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Nehru E- Journal Review Article

A Journal of Nehru Arts and Science College (NASC) Vol 1 (2015) 24-27
Journal Home Page: (June –Dec 2015)
ISSN: 2349-9052

Language and Power: An Enquiry on Speech Acts in

President Obama’s Speech at West Point
Flergin Antony
Department of English
Nehru Arts and Science College, Coimbatore 641 105, India.

Received: August 2015 Accepted: November 2015 Available Online: December 2015

Introduction act where the speaker commits himself to do

The study on use of power “in language” seems to be something in future course of action. The most
very interesting today. But this has not been even a famous example is promising, and other commissives
matter of serious discussion until different discourse are vows, threats, pledges, contracts, and guarantees.
theories appeared for the first time. However the The fourth class is expressive where the speaker
discussion had been there over several decades but a expresses his feelings, beliefs, ideologies, attitudes
concrete apparatus and philosophy had never been etc. to the propositional content. Examples are
developed until John Searle developed his theories on apologies, thanks, and congratulations. Declarations
speech acts. This concept was a natural outcome of which come as the fifth category brings out changes in
serious researches in the field of speech acts. His the world through utterances, so the world changes to
major contributions lie on taxonomy, intentionality and match the propositional content but solely in virtue of
human psyche in speech acts. the successful performance of the utterance. The
famous declarations are; declaring war, pronouncing
Language studies focus not on the structure rather the somebody man and wife, and adjourning a meeting.
function in deeper level. Later in 20 century when The taxonomy makes a strong claim about the nature
modern linguistics developed with an overwhelming and possibilities of human languages. Though there
focus on structure of language undermined functional are different types of sentences, Wittgenstein says,
role of language. The power of language has often there are only five basic types speech acts in the line
negotiated between syntax and content. According to of illocutionary force.
Searle it is not the syntax, the impetus rather the
intentionality of the author or speaker is the source of Sketch of the speech
power (J. Searle, 1975). The intentionality as the The transcribed text is titled as Remarks by the
undercurrent force manifests itself in speech acts in president at the United states Military Academy
particular contexts. So without understanding the Commencement ceremony
intentionality and its intrinsic force we can not (, 2014). The speech
measure the power of language. started at 10.22 in the morning and ended at
The speech at West Point is considered one among
the diplomatic speeches by President Obama. As a
person in the world focus, the deliberations are of
special interest. The precise, luminal, sharp and The 46 minutes speech is divided into six sections for
glorified language is approached with an inquisitive the purpose of analysis on the basis of the themes in
mind to find out how power communicated in the the deliberation. The speech is beginning with words
speech through different speech acts. The transcribed of appreciation and thanks asserting and stating what
text of speech has been used for the analysis. has been already done and expressed in acts like;
Taxonomy of speech acts “Thank you(3) Thank you so much. General
According to Searle there are five basic primitive Caslen…. To General Trainor, you have been
forms of illocutionary act. These are assertive, outstanding stewards of this proud institution and
directive, commissive, expressive and declarative. In outstanding mentors for the newest officers …”.The
an assertive speech act, speaker respond himself in second section is about a few memories of past,
varying degrees to the truth of the expressed expectations of the future, present economy and
proposition. They appear in sentences like; military situation of the USA. A few statements of
statements, explanations, and assertions. In directive, assertions and promises dominate the section. The
the speaker attempts to get the hearer to do third section is more about the changing world and the
something. Orders, requests, and commands are role of American Military. The fourth, a quite long and
some sort of them. The third is commissive speech perhaps the most important section and thrust of the

*Corresponding Author Tel:91- 9488092857

E.Mail Addresss:
Flergin Antony, 2015/ E-J. Sci.Technol.1 (2015) 24-27

speech expresses the vision about USA by president II and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied
Obama. He speaks of five major areas of leadership Forces in Europe
that USA has to take in the contemporary world. This
section is dominated by commissive as well as Type 2 Statement
declarative acts of speech. The fifth section is a
conclusion in general and sixth is closing wishes and

