You are on page 1of 4

Mangum, Douglas, and Wendy Widder. Speech-Act Theory. In Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Edited by John D. Barry. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

SPEECH-ACT THEORY A philosophical approach to language aimed at describing the possible
outcomes and potential communicative purpose of various types of language usage. This article
presents a brief introduction to speech-act theory and how it has influenced biblical
Definition and Terminology
An aspect of the philosophy of language, speech-act theory is primarily concerned with how
language is used to perform actions. That is, people speak to bring about various outcomes or
accomplish specific purposes. At the most basic level, a speech act is any action that can be
performed by someone saying they are completing the action. For example, saying, I quit to
ones supervisor may (but does not have to) bring an end to the employment relationship.
Speech-act theory provides a descriptive framework for explaining linguistic practice and has
been widely influential in many academic disciplines including linguistics, psychology, and
literary theory (see Green, Speech Acts, n.p.).
In speech-act theory, any meaningful expression using language is an utterance, regardless
of the medium of expression. An utterance may also be called a locution or locutionary act,
referring to the meaningful content of the expression. The terms illocutionary and
perlocutionary are also common in speech-act theory. Osborne explains these as the three
dimensions of communication: locutionary (what it says), illocutionary (what it does), and
perlocutionary (what it effects) (Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, 23). The illocutionary aspect is
what the utterance accomplishes, and the perlocutionary aspect is what effect the speaker
intended the act to have (Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, 502).
John Austins groundbreaking book How to Do Things with Words provided ways for linguists to
think about words as actions, or performatives, by categorizing utterances as locutions,
illocutions, and perlocutions. Locutions, the normal sense of saying something, constitute the
dictum, the actual words spoken (Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 94). Illocutions, the
performance of an act in saying something as opposed to performance of an act of saying
something, are what takes place in the utterance (Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 99
100); for example, in American culture the question Do you need some help? is an offer to
help, not merely an attempt to ascertain information. Illocutions also include speech events
whereby the speech itself is the act: thus, saying I do in a wedding ceremony is the means by
which two people are married, just as saying I christen this ship the Mona Lisa effectively
names the ship. Austins final category, perlocutions, refers to how saying something
produce[s] certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience,
or of the speaker, or of other persons (Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 101). Perlocutions
include such statements as By saying I would shoot him I alarmed him (Austin, How to Do
Things with Words, 122). The action of alarming him qualifies this statement as a perlocution;
the act of speaking produced an effect on another person.
Illocutions and perlocutions require that the speaker has the capacity or authority to perform
what the utterance claims to perform. These necessary conditions are rules which users of the
language assume to be in force in their verbal dealings with each other; they perform part of the


Speech-Act Theory

Page 1

knowledge which speakers of a language share and on which they rely in order to use the
language correctly and effectively (Pratt, Toward a Speech Theory, 81). If these conditions are
not met, the utterance is an infelicity.
While Austin created something of a framework for the study of communicative actions,
scholars have interpreted his theory in divergent ways, due in part to his unusual style of
essentially proposing a series of distinctions and then abandoning and/or replacing them by
others (Briggs, Words in Action, 38). His student John Searle is usually granted, more or less,
with the right of interpretation, and he made significant contributions to the theory by finetuning Austins speech act categories and reclassifying the types of illocutionary acts (see Searle,
Speech Acts; Expression and Meaning). With regard to speech act categories, Searle drops
locution, arguing that it and the illocution are inseparably joined together; he proposes four
categories (Searle, Speech Acts, 2225):

utterances (the phonetic and phatic);

propositions (referring, predicating);
illocutions (stating, questioning, etc.);
perlocutions (persuading, convincing, etc.).

Searles classification of speech acts identifies five categories based on the speakers intended
purpose or expected effect (Searle, Expression and Meaning, 1229):

assertive (e.g., state, claim, hypothesize, describe, insist);

directive (e.g., request, command, plead, invite, dare);
commissive (e.g., promise, threaten, vow);
expressive (e.g., congratulate, thank, deplore, condole);
declaration (e.g., bless, fire, bid, sentence).

