Speech Acts Theory

Speech Acts Theory

Summary:Speech acts theory was advocated by J.L Austin in a set of lectures entitled “How to do things with words“. This theory claims that language is not only used to say the things which are true or false but also it is used to do things and perform acts such as apologizing, promising, complaining etc.

Speech Acts Theory

In the 1950s, the speech acts theory started to become the subject of language philosophers. Austin is the founder of the Speech Act Theory. In his set of lectures, which were posthumously published as “How to do things with words”,Austin refuted logical positivism –that language is a way of expressing truth and false statements. He saw that language use transcends such duality of expression. Language, according to him, can be used with the intention of maintaining certain real actions or performances. Consider the following statements:

  • I declare the end of crisis
  • I object
  • I pronounce you wife and husband
  • I sentence you five years of prison
  • I complain
  • I apologize

What is interesting about these statements or utterances, according to Austin, is that they do not just describe states of affairs i.e. say things, rather they are meant to do things. In addition, such utterances bring about change in the world, and they cannot be evaluated in terms of their falsity and truth. It would be very absurd and rather peculiar to consider the following conversation as accurate:A:” I object”B:” It’s false”

Performatives Vs Constatives 

J.L Austin, therefore, devised a new class of sentences which he called “performatives” as opposed to Constatives –the ones which are based on falsity and truth conditions. These performative utterances can never be true or false, instead, they can either be felicitous or infelicitous. Felicitous means that the utterance was well done and achieved, whereas infelicitous purports to the inaccuracy of the speech act.  Let’s suppose the following statement was uttered by a judge:“I sentence you ten years of prison”

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Assuming that the judge in question was in his full intellectual readiness, and made his decision out of appealing pieces of evidence, then the performed act is felicitous. But if the judge was “mad”, drunk or unhealthy, then the speech act of “sentence” was wrong i.e. infelicitous.

Felicity conditions 

Austin developed three conditions, which are used as ways of ascertaining whether a speech act is felicitous or infelicitous – he called them felicity conditions. Here are they:
(i) There must be a conventional procedure having a
conventional effect 
(ii) The circumstances and persons must be appropriate,
as specified in the procedure
‘l’he procedure must be executed(i) correctly and (ii)
(iii) Often, (i) the persons must have the requisite thoughts,
feelings and intentions, as specified in the procedure, and
(ii) if consequent conduct is specified, then the relevant
parties must so do
To clarify the realization of these conditions or otherwise, let’s compare divorce in Britain and the Muslim world using the following utterance: “ I hereby divorce you”
In reference to the British conventions, a husband saying the above utterance will not surely result in divorcing his wife; the performative act is, thereby, infelicitous as it doesn’t respect the first felicity condition. On the contrary, a Muslim husband saying or performing the same statement three consecutive times to his wife, his wife is hence divorced.

   Levels of the speech acts theory 

Austin isolates three basic senses in which in saying something one are doing something, and hence three kinds of acts that are simultaneously performed:
i) Locutionary act: the utterance of a sentence with determinate sense and reference
ii)illocutionary act: the making of a statement, offer, promise, etc. in uttering a sentence, by virtue of the conventional force associated with it
iii)perlocutionary act: the bringing about of effects on the audience by means of uttering the sentences, such effects being special to the circumstances of utterance
In the process of raising this theory, Austin especially emphasized the importance of the purpose of speakers. So most linguists attached great importance to the illocutionary act. Thomas (1995, p. 51) even stated that“Today the term ‘speech act‘ is used to mean the same as ‘illocutionary act‘ – in fact, you will find the terms speech act, illocutionary act, illocutionary force, pragmatic force or even just force, all used to mean the same thing”
S.C Levisnson(1983), Pagmatics, Cambridge University Press.Thomas (1995), Meaning In Interaction: an introduction to pragmatics, New York Press.

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