Analysis of Speech Acts in Text

Speech acts may be analyzed on the basis of ■ The verbs like; remain, repeat, put forward are
classification done by John Searle in his detailed stating the situation, self interest and expectation. Any
studies on speech acts. They appear in direct as well kind of statement, explanation, sharing come under
as indirect sentence structure in the text. The direct this category
sentences convey literal meaning of the sentences Type 3 Assertion
whereas indirect sentences convey meaning beyond
the structure of the sentences. Hence there can have
different types of sentence structures with same
meaning or illocution depending on the position of the
power. Here felicity conditions play a major role to in ■ The adverbs like; “absolutely” and “always” and
identifying types of illocutions. Although all the repeated use of demonstrative pronouns “this”
sentences would come under speech acts certainly makes assertions on different matters.
consideration, only a few of them would consider in
this analysis. The structural analysis in the first part Directive speech acts
and functional implications in the second part would Directives are more action oriented. It has the power
reveal the amount of power that had been used in the of executing and directing others towards an action.
deliberation. The chart given below shows the number Both imperative forms of command and request
of occurrences of the different speech acts in five comes in this category. The major sentence varies
categories. Type one, two and three indicates like; orders, commands, request etc. This has been
subcategories. more influential in human inter relations than assertive
speech acts. Direct as well as indirect structures of
directives are used in the text.

Type 1 Request

■ the verbs like; join me, would ask, cooperation

needs, calling on to support even though not a direct
request, having a undercurrent of request. Being a
president, the supreme power, one can not be in a
position to deliver direct sort of requests in any
situation. The manipulation of sentence structures
itself reminds us the power involved structures. This is
what is called by Focult the power structures.
Assertive speech acts
Type 2 Command
All kinds of assertions, statements and definitions
come under assertive type of speech acts.

Type 1 Acknowledgement
■The verbs like; acknowledge, know, knowledge and
verbs of possession indicates the acknowledgement ■ The modal verbs like; must, have to, should etc are
of responsibility and the situation. The one who is used repeatedly with an effect of imperative. These
having the power of position is able to acknowledge verbs can be used only those who are in commanding
anything under his surveillance. Thus the more position.
acknowledgements mean the more execution of
power. In sentence level the first one seems to be Type 3 Order
more positive and polite whereas the second one is
more direct and less polite. The third one creates a
comparison between two generations and executes
more power than first two sentences because it goes ■ There are no imperative sentences of order in direct
beyond the textual level to discourse level. speech act but there are indirect sentences of orders
Eisenhower is the 34th President of the United as many as above category. The verbs like; asked to
States from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star develop, need to strengthen focuses on certain
general in the United States Army during World War actions to be completed. The directives are mainly

Nehru E – Journal – A Journal for Arts, Science and Humanitis
Flergin Antony, 2015/ E-J. Sci.Technol.1 (2015) 24-27

action oriented using different types of power ■ The lexical words; thank you, you have been
structures. outstanding, congratulate you all words of
appreciation in direct speech acts.
Commissive speech acts
The commitment of the nation and individual is Type 2 Apology
reassured in commissive speech acts. The major
types of commissive acts are; Promise, vows,
guarantees Threat, Warning etc. However these
structures seem to be imperative or statement, the
conceptual tones varies from promise to warning. It is
more lexical components determines the category and ■ The repeated words of haunted, verbs like worried
works on the hearer. indirectly apologizes the incidents happened in the
Type 1 Promise near past. The words like; „costly mistakes‟, „hard
earned lessons‟ „actions without thinking‟, „short
comings of our experience‟ are direct sort of apology
and open confession from the part of the speaker.
Here though the speaker seems to be weak in his
execution of power, ultimately emphasizes the
strength of the speaker since none other than except
■ The first and fourth sentences are assurances of himself apologize such sort of situation. It is not out of
promise. The second sentence though seems to be humiliation or guilt rather out of dominance and
weak is a kind of promise. The third, fifth and sixth are power. No conditions of genuine apology is
a kind of offer highlighting promise. Here promises are maintained.
given to the hearers and not seen anything taken from
the troops. The promise from the part of the hearers is Type 3 Greetings
duty and responsibility.

Type 2 Threat ■ The repeated sentence patterns are direct speech

acts of wishes and greetings and never expected the
greetings from the hearers. The authority of the
greetings and wishes is the speaker.

