Speech Acts

Although the idea that language is used to express social action was initially conceptualized in Plato’s Cratylus (1875), our current understanding of language, speech act theory and communicative action, dates back to modern philosophical thinking (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969; Wittgenstein, 1953/1957). These philosophers stated that the function of language is to perform speech acts or actions (or Wittgenstein’s concept of “language-games”), such as describing or reporting the weather, requesting a letter of recommendation from a professor, apologizing for arriving late, or complaining to our boss about an unfair work load. This view of language rejected the ideas of logical positivism of the 1930s that believed that the main function of language was to describe true or false statements. However, it was in the mid-1950’s that philosophical thinking brought speech act theory to life with the seminal work on speech acts by J. L. Austin and John Searle, two language philosophers who were concerned with meaning, use, and action. Speech acts represent a key concept in the field of pragmatics which can be broadly defined as language use in context taking into account the speaker’s and the addressee’s verbal and non-verbal contributions to the negotiation of meaning in interaction.

Although speech act theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) was not designed to examine stretches of talk in social interaction, it provided the foundation for the analysis of social action. Austin proposed a three-way taxonomy of speech acts: (i) a locutionary act refers to the act of saying something meaningful, that is, the act of uttering a fragment or a sentence in the literal sense (referring and predicating); (ii) an illocutionary act is performed by saying something that has a conventional force such as informing, ordering, warning, complaining, requesting, or refusing; and (iii) a perlocutionary act refers to what we achieve ‘by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading’ (1962: 109 [emphasis in original]).

Austin’s main interest was in utterances used to perform actions with words (e.g. ‘I pronounce you husband and wife’). For these actions to be accomplished, they must be executed under the appropriate conditions: (i) a conventional procedure and effect; (ii) the appropriate circumstances; (iii) the correct and complete execution of the procedure by all persons; and (iv) certain thoughts and feelings about the realization of the act on the part of persons involved [Austin: 1962: 14-15]). The notion of ‘performative action’ is fundamental to the analysis of formal and non-formal institutional interactions because it considers both speaker and hearer co-constructing joint actions in specific sociocultural contexts.

Searle’s (1976) classification of speech acts classified according to the illocutionary point, psychological state, and the direction of fit (word to world or world to word)

  • Representatives: conclude, confess
  • Directives: requests, suggestions, invitations
  • Commissives: promises, requests, offers
  • Expressives: complaints, apologies
  • Declarations: to baptize, to declare war