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VL Pragmatics Eckardt 16.12.


Speech Acts

What are speech acts?

John Austin (1962): How to do things with words. (William James Lectures, Harvard 1955)
Stephen Levinson (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press: Chapter 5.
John Searle (1969): Speech acts. An essay in the philosophy of language
John Searly and Daniel Vanderveken (1985): Foundations of illocutionary acts.

Wilbur und Manfred "Tanzen Sie?"

Austin's initial observation:

Certain sentences seem to become true just by saying so:

I baptize you Louisa.

I hereby declare you husband and wife.

Examples like these, but many more, are not subject to the categories of truth and falsity.

I baptize you Louisa.

That's false.
I hereby declare you husband and wife. Yep.

More examples:

I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow.

I hereby christen this ship the H.M.S. Flounder.
I declare war on Zanzibar.
I apologize.
I dub thee Sir Walter
I object.
I sentence you to ten years of hard labour.
I bequeath you my Raffael
I give my word
I warn you that trespassers will be prosecuted.

Grammar can serve the same purpose. The three major sentence modes (universal in all languages)
are commonly equated with the acts of asserting (= subject to truth/falsity), questioning, command
(saying as acting).

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Wittgenstein, language games:

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958): Philosophical investigations

Lists numerous different ways of using language: Commands, Questions, Narration, Solving
Quizzes, Telling Jokes, Greet, Pray,
Assumption: There is an unlimited number of language games.
A language game is a rule-driven activity in some language community, in which
each utterance has a conventional function.



Stenius, 1967: Mood and the language game.

Adopts a view on speech acts that goes back on Wittgensteins Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
(criticized by Wittgenstein lateron):
Each sentence indicates what the world would be like if it were true.
And it states that it is so.
sentence radical: the truth functional content, the proposition denoted.
sentence mood: indication of speech act type.
Stenius restricts himself to three sentence moods:
1. Declarative (indicative): You know Peter.
I claim
that you know Peter.
sentence radical
2. Imperative: Read that book!
I request that you read this book.
3. Question: Do you read this book?
I ask
whether you read this book.
Stenius argues that sentence radicals and full sentences including mood are markedly distinct.
Sentence radicals can be felicitously described in terms of truth functional semantics.
Sentences including mood can only be described in terms of conventional language games.
Examples of language games (as by Stenius) and their rules:
The report game: Produce a declarative sentence only if the sentence radical holds true.
The question game: Answer a yes-no question with yes only if the sentence radical holds true, with
no otherwise.
The command game: React to an imperative sentence by acting in such a way that the sentence
radical becomes true.
Evaluation: Evidently, this simplistic classification of language games needs refinement (compare the
list of Austin's examples, Wittgensteins claim for an unlimited number of games, with the limited
range of grammaticalized moods). Yet, the core insight was correct.

Many sentences (if not all) are essentially beyond a treatment in terms of truth and falsity.
They can only be understood as verbal moves in an interaction scheme.

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Constative speech acts (express something that can be true or false)

Performative speech acts (which are an act rather than a statement)
Not all performances perform: Performative speech acts can be inadequate or infelicitous.

I hereby declare you husband and wife

if the speaker is not authorized to do so
if the addressees do not agree
if the addressees are two animals
if the preceding parts of the ceremony were not exerted correctly

Austin, felicity conditions:


i. There must be a conventional procedure having a conventional effect.

ii. The circumstances and persons must be appropriate as specified in the procedure.
(Note that these procedures must be such that verbal action suffices to achieve some effect;
compare: *I hereby fry this egg)
The procedure must be executed completely and correctly.
Usually, 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 do so.
Exercise: I bet you a cream cake that Black Rider will win the race.
Try to specify the felicity conditions of bet and test whether violations will indeed lead to an
inadequate or infelicitous attempt to betting.

"thanking", Opus comic.


Austin notes that these violations are not all of equal stature. Violations of A and B conditions give
rise to misfires while violations of C are called abuses. The latter are usually harder to detect than
How can we tell whether a performative act has occured?

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Marking by performative verbs. Explicit performatives:

I promise to buy bread tonight.

I order you to open the window.

But: Performative verbs can be used in constative speech acts also.


Joe had promised to buy bread tonight.

I have ordered you to open the window.
I am declaring war to Zanzibar.

Performative verbs used in simple present tense sentences with first person singular subjects.
Moreover: Performative acts seem to come along in many forms. Not all are formally specified as
above (implicit performatives):

It's a bit sticky in here.

I'll buy bread tonight believe me!
Blackbeardyou ol' son of a bitchnow the last days have come for thee and thy fellows
The horse might bite you.
Out here!
With sugar, please

One way out: Searle's expressibility principle (1969): Any speech act can be paraphrased as an
explicit performative act "what can be said, can be said explicitely".
Exercise/Discussion: Certain "acts" pose a puzzle in this classification. Austin mentiones the
performative act of offending and notes that it seems to refute explicite performativeness:

#I hereby offend you.

