Speech Act Theory

Speech act theory accounts for an act that a speaker performs when pronouncing an utterance, which thus serves a function in communication. Since speech acts are the tools that allow us to interact in real-life situations, uttering a speech act requires knowledge not only of the language but also of its appropriate use within a given culture.

Speech act theory was first developed by J. L. Austin whose seminal Oxford Lectures in 1952–4 marked an important development in the philosophy of language and linguistics. Austin’s proposal can be viewed as a reaction to the extreme claims of logical positivists, who argued that the meaning of a sentence is reducible to its verifiability, that is to an analysis which verifies if utterances are true or false. Austin contended that most of our utterances do more than simply making statements: questions and orders are not used to state something, and many declarative sentences do not lend themselves to being analysed in terms of their falsifiability. Instead, they are instruments that allow speakers to change the state of affairs. This is tantamount to saying that we use language mainly as a tool to do things, and we do so by means of performing hundreds of ordinary verbal actions of different types in daily life, such as make telephone calls, baptise children, or fire an employee.

The fact that not all sentences are a matter of truth verifiability was first advanced by Aristotle who, in his De Interpretatione, argued that:

there are in the mind thoughts which do not involve truth or falsity, and also those which must be either true or false, so it is in speech. [. . .] A sentence is a significant portion of speech [. . .] Yet every sentence is not a proposition; only such are propositions as have in them either truth or falsity. [. . .] Let us therefore dismiss all other types of sentence but the proposition, for this last concerns our present inquiry, whereas the investigation of the others belongs rather to the study of rhetoric or of poetry. (1–4)

Although he explicitly deems the nature of sentences to be uninteresting in his inquiry on apophantic logos, Aristotle represents the first account of language as action.

J. L. Austin/The Times Literary Supplement

Aristotle’s standpoint influenced the study of language for centuries and paved the way for a tradition of research on verifiability, but several German and British philosophers anticipated a view of language as a tool to change a state of affairs. The issues of language and conversation were addressed by Immanuel Kant who anticipated some concepts like ‘context’ and ‘subjective idealisation’, the rules that articulate conversation, and the para-linguistic gestures used in the accomplishment of speech acts. But it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that a more elaborate treatment of language as action was initiated.

The first, although non-systematic, study of the action-like character of language was conducted by Thomas Reid, who described different acts that can be performed through language, and grouped them into two categories: ‘solitary acts’ like judgements, intentions, deliberations and desiring, which can go unexpressed; and ‘social operations’ like commanding, promising or warning, which, by their very social nature, must be expressed. Reid’s contribution to the inception of a speech act theory can be fully understood if viewed from the wider perspective of the philosophical developments of his time.

Franz Brentano’s distinction between physical and psychological phenomena is particularly relevant in this respect because it reintroduced to philosophy the scholastic concept of‘intentionality’, which allows for a distinction between mental acts and the external world. As far as speech act theory is concerned, suffice it here to say that Brentano argued that every mental, psychological act has a content and is directed at an object (the intentional object), which means that mental phenomena contain an object intentionally within themselves and are thus definable as objectifying acts. The Brentanian approach to intentionality* allows for a distinction between linguistic expressions describing psychological phenomena and linguistic expressions describing non-psychological phenomena. Furthermore, Brentano claimed that speaking is itself an activity through which we can initiate psychic phenomena. Edmund Husserl picked up the importance of what Brentano’s psychological investigation could bring to logic*, in particular the contrast between emotional acts and objectifying acts. Husserl tackled the issue of human mental activities (‘acts’) and how they constitute the ‘object’ of knowledge through experience. In his Logical Investigations (1900/1) he developed a theory of meaning based on ‘intentionality’ which, for him, meant that consciousness entails ‘directedness’ towards an object. It is on the notion of ‘objectifying acts’, that is acts of representation, that Husserl shaped his theory of linguistic meaning, thus emphasising the referential use of language. Collaterally he treated the non-representational uses of language, that is acts like asking questions, commanding or requesting.

