Speech Act theory

 

Speech act theory attempts to explain how speakers use language to accomplish intended actions and how hearers infer intended meaning form what is said.  Although speech act studies are now considered a sub-discipline of cross-cultural pragmatics, they actually take their origin in the philosophy of language.

It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ‘statement’ can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to ‘state some fact’, which it must do either truly or falsely.

But now in recent years, many things, which would once have been accepted without question as ‘statements’ by both philosophers and grammarians have been scrutinized with new care. It has come to be commonly held that many utterances which look like statements are either not intended at all, or only intended in part, to record or impart straight forward information about the facts . (Austin, 1962, p. 1)

Philosophers like Austin (1962), Grice (1957), and Searle (1965, 1969, 1975) offered basic insight into this new theory of linguistic communication based on the assumption that  “(…) the minimal units of human communication are not linguistic expressions, but rather the performance of certain kinds of acts, such as making statements, asking questions, giving directions, apologizing, thanking, and so on” (Blum-Kulka, House, & Kasper, 1989, p.2). Austin (1962) defines the performance of uttering words with a consequential purpose as “the performance of a locutionary act, and the study of utterances thus far and in these respects the study of locutions, or of the full units of speech” (p. 69).

These units of speech are not tokens of the symbol or word or sentence but rather units of linguistic communication and it is “(…) the production of the token in the performance of the speech act that constitutes the basic unit of linguistic communication” (Searle, 1965, p.136). According to Austin’s theory, these functional units of communication have prepositional or locutionary meaning (the literal meaning of the utterance), illocutionary meaning (the social function of the utterance), and perlocutionary force (the effect produced by the utterance in a given context) (Cohen, 1996, p. 384).

 

 

 

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