Locutionary Act Definition in Speech-Act Theory

The Act of Making a Meaningful Utterance

In speech-act theory, a locutionary act is the act of making a meaningful utterance, a stretch of spoken language that is preceded by silence and followed by silence or a change of speaker—also known as a locution or an utterance act. The term locutionary act was introduced by British philosopher J. L. Austin in his 1962 book, "How to Do Things With Words." American philosopher John Searle later replaced Austin's concept of a locutionary act with what Searle called the propositional act—the act of expressing a proposition. Searle outlined his ideas in a 1969 article titled "Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language."

Types of Locutionary Acts

Locutionary acts can be broken into two basic types: utterance acts and propositional acts. An utterance act is a speech act that consists of the verbal employment of units of expression such as words and sentences, notes the Glossary of Linguistic Terms. Put another way, utterance acts are acts in which something is said (or a sound is made) that may not have any meaning, according to "Speech Act Theory," a PDF published by Changing Minds.org.

By contrast, propositional acts are those, as Searle noted, where a particular reference is made. Propositional acts are clear and express a specific definable point, as opposed to mere utterance acts, which may be unintelligible sounds.

Illocutionary vs. Perlocutionary Acts

An illocutionary act refers to the performance of an act in saying something specific (as opposed to the general act of just saying something), notes Changing Minds, adding:

"The illocutionary force is the speaker's intent. [It is] a true 'speech act' such as informing, ordering, warning, undertaking."

An example of an illocutionary act would be:

"The black cat is stupid."

This statement is assertive; it is an illocutionary act in that it intends to communicate. By contrast, Changing Minds notes that perlocutionary acts are speech acts that have an effect on the feelings, thoughts, or actions of either the speaker or the listener. They seek to change minds. Unlike locutionary acts, perlocutionary acts are external to the performance; they are inspiring, persuading, or deterring. Changing Minds gives this example of a perlocutionary act:

"Please find the black cat."

This statement is a perlocutionary act because it seeks to change behavior. (The speaker wants you to drop whatever you are doing and go find her cat.)

Speech Acts With Purpose

As noted, locutionary acts may be simple utterances devoid of meaning. Searle refined the definition of locutionary acts by explaining they should be utterances that propose something, that have meaning, and/or that seek to persuade. Searle identified five illocutionary/perlocutionary points:

  • Assertives: Statements that may be judged true or false because they aim to describe a state of affairs in the world
  • Directives: Statements that attempt to make the other person's actions fit the propositional content
  • Commissives: Statements that commit the speaker to a course of action as described by the propositional content
  • Expressives: Statements that express the sincerity condition of the speech act
  • Declaratives: Statements that attempt to change the world by representing it as having been changed

Locuationary acts, therefore, should not simply be locutionary acts, which may be meaningless bits of speech. Instead, they should have purpose, either seeking to bolster an argument, express an opinion, or cause someone to take action.

Locutionary Acts Do Have Meaning

Austin, in a 1975 update of his book "How to Do Things With Words," further refined the notion of locutionary acts. Explaining his theory, Austin said that locutionary acts, in and of themselves, did indeed have meaning, stating:

"In performing a locutionary act, we shall also be performing such an act as:
  • Asking or answering a question
  • Giving some information or an assurance or a warning
  • Announcing a verdict or an intention
  • Pronouncing a sentence
  • Making an appointment, an appeal, or a criticism
  • Making an identification or giving a description"

In other words, locutionary acts are not mere meaningless utterances. Austin argued that locutionary acts did not need further refinement into illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. Locutionary acts by definition have meaning, such as providing information, asking questions, describing something, or even announcing a verdict. Locutioinary acts are the meaningful utterances humans make to communicate their needs and wants and to persuade others to their viewpoint.