is feeling cold, then such a speech act will be called a direct one.
MA Researcher in English Linguistics