Following Brentano and moving within the field of psychology, Anton Marty offered the first account of uses of language meant to direct others’ behaviour, like giving an order, requesting, or giving encouragement. Marty stated that sentences may hint at the speaker’s psychic processes and argued that ‘deliberate speaking is a special kind of acting, whose proper goal is to call forth certain psychic phenomena in other beings’ (1908: 284). Stemming from Brentano’s tripartite subdivision of mental phenomena into presentation, judgements, and phenomena of love and hate, Marty discriminated linguistic forms into names, statements and emotives (utterances arousing an interest), which is a model that closely resembles Karl Bühler’s Sprachtheorie. It is precisely to Bühler that we owe the coinage of the label ‘speech act theory’. He offered the first thorough study of the functions of language – Darstellung (representation), Kindgabe (intimation or expression), and Auslösung (arousal or appeal) – thus endowing non-representational sentences with their own status.

A more complete treatment we find in the work of Adolf Reinach, who offered the first systematic theory of speech acts. Reinach received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Munich; his dissertation was on the concept of cause in penal law. It was within the context of legal language that Reinach argued in favour of the relevance of speech acts which he referred to, presumably independently of Reid’s work, as ‘social acts, that is acts of the mind that are performed in the very act of speaking’. Reinach (1913) provided a detailed taxonomy of social acts as performative* utterances and their modification, and stated very clearly that the utterance (Äusserung) of a social act is different from the inner experience of emotions like anger or shame and from statements (Konstatierungen) about experiences. It is precisely the recourse to the physical medium, the Äusserung, that transforms the philosophical category of action into a social act. Drawing on previous literature, Reinach separated actions from internal experiences. Then he discriminated between external actions like kissing or killing and linguistic actions, and within this class he distinguished between social acts, which are performed in every act of speaking, and actions, where signs are used but no speech act is performed such as in ‘solitary asserting’ and emotive uses of language. The final distinction refers to the linguistic actions performed in uttering performative formulae and the linguistic and nonlinguistic actions whose performance has an effect on the state of affairs and even changes it.

While Reinach’s ideas were spreading through the Munich scholars, at Oxford A. J. Ayer, considered the philosophical successor of Bertrand Russell, deemed philosophically interesting only those sentences that can be subject to the truth-condition analysis. In line with the logical positivism* of the Vienna Circle, Ayer developed the verification principle in Language, Truth and Logic (1936) where he stated that a sentence is meaningful only if it has verifiable import. Sentences expressing judgements, evaluation and the like were not to be objects of scientific inquiry. This stance, which is now known as the ‘descriptive fallacy’, led him into conflict with Oxford linguist philosophers like Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin, who instead were greatly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein. He claimed that a language consists of a wide multiplicity of structures and usages that logical positivists had neglected to analyse but which encompass the majority of what human beings say in their construction of meaning.

Following Wittgenstein’s insights into language and putting himself against the positivist background, Gilbert Ryle rejected the Cartesian mind-body dualism in The Concept of Mind (1949), and revived the centrality of the standard uses of language, thus contributing to the development of ‘ordinary language philosophy’* in Oxford.

Taking the same veil and influenced by Husserl, Austin rejected the account that only sentences that are meant to describe a state of affairs are worth studying, and he observed that verifiable sentences are only a small part of the large amount of utterances produced by language users. Not all utterances express propositions: many perform actions as, for example, greetings or orders, which resist a truth-conditional analysis. Indeed, most of the sentences uttered by speakers are used in such a way as to perform more fundamental things in verbal interactions, such as naming a ship, marrying a couple, or making a request. In daily life we perform many ordinary verbal actions, and utterances are used in speech events to accomplish all that is achieved through language. Austin’s speech act theory was first delineated in the notes he prepared for some lectures interestingly entitled Words and Deeds which he delivered at Oxford University from 1952 to 1954. Such notes constituted the basis on which he developed his Harvard lectures in 1955, posthumously published in 1962. In the first phase of development of his theory, Austin retained the Aristotelian distinction between apophantic and non-apophantic logos, and introduced the terms of constative utterances and performative utterances, where the former describe or constate a state of affairs and the latter perform actions. Austin later realised that a clear distinction between the two types of utterances is unsustainable. If, for example, we say ‘There is a rat under your chair’, we do more than assert a state of affairs: we warn someone about a possible danger. Assertions can thus be used to perform such acts as to warn, to apologise, and many more. Austin then abandoned the dichotomy and contended that to say something equals to perform something.

