Speech act

A speech act is an utterance or a set of utterances that is performed by one of the speakers taking into the consideration the other.

The theory of speech acts is the fundamental object of the pragmatic linguistics.

The founders of the theory of speech acts (TSA) are J. Austin and J. Searle. The phenomenon was studied by V. Humbolt, Ch. Bally, E. Benveniste and Halliday.

In accordance with this theory, the minimal communication unit is the realization of a certain kind of acts such as stating, questioning, ordering, describing, apologizing, appreciating, congratulating etc.

Every act is directly related with the intention of the speaker. The intentions are classified in:

– the prioritization of the realized communicative intention – direct and indirect;

– the representation in an utterance – explicit and implicit;

– the nature of the produced actions – practical and mental;

– the degree of emotional impact – favourable and unfavourable;

– the nature of the produced speech act – replica-forming and discourse and text-forming.

In accordance with Austin’s theory the speech act consists of three levels:

illocutionary act – it is the intention of the speaker. The following act indicates not only the meaning of the expressed proposition but also correlates with the speaker’s communicative intention. It possesses certain force that consists of ordered sequence of certain elements: the illocutionary aim – a message or information request, the means of achieving that aim are the modus utterances, the addressee’s attitude, for instance doubt, denial, ignorance, confidence.

locutionary act – the performance of an utterance: pronouncement of sounds – phonetic act, the construction of grammatically and lexically correct utterance – phatic act, filling the utterance with meaning – rhetoric act. The following act is connected with the meaning and reference. The locutionary force of an utterance is its cognitive content.

perlocutionary act – … impact on the addressee, their thinking and actions to achieve the result of the utterance or to create new situation. Often the aims are reflected in the grammatical structure of the sentence: declarative, imperative, interrogative. The illocutionary force of an utterance is the communicative focus of an utterance, it is not conventional. In this case it is more important not the understanding of the meaning of the statement but the change as a result of that understanding.

Searle complemented the above-mentioned classification by widening the types of illocutionary speech acts, contrasting between the meaning of proposition and illocution.

representatives/assertives are used for the description of the world. They can be true or false. They adapt the words for reality. The mental state is persuasion. They are used in messages, advertisements, predictions.

directives are used for the commission of something by the addressee. They adapt reality to the words. The mental state – wish. They are used in questions, orders, requests, pieces of advice, appeal.

commissives are used for imposing obligations or certain conduct on the speaker. They adapt reality to the words. The mental state – intention. They are used in promises, duties, guaranties, vows.

expressives are used for the expression of emotional and mental states. They are used in congratulations, gratitude, excuses, greetings, farewell.

declarations are used for the establishment of adequacy between the content of the utterance and reality. They do not express any mental state. They are used for the appointment to the post, assignment of a rank or a name, sentencing, resignation, dismissal.

Further reading

Остин, Джон Лангшо. Слово как действие // Новое в зарубежной лингвистике. Вып. 17: Теория речевых актов. М., 1986. С. 22—130.

Серль, Джон Р. Классификация иллокутивных актов // Новое в зарубежной лингвистике. Вып. 17: Теория речевых актов. М., 1986. С. 170—194.

Серль, Джон Р. Что такое речевой акт? // Новое в зарубежной лингвистике. Вып. 17: Теория речевых актов. М., 1986. С. 151—169.

Anna Leontjeva (Ph.D. student)

Translated by Tigranyan Emiliya