Declaration Speech Acts

■ the lexical words like; unnerves, worries, rising, Declaration speech acts comprise of all kinds of
danger, challenges etc give a negative impression of announcements, declarations, pronouncements etc.
the situation of threat. These are indirect structures of this is a solemn expression from the bottom of human
threats referring situations outside; Russia, China, freedom. This type of acts would create quick and
Brazil to India, Nuclear Material etc. radical effects in the society and in institutions. A
fundamental change is expected as the outcome of
Type 3 Warning this speech acts.

Type 1 Declaration

■ Compound verbs like; can‟t ignore, will use, cannot

hesitate, not afraid of etc reveal some sort of ■ Verbs with effects of action and solemn situation in
determination and boldness to act in a right time with first person makes declaration effective. I hereby
power. These are not situations of discussion or absolve is a direct speech and the second one is
mediation rather situations of military actions. indirect speech act with less effect of execution.

Expressive speech acts Type 2 Announcing

These types of acts consist of human expressions in
the form of thanks, congratulations, apology and all
sorts of feelings. This can be identified by analyzing
■ „I am announcing‟, „I will go‟ are genuine power
the lexical components in the sentences. The
execution of announcements. The authority himself
possibility of using indirect structures is frequent in
announces without using any secondary channels.
this category of speech acts.
Type 3 Pronouncement
Type 1 Appreciation

■ authorizing with direct speech acts using second

person sentences; you will, your charge etc

Nehru E – Journal – A Journal for Arts, Science and Humanitis
Flergin Antony, 2015/ E-J. Sci.Technol.1 (2015) 24-27

Searle, Wittgenstein later Grice and Fairclough the

theory has spread over different branches of linguistic
researches such as; sociolinguistics, pragmatics,
discourse analysis, critical discourse analysis,
cognitive linguistics etc. Form and function are two
pillars of language studies. To understand the power
involved in the speech, it is not enough we know the
structure alone rather we should sense the functional
meaning or illocutionary force of each speech
structure. President however has been criticized by
world media for dominating and interfering diplomacy
of other nations, the speech at West Point clearly
justifies that he is beyond all kinds of criticisms. The
speech acts that he has made use in the speech
expresses his intention of mind i.e. his or the nation‟s
From this graph it is very clear that president obama‟s concern over issues in other nations. The perfect
speech was not a collection of imperatives rather was sequence and selection of speech acts focuses on the
on the whole an elaborative assertion of the role of the responsibility of the nation rather than the supremacy
nation in the midst of various international issues in of the nation.
the world. His focus was neither to threaten the new
candidates nor instigate them to fight for no reason Reference
rather to convince them through a series of assertions 1.
and appreciations that nation‟s duty can not be text-of-president-obamas-commencement-
ignored. In this sense speech is a exhortation to address-at-west-point/2014/05/28/cfbcdcaa-
protect universal brotherhood reminding the hard e670-11e3-afc6-a1dd9407abcf_story.html
works and struggles that have been faced to protect 2. Fairclough, Norman. Language and power,
those values in the past. England: Longman,1989
3. Searle R.,John, A taxonomy of illocutionary
Intentionality and Power Structures acts, :344-369
The mind enables us both to get information about the 4. Searle R.,John, Speech Acts An Essay In The
world, and to coordinate intentional action in the Philosophy Of Language, Cambridge
world. Language is an immensely powerful extension university press, 1969.
of these very capacities. The representational
capacity of languages is an extension of the biological
representational capacity of the mind. Thus the
intentionality of the mind is basic and the intentionality
of language is derived from that.
From the analysis it is very clear that the president
has made use his language in order to convey his
intentionality. This is very well expressed through
different types of speech acts. Thus speech acts
becomes the power structures or discursive structure
by which the power is established and maintained
through language.

Findings and suggestions

1. The power can be used effectively through speech
acts than any other structures of language.
2. Assertive and expressive speech acts have great
role in execution of power.
3. The power of the speech is not in the structure but
in the illocution
4. The functional and pragmatic role of the language
have to be focused in researches
5. There is a sequence in the use of speech acts in
the deliverance.
6. The use of indirect structures more than direct
structures emphasizes the role of felicity conditions.
7. Speech acts in fiction and ordinary conversations
can be analyzed in future

Since 1969, the theory of speech acts has never been
ignored in any level of discourse and pragmatic
studies of language. If Austin initiated the studies with

Nehru E – Journal – A Journal for Arts, Science and Humanitis