According to Austin, when we say something, we perform three acts simultaneously: a locutionary act, an illocutionary act, and a perlocutionary act. At the locutionary level, a speaker produces sounds (phonetic act) which are well ordered with respect to the phonological system and grammar of a particular language (phatic act), and carry some sense with respect to the semantic and pragmatic rules of that language (rhetic act). At the illocutionary level, he is expressing his intention by virtue of conventions shared in his speech community. At the perlocutionary level, he performs a third act which includes the consequences of his speaking, and he has only limited control over them. In order for the speechact to be successful, it must fulfil some appropriateness conditions, or ‘felicity’ conditions: locution is successful if words and sounds are correctly produced; illocution is appropriate if it meets the conditions for its realisation; perlocution may be effective when it produces consequences desired by the producer. The notion of illocutionary force embodies the philosophical notion of intentionality, which can be expressed by performing a speech act through three modalities: (1) directly or indirectly through the performance of another speech act (‘Pass me the salt’ versus ‘Can you pass me the salt?’); literally or non-literally depending on the way words are used (‘Stick it in your head’); (3) explicitly or inexplicitly when meaning is spelled out fully or incompletely (‘I’ll be back later, Mary’s ready’). Indirectness and nonliterality are disambiguated by way of a conversational implicature*, whereas explicitation is achieved through expansion or completion of what one says.

John Searle, one of Austin’s students, contributed widely to developing speech act theory, which he addressed from the viewpoint of intentionality. Specifically he conceived of linguistic intentionality as derived from mental intentionality. In his Speech Acts (1969) Searle claimed that Austin’s ‘felicity conditions’ are constitutive rules of speech acts to the extent that to perform a speech act means to meet the conventional rules which constitute a specific speech act. Moving from this approach and analysing the act of promising, Searle proposed a classification of speech acts into four categories: (1) propositional content (what the speech act isabout); (2) preparatory condition, which states the prerequisites for the speech act; (3) sincerity condition (the speaker has to sincerely intend to keep a promise); and (4) essential condition (the speaker’s intention that the utterance counts as an act and as such is to be recognised by the hearer). One of Searle’s major contributions to the theory refers to indirectness, that is the mismatch between an utterance and an illocutionary force.

The interpretation of indirect speech acts has drawn a great deal of attention. Drawing on H. P. Grice’s pragmatics, most scholars assume that some inferential work on the part of the hearer is required in order to identify the speaker’s communicative intention and the core question is how such inference can be computed. Searle (1975) assumes that the hearer recognises both a direct-literal force, which he understands as the secondary force, and an indirect-nonliteral force, which is the primary force. Similarly Dan Gordon and George Lakoff (1975) argue that inference rules that they label ‘conversational postulates’ reduce the amount of inferential computing necessary to disambiguate an indirect speech act. Jerrold Sadock (1974) departs from the inferential hypothesis and proposes ‘the idiom model’ by claiming that a speech act like ‘Can you pass me the salt?’ is promptly interpreted as a request and needs no inference.

