Speech Acts and Events

"...speaking a language is performing speech acts, acts such as making statements, giving commands, asking questions, making promises, and so on."
John Searle

In addition to our daily physical acts like eating, drinking and walking, we accomplish a great deal of actions through language. We perform verbal acts in face-to-face conversations, telephone calls, electronic conversations, etc. in order to greet or insult each other, to ask questions, give thanks or offer apologies. As you can imagine, the list of tasks we accomplish using language is alsmost infinite. The acts speakers perform when they make an utterance are called speech acts. The philosopher John L. Austin (1962) was the first to formulate these insights into a theory, which came to be known as the Speech Act Theory.

Locution, Illocution and Perlocution

According to Speech Act Theory, each utterance consists of three related acts:

  1. Locutionary act: This is the basic act of utterance, of producing a meaningful linguistic expression. Well-formed utterances usually have a purpose.

  1. Illocutionary act: An utterance is produced with some function in mind, thus it has a so-called communicative force.

  2. Perlocutionary act: The utterance should have an effect on the listener. E.g. I've just made some cookies. If the listener interprets the utterance as a statement he could react by appreciating the smell. The listener could also interpret the utterance as an offer and feel invited to try one.

Note that what is generally analyzed is the illocution. Some linguists might even use the term speech act only with reference to illocution, since this emphasizes which utterance "counts as".

The following figure depicts the connection of the three acts embedded in each utterance:

Source of the picture:

Categories: Glossary