Speech-act theory depends more on the conventions that govern communication than on the
actual words used in an utterance. The words used may not indicate the sort of speech act that an
utterance indicates. For example, if a student says, I declare that class is canceled, his or her
use of declare creates an infelicity since the student has no authority to cancel class. However, a
speech act can be present apart from a specific word indicating it. For example, Yahwehs
statement to Joshua, Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you (Josh 1:5 ESV), is clearly
a promise even though the verb promise is not present. The power of speech-act theory goes
beyond the words themselves and requires a close reading of the context, including the
intentions, attitudes, and expectations of the participants, the relationships existing between
participants, conventions that are unspoken rules and conventions that are understood to be in
play when an utterance is made or received (Pratt, Toward a Speech Theory, 86).
Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation
Emerging as it did in the second half of the 20th century, alongside post-structuralist and
deconstructionist theories that called into question the use of an authors intent as a constraint
on meaning, speech-act theory came to be used to demonstrate the continuing validity of
searching for some clue to meaning in what the author intended to communicate (see, especially,
Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation). The trajectory of contemporary literary criticism away from
author-centered interpretation raised a red flag for those who questioned how the validity of one
interpretation over another could be determined without the authority of the authors intent to
settle the matter (see Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning, 4390; Longman, Literary Approaches,


Speech-Act Theory

Page 2

11823). The use of speech-act theory for biblical exegesis is, in large part, based on the theorys
ability to ground the meaning of Scripture back in the intended message the author (human or
divine) may have wanted to communicate (Brown, Scripture as Communication, 35; compare
Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning, 4390; Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, 50021).
Speech-act theory claims that performative utterances have meaning or power to cause
effects only within the constraints of cultural context and conventions. The person making the
utterance must have the appropriate power for the utterance to be effective. Austin favored
institutional examples with clear conventions like performing a wedding or christening a ship,
but in practice, most speech acts operate outside of institutionalized settings, and thus invite
consideration of just how it is (and by whom) that words are taken in a certain way (Briggs,
Speech-Act Theory, 764). This point is significant for the application of speech-act theory in
biblical interpretation because the interpreter must still make judgments about the conventions
and constraints that govern the act of communication. The conventions shared by the author and
their contemporary audience may be different than the conventions a modern interpreter uses to
analyze the message. Biblical interpreters and theologians may use speech-act theory to focus on
various aspects of the Bible as communication, either analyzing an utterance and its effects
within the world of the text or studying the communicative relationship between author and a
contemporary reader (Briggs, Speech-Act Theory, 764).
Perhaps due to speech-act theorys dense philosophical underpinnings, the potential of the
theory for biblical exegesis has been more acknowledged than actually applied (Briggs, Uses of
Speech-Act Theory, 23031, 23738). However, speech-act theory has been fruitfully applied
to biblical hermeneutics by Kevin Vanhoozer (Is There a Meaning; First Theology) and Anthony
Thiselton (New Horizons; Communicative Action). The theory also informs Grant Osbornes
hermeneutical approach, though he grounds his field approach on a wide-ranging synthesis of
concepts from philosophical hermeneutics, sociology of knowledge, philosophy of language, and
linguistics that includes speech-act theory (Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, 50021). The value
of communication-oriented approaches for biblical hermeneutics is now widely recognized, and
aspects of speech-act theory are often folded into broad, eclectic models such as those of
Vanhoozer, Thiselton, Osborne, and others, rather than adopted wholesale (Brown, Scripture as
Communication, 4647).
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Briggs, Richard S. Speech-Act Theory. Pages 76366 in Dictionary for Theological
Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.
. The Uses of Speech-Act Theory in Biblical Interpretation. Currents in Research:
Biblical Studies 9 (2001): 22976.
. Words in Action: Speech Act Theory and Biblical InterpretationToward a
Hermeneutic of Self-involvement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001.
Brown, Jeannine K. Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand
Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Green, Mitchell. Speech Acts. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward
N. Zalta. Winter 2014 Edition. Accessed Apr 13, 2015.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.
Longman, Tremper III. Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation. Pages 91192 in
Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Speech-Act Theory

Page 3

Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical

Interpretation. Rev. and exp. ed. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2006.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Toward a Speech Theory of Literary Discourse. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana
University Press, 1977.
Searle, John R. Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1979.
. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1969.
Thiselton, Anthony C. Communicative Action and Promise in Interdisciplinary, Biblical, and
Theological Hermeneutics. Pages 133239 in The Promise of Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1999.
. New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics. Downers Grove, Ill.:
InterVarsity, 2002.
. Is There a Meaning in This Text? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.


Speech-Act Theory

Page 4