2.2 What is an insult - part 2 : The effect on the addressee

Speech act theory distinguishes between locutionary, illocutionary and prelocutionary effect of an utterance:

  • the locutionary effect:
the physical act of producing an utterance (e.g. say, utter)
  • the illocutionary effect:
the act that is performed by the speaker in issuing an utterance (such as e.g. stating, asking, thanking, promising, baptising etc.)
  • the preloctionary effect:
the effect the utterance has on a particular hearer, his/her feelings, thoughts or actions that the utterance provokes in him/her.

As insults describe to a large extent the effects on the addressee, whether s/he perceives a given utterance as face-threatening act or not, the prelocutionary effect is the most important feature of insults (Jucker/Taavitsainen 2000:72).

Yet it is important to note that face is not - unlike eye color or size - something innate. We acquire our self-esteem and self-image through socialisation and education (Bublitz 2001:223). This means that whether an utterance is perceived as an insult or not may vary. Additionally, what we may perceive as an insult nowadays may not have been an insult one hundert years ago. Consequently, we find a considerable variability of insults in the history of English.