Speech Acts in Linguistics

The Speaker's Intention and Its Effect on the Audience

Obama campaign
A political speech can fall under several categories of speech acts. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

In linguistics, a speech act is an utterance defined in terms of a speaker's intention and the effect it has on a listener.

In speech-act theory, as introduced by Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin in "How to Do Things With Wordsand further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle, considers three levels or components of such utterances: locutionary acts, illocutionary acts and perlocutionary acts.

Speech acts can also further be broken down into different families of speech acts, grouped together by their intent of usage, including verdictives, which present a finding; exercitives, which exemplifies power or influence; commissives, which consists of promising or committing to doing something; behavitives, which have to do with social behaviors and attitudes like apologizing and congratulating; and expositives, which explain how our language interacts with itself.

Locutionary, Illocutionary and Perlocutionary Acts

In order to determine which way a speech act is to be interpretted, one must first determine the type of act being performed. Austin categories all speech acts as belonging to one of three categories: locutionary, illocutionary or perlocutionary acts.

Locutionary acts are,  according to Susana Nuccetelli and Gary Seay's "Philosophy of Language: The Central Topics," "the mere act of producing some linguistic sounds or marks with a certain meaning and reference," but these are the least effective means of describing the acts, merely an umbrella term for illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, which can occur simultaneously.

In illocutionary acts, then, carry a directive for the audience — a promise, an order, an apology, or a sign of thanks — expressing a certain attitude and carrying with their statements a certain illocutionary force, which can further be broken into families, explained below. 

In perlocutionary acts, on the other hand, bring about a consequence to the audience if something is not done.

Unlike illocutionary acts, perlocutionary project a sense of fear into the audience. Take for instance the perlocutionary act of saying "I will not be your friend." Here, the impending loss of friendship is an illocutionary act while the effect of frightening the friend into compliance is a perlocutionary act.

Categories of Families of Speech Acts

Illocutionary acts and perlocutionary acts can further be broken down into common families of speech acts which define the supposed intent of the speaker. Austin again uses "How to Do Things With Words" to argue his case for the five most common classes: verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behavitives, and expositives.

David Crystal, too, argues for these categories in "Dictionary of Linguistics" saying that "several categories of speech acts have been proposed " including "directives (speakers try to get their listeners to do something, e.g. begging, commanding, requesting), commissives (speakers commit themselves to a future course of action, e.g. promising, guaranteeing), expressives (speakers express their feelings, e.g. apologizing, welcoming, sympathizing), declarations (the speaker's utterance brings about a new external situation, e.g. christening, marrying, resigning)."

It is important to note, however, as Kirsten Malmkjaer points on in "Speech-Act Theory" that "there are many marginal cases, and many instances of overlap, and a very large body of research exists as a result of people's efforts to arrive at more precise classifications." Still, these five commonly accepted categories do a good job of describing the breadth of human expression, at least when it comes to illocutionary acts in speech theory.