# I hereby offend you by calling you an old booger.

Are effects like entertain, delight, annoy, offend, bore "speech acts" or other ways of doing things
with words?

Opus, insult telegram

The observation that what was said needs not always carry the intended speech act on its sleeves led
Austin to the following three-way distinction:
1. Locutionary act: The utterance of a sentence with determinare sense and reference.

VL Pragmatics Eckardt 16.12.2005

2. Illocutionary act: the making of a statement, offer, promise, etc. in uttering a sentence, by virtue
of the conventional force associated with it (or with its explicit performative paraphrase) Speech act
can be indicated by a performative verb, but it can also be implicit. Sometimes even explicit use of
performatives need not express the corresponding speech act.
3. Perlocutionary act: the bringing about of effects on the audience by means of uttering the
sentence, such efects being special to the circumstances of utterance.

Give me an apple.

Locutionary act: the utterance itself.

Illocutionary act: Request, command.
Perlocutionary act (presumably): H passes S an apple.
(10) I promise to beat you blue and green if you forget to buy bread tonight.
(11) Shoot her!1
(12*) You are an old idiot.


How many are there?

Wittgenstein: an unlimited number; Stenius: three; Austin: a large, perhaps unlimited number which
fall in 5 distinct classes.
Verdicitves: offer a certain state of facts as true (describe, declare not guilty)
Exercitives: convey a motive or inclination for a certain kind of behaviour (command, advise)
Kommissives: committ the speaker to a certain activity (promise, guarantee)
Expositives: offer a certain view or position in an argument (agree, negate, illustrate)
Behabitives: reactions to the behaviour of other persons (apologize, congratulate, swear)
Austins classificatory system, as well as later ones, suffer from a lack of systematic coverage of all
possible dimensions in which speech acts can vary. (Note: Zeno Vendler extended Austin's
classification by two further classes, Operatives, and Interrogatives) In prinicple, language
communities are able to conventionalize an infinity of social interactive patterns into speech acts. It is
as yet unclear whether there are limits to such conventionalizations.

Think of a new speech act that might be implemented in German or English.
Compare the English verb ask and its German counterparts. Does "ask" express one or two
different speech acts? What do you think about explicit performatives as diagnostics for the
number of speech acts?

see Levinson, p. 236, ex. (23)


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VL Pragmatics Eckardt 16.12.2005



Searle (1969): Speech Acts. An essay in the philosophy of language.

Systematization and extension of Austins original theory; still the standard view on speech acts.
Aims at an analysis of the illocutionary force of an utterance on the basis of utterance situation,
explicit performatives, and other illocutionary force indicating devices (IFIDS).
Searle: Felicity conditions are not merely dimensions in which utterances can go wrong, but they
jointly constitute the possible range of all illocutionary forces. An example:
speech act of promising:
In order to felicitously perform the speech act of promising, the following conditions have to be met:
propositional content:
1. The speaker said he would perform a future action
preparatory preconditions:
He intends to do it.
He believes he can do it.
He things he wouldn't do it anyway, in the normal course of action.
Sincerity conditions:
He things the addressee wants him to do it (rather than not to do it)
He intendends to place himself under an obligation so to it by uttering U.
necessary for all speech acts:
Both speaker and hearer comprehend U.
They are both conscious human beings.
They are both in normal circumstancesnot e.g. acting in a play.
essential condition:
10. The utterance U contains some IFID which is only properly uttered if all the appropriate
conditions obtain.
While 7. - 10. apply to all speech acts alike, conditions about propositional content, preparatory, and
sincerity conditions are specific to the speech act in question.

Opus: asking, apologizing.

VL Pragmatics Eckardt 16.12.2005

Searle's classification of speech acts:
representatives: which commit the speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition (paradigm
cases: asserting, concluding, etc.)
directives: which are attempts by the speaker to get the addressee to do something ( requesting,
commissives: which commit the speaker to some future course of action ( promising, threatening,
expressives: which express a psychological state (thanking, apologizing, welcoming,
declarations: which effect immediate changes in the institutional state of affairs and which tend to
rely on elaborate extra-linguistic insititutions (excommunicating, declaring war, christening, firing
from employment)
try to locate the speech acts of 'divorcing', 'answering', 'complaining', 'bet', announcing 'Hule' in
children's catch games, German 'kondolieren', 'declaring guilty'.

Donald: das Du anbieten.

The question whether there can be any systematic classification of speech act types is still open.
Could you think of criteria of classification?

<Issues for further study:

Are speech acts definable in terms of propositional content?
What is the correlation between explicit and implicit performatives?
Reflections on the anchoring of speech act in syntax.>

VL Pragmatics Eckardt 16.12.2005