Overview

Speech Act Theory, in Linguistics, describes how language can be used to do things, rather than merely comment on the state of the world. Typically when we think of an utterance, it is usually either merely stating a fact, (Today is the first day of spring), asking a question, (How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?), or acting as some sort of a command: (Don't be afraid). All of these sentences, while having the potential to effect change in the world, do not actually contain the power to do anything on their own. In contrast, Speech Act Theory describes sentences whose very utterance causes things to occur. For instance, the phrase, "I pronounce thee man and wife" is what actually causes the union to occur. The couple is not married until the official says so.

More examples of such phrases are:

In each of these cases, it is the act of saying the phrase that is important; it is only by declaring a man a knight that he becomes knighted. We see here the performative function of language. Such performative acts do not have to be as direct as the examples, in fact much of our language is rather oblique. Take for example a guest who is very hot, but does not want to disturb the host. She might make the statement, "Wow, it's really hot in here," with the intention that the host would understand her discomfort and open the window. This phrasing of the request allows for politeness, and might be more socially acceptable than out and out asking.

For more information, see also:
Performative Linguistics
Illocutionary Force
Perlocutionary Force
Pragmatics


Origins/Requirements

Speech act theory was developed by J.L. Austin and John Searle in the 1960's. Essential to the theory is the idea that certain felicity conditions must be met in order for the utterance to have any effect. Not just anybody can name a ship or marry a couple. A speech act is not valid unless the following are fulfilled:

It is because of these conditions that actors aren't really married when they make a movie (inappropriate authority and circumstance), an insane person cannot make promises (sincerity?) and a bet is not made unless both parties agree (completeness).

A Study in Speech Act Theory with One Sentence

"Speech Act Theory," is part of pragmatics, a subfield of Linguistics. Pragmatics deals with contextual meaning, situational meaning, and speech acts. When viewed in different situations, an utterance of language changes meaning.

Sentence

 “Go over there and see if all the books on that shelf are baloney.”

My friend Tyler and I were in a bookstore near Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. We spotted a shelf of books marked “Current Events.” Most of the books on the shelf sported pictures of waving American flags or at least had a red, white, and blue color scheme. Immediately, we figured the books were pro-war propaganda. Tyler uttered the above sentence.

Illocution

Illocutionary Force:

Tyler’s sentence is a directive because it seeks to direct me to perform an act. The directive is nonexplicit because Tyler does not begin the sentence with a phrase such as “I command you to,” or “I forbid you to.”

Syntactic Form:

The sentence is a speech act asking me to walk over to the physical shelf and check to see if a majority of the books on the shelf were pro-war propaganda. It is a direct illocutionary act, as opposed to an indirect illocutionary act, because the statement directs me to perform an action without asking my consent. Tyler would have been using indirect illocution if he were to have asked, “Could you go over there and see if all the books on that shelf are bologna?”

Locution

Breakdown:

  • Go over there - Walk or move somehow towards a space other than where Tyler and I currently stand.
  • See - I should look at something or formalize an opinion based on visual data.
  • Books on the shelf - Tyler is alluding to more than one book on a container designed for holding books.
  • Bologna / Baloney – An outside listener would not know if Tyler meant to use the word bologna or baloney, since they are both pronounced the same. Bologna refers to processed ham, whereas something is baloney if it is bogus or nonsense.

Literal vs. Nonliteral

The word bologna makes the sentence a nonliteral locutionary act because an outside reader does not know what Tyler means by the word bologna in the context of the sentence itself. Tyler does not wish for me to go verify that the books are not in fact processed ham. Instead, Tyler would like to know if the books are propaganda. Still, the “correct” nonliteral translation of baloney as propaganda may require the listener to understand the full context of the situation. 

Expressed vs. Implied

Tyler’s sentence is an expressed locutionary act, as opposed to an implied locutionary act. I know what Tyler wants me to do, even though the expression is nonliteral. He tells me what act I should perform: go and verify a certain value.

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