Speech-Act Theory Definition and Examples

Glossary

According to John Searle ( Speech Acts, 1969), language itself is performative (that is, it does things); language doesn't merely describe or report. (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Speech-act theory is a subfield of pragmatics concerned with the ways in which words can be used not only to present information but also to carry out actions. See speech act.

As introduced by Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin (How to Do Things With Words, 1962) and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle, speech-act theory considers the levels of action at which utterances are said to perform:

Examples and Observations

"Part of the joy of doing speech act theory, from my strictly first person point of view, is becoming more and more remindful of how many surprisingly different things we do when we talk to each other." (Andreas Kemmerling, "Expressing an Intentional State." Speech Acts, Mind, and Social Reality: Discussions with John R. Searle, ed. by Günther Grewendorf and Georg Meggle. Kluwer, 2002)

Searle's Five Illocutionary Points

"In the past three decades, speech act theory has become an important branch of the contemporary theory of language thanks mainly to the influence of [J.R.] Searle (1969, 1979) and [H.P.] Grice (1975) whose ideas on meaning and communication have stimulated research in philosophy and in human and cognitive sciences. . . . From Searle's view, there are only five illocutionary points that speakers can achieve on propositions in an utterance, namely: the assertive, commissive, directive, declaratory and expressive illocutionary points.

Speakers achieve the assertive point when they represent how things are in the world, the commissive point when they commit themselves to doing something, the directive point when they make an attempt to get hearers to do something, the declaratory point when they do things in the world at the moment of the utterance solely by virtue of saying that they do and the expressive point when they express their attitudes about objects and facts of the world.

"This typology of possible illocutionary points enabled Searle to improve Austin's classification of performative verbs and to proceed to a reasoned classification of illocutionary forces of utterances which is not as language-dependent as that of Austin." (Daniel Vanderkeven and Susumu Kubo, "Introduction." Essays in Speech Act Theory. John Benjamins, 2002)

Speech-Act Theory and Literary Criticism

"Since 1970 speech-act theory has influenced in conspicuous and varied ways the practice of literary criticism. When applied to the analysis of direct discourse by a character within a literary work, it provides a systematic but sometimes cumbersome framework for identifying the unspoken presuppositions, implications, and effects of speech acts which competent readers and critics have always taken into account, subtly though unsystematically. (See discourse analysis.) Speech-act theory has also been used in a more radical way, however, as a model on which to recast the theory of literature in general, and especially the theory of prose narratives. What the author of a fictional work--or else what the author's invented narrator—narrates is held to constitute a 'pretended' set of assertions, which are intended by the author, and understood by the competent reader, to be free from a speaker's ordinary commitment to the truth of what he or she asserts.

Within the frame of the fictional world that the narrative thus sets up, however, the utterances of the fictional characters--whether these are assertions or promises or marital vows--are held to be responsible to ordinary illocutionary commitments." (M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. Wadsworth, 2005)

Criticisms of Speech-Act Theory

  • "Although Searle's theory of speech acts has had a tremendous influence on functional aspects of pragmatic theory, it has also received very strong criticism. According to [M.I.] Geis (1995), not only Austin (1962) and Searle (1969) but also many other scholars based their work principally on their intuitions, focusing exclusively on sentences isolated from the context where they might be used. In this sense, one of the most important issues that some researchers have argued against Searle's (1976) suggested typology refers to the fact that the illocutionary force of a concrete speech act cannot take the form of a sentence as Searle considered it. Thus, Trosborg (1995) claims that the sentence is a grammatical unit within the formal system of language, whereas the speech act involves a communicative function." (Alicia Martínez Flor and Esther Usó-Juan, "Pragmatics and Speech Act Performance." Speech Act Performance: Theoretical, Empirical and Methodological Issues. John Benjamins, 2010)
  • "In speech act theory, the hearer is seen as playing a passive role. The illocutionary force of a particular utterance is determined with regard to the linguistic form of the utterance and also introspection as to whether the necessary felicity conditions—not least in relation to the speaker's beliefs and feelings—are fulfilled. Interactional aspects are, thus, neglected. However, conversation is not just a mere chain of independent illocutionary forces—rather, speech acts are related to other speech acts with a wider discourse context. Speech act theory, in that it does not consider the function played by utterances in driving conversation is, therefore, insufficient in accounting for what actually happens in conversation." (Anne Barron, Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics: Learning How to Do Things With Words in a Study Abroad Context. John Benjamins, 2003)