Speech act theory received great attention and valid theoretical proposals from cognitive linguists. Klaus Panther and Linda Thornburg (1998) claim that our knowledge of illocutionary meaning may be systematically organised in the form of what they call ‘illocutionary scenarios’. They are formed by a before, a core, and an after component. If a person wants someone to bring him his pen, he can utter a direct speech act like ‘Bring me my pen’, which exploits the core component, or he can make his request indirectly exploiting either the before component (‘Can you bring me my pen?’) where the modal verb ‘can’ points to the hearer’s ability to perform the action, or the after component (‘You will bring me my pen, won’t you?’) where the auxiliary ‘will’ instantiates the after component of the request scenario. Panther (2005) makes the point that metonymies provide natural ‘inference schemas’ which are constantly used by speakers in meaning construction and interpretation. Scenarios may be accessed metonymically by invoking relevant parts of them. Indirect requests like ‘Can you open the door?’, ‘Will you close the window?’, ‘Do you have hot chocolate?’ exploit all pre-conditions for the performance of a request, that is, the ability and willingness of the hearer, and his possession of the required object. Such pre-conditions are used to stand for the whole speech act category. By means of the explicit mention of one of the components of the scenario, it is possible for the speaker to afford access to the hearer to the whole illocutionary category of ‘requesting’ in such a way that the utterance is effortlessly interpreted as a request. With a view to improving Panther’s proposal, Francisco Ruiz de Mendoza (2007) contends that illocutionary meaning is directly tied to the notion of Idealised Cognitive Models (ICMs), which are principle-governed cognitive structures. Illocutionary scenarios represent the way in which language users construct interactional meaning representations abstracted away from a number of stereotypical illocutionary situations. In an indirect request like ‘I fancy going out for dinner’ the hearer understands the implicated meaning by relying on high-level situational ICMs – that is, on the generic knowledge that expressing a wish indirectly corresponds to asking for its fulfillment. Thus, it is exactly the quick and easy retrieval from our long-term memory of a stored illocutionary scenario that allows us to identify the nature of indirectness.

Speech act theory is a thought-provoking issue which has attracted the interest of philosophers of language and linguists from diverse theoretical persuasions. Manifold aspects of the theory are being debated such as the classification of speech acts, the relationship between speech acts and culture, and the acquisition of speech acts by children, which proves how this area of language research still provides room for developments and new insights.

Primary sources
Aristotle (1941). De Interpretatione. New York: Random House. 38–61.
Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gordon D. and G. Lakoff (1975). ‘Conversational postulates’. In P. Cole and J. L. Morgan (eds), Syntax and Semantics, Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press. 83–106.
Husserl, E. (1900/1). Logische Untersuchungen. Halle: Nyemeier.Panther, K. U. and L. Thornburg (1998). ‘A cognitive approach to inferencing in conversation’. Journal of Pragmatics 30: 755–69.
Panther K. U. (2005). ‘The role of conceptual metonymy in meaning construction’. In F. Ruiz de Mendoza and S.Peña (eds), Cognitive Linguistics. Internal Dynamics and Interdisciplinary Interaction. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 353–86.
Reinach, A. (1913). ‘Die apriorischen Grundlagen des bürgerlichen Rechtes’. In Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung 1: 685–847.
Ruiz de Mendoza, F. (2007). ‘High level cognitive models: in search of a unified framework for inferential and grammatical behavior’. In Krzysztof Kosecki (ed.), Perspectives on Metonymy. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. 1130.
Ryle G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson. Sadock J. (1974). Toward a Linguistic Theory of Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.
Searle J. R. (1969). Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Searle J. R. (1975). ‘Indirect speech acts’. In P. Cole and J. L. Morgan (eds), Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press. 59–82.
Wittgenstein L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Further reading
Ayer, A. J. (1936). Language, Truth and Logic. London: Gollancz.
Brentano, F. (1874). Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. Leipzig: Duncke and Humbolt.
Marty, A. (1908). Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung der allgemeinen Grammatik und Sprachphilosophie. Halle: Nyemeier.
Reid, T. (1894). The Works of Thomas Reid. Edinburgh: Maclachlan and Stewart.

Source: Key Ideas in Linguistics and the. Philosophy of Language. Edited by Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge. Edinburgh University Press. 2009.

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