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Speech act

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A speech act is best described as "in saying something, we do something," such as when a minister says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," or an action performed by means of language, such as describing something ("It is snowing."), asking a question ("Is it snowing?"), making a request or giving an order ("Could you pass the salt?", "Drop your weapon or I'll shoot you!"), or making a promise ("I promise I'll give it back."). Other common examples of speech acts include greeting, apologizing or insulting.


For much of the history of linguistics and the philosophy of language, language was viewed primarily as a way of making factual assertions, and the other uses of language tended to be ignored. However, the acclaimed work of J. L. Austin led philosophers to pay more attention to the way in which language is used in everyday activities. His student John Searle further developed this approach. Yet, the first systematic and comprehensive work on speech acts had already been done long before by the phenomenologist Adolf Reinach in 1913.

Austin distinguishes between illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts. An interesting type of illocutionary speech act is that of performatives, which are expressions such as "I nominate John to be President.", "I sentence you to ten years imprisonment." or "I promise to pay you back.". In these expressions, the action that the sentence describes (nominating, sentencing, promising) is performed by the sentence itself; the speech is the act it effects (unlike in so-called constantives that only carry a piece of information). In contrast, perlocutionary speech acts cause actions that are not the same as the speech.

The study of speech acts forms part of the discipline of pragmatics, which forms part of linguistics.

In philosophy, especially in ethics and philosophy of law, speech act theory is related to the study of norms.


Speech Act Theory has also been very influential in computer science over the last two decades, particularly in the design of artificial languages for communication between software entities ("agents" or "softbots"). Speech act theory was used, for example, to give a semantics to the agent language called Agent Communication Language (ACL) developed by the standards body, the Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (FIPA) [1]. This semantics built on the work of Phil Cohen, Hector Levesque and David Sadek, among others. The FIPA ACL speech act semantics, expressed semi-formally using epistemic modal logic, defines utterances in ACL in terms of the certain beliefs, uncertain beliefs, desires and intentions of the speaker. In principle, therefore, it enables agents using FIPA ACL to be sure that other agents will understand the meaning of utterances in the same way as the speaker. However, the FIPA ACL language syntax and semantics, although now widely used in agent systems, have been heavily criticized on theoretical and practical grounds.

Indirect Speech ActsEdit

Speech acts are commonly accepted as being useful methods of accomplishing certain tasks. When one wants to commit to something he uses speech likewise, when one wants to commemorate an event he uses speech. Among other things, speech acts are also used to ask others to accomplish certain tasks and to respond to proposals. Indirect speech acts are commonly used to reject proposals and to make requests. For example a speaker asks, “Would you like to meet me for coffee?” and another replies, “I have class.” The second speaker used an indirect speech act to reject the proposal. This is indirect because the literal meaning of “I have class” does not entail any sort of rejection. This poses a problem for linguists because it is confusing to see how the person who made the proposal is able to understand that his proposal was rejected. Searle suggests that we are able to derive meaning out of indirect speech acts by means of a cooperative process out of which we are able to derive multiple illocutions; however, the process he proposes does not seem to accurately solve the problem.

The concept of an illocutionary act is central to Searle’s understanding of speech acts. An illocutionary act is the expression of a proposition with the purpose of doing something else. This is a bit more complex than a simple locutionary act (such as “It is raining”) because an illocutionary force is attached to the utterance that indicates how the expression should be taken. Examples of illocutionary acts are: “I will return this book to you next week” and “Please hand me that pencil.” In the first example the illocutionary act has the force of a promise to return a book. The second example is an illocutionary act with a force of the form I request that in which the speaker is soliciting a reaction.

In most instances of language, the speaker’s meaning and the literal meaning of an utterance are identical. For example if a speaker says: “I will return this book to you next week” or “When will you need this book returned?” the speaker’s intention and the literal meaning are the same. In either example, a third person that happens to overhear this portion of a conversation and has no prior experience in the conversation would be able to understand the correct meaning of the utterances. However, there are some cases in which the speaker’s meaning of an utterance is different from the literal meaning of an utterance. Consider this situation: Speaker (S) asks hearer (H), “Would you mind turning down the volume on your radio?” and H responds by lowering the volume. Both S and H spoke and behaved in a way that we would expect, S performed the perlocutionary act of getting H to turn down the volume. However, this case is problematic for linguists because the speakers meaning differs from the literal meaning. The literal meaning of the question is that S is soliciting a verbal response of yes or no from H (and perhaps followed by an explanation). However, S intended H to understand the question as a command to turn down the volume and H understood the question as S intended it. This exchange, while not uncommon, is troubling because one questions how it is possible for a speaker to say something and mean something different from the meaning of the utterance and for the hearer to understand both meanings. Utterances of this nature are troubling for linguists and the problems caused by such statements are the concern of Searle in his article Indirect Speech Acts . Further examples of indirect speech acts include: “Can you hand me that pencil?” “I hope you will arrive on time.” “Would you remove your hat?” “Do you want me to drop that off for you?” “It might help if you turn on the lights.” “I might ask you to observe silence in the library.” Although many indirect speech acts are softened or polite commands, indirect speech acts can also include apologies, assertions, congratulations, promises, and thanks.

Searle proposes a set of structural rules that generalize the steps that take place during indirect speech acts. His proposition is, "In indirect speech acts the speaker communicates to the hearer more than he actually says by way of relying on their mutually shared background information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, together with the general powers of rationality and inference on the part of the hearer." Searle’s solution will require an analysis of mutually shared background information about the conversation that will be pieced together with a theory of speech acts and linguistic convention.

Searle begins by making a distinction between primary and secondary illocutionary acts. A primary illocutionary act is not literal rather it is what the speaker means to communicate. The secondary illocutionary act is the literal meaning of the utterance (Searle 178). In the example: (1) Speaker X: We should leave for the show or else we’ll be late. (2) Speaker Y: I am not ready yet. The primary illocutionary act is Y’s rejection of X’s suggestion and the secondary illocutionary act is Y’s statement that she is not ready to leave. By dividing the illocutionary act into two sub-parts, Searle is able to explain how we can understand two meanings from the same utterance while at the same time knowing which is the correct meaning to respond to.

Searle attempts to explain how we are to separate the primary illocution from the secondary illocution by means of a set of steps that the speaker and hearer must subconsciously complete. For the previous example a condensed process would look like this:

   Step 1: A proposal is made by X and Y responded by means of an illocutionary act (2).
   Step 2: X assumes that Y is cooperating in the conversation, being sincere, and that she has made a statement that is relevant.
   Step 3: The literal meaning of (2) is not relevant to the conversation.
   Step 4: Since X assumes that Y is cooperating; there must be another meaning to (2).
   Step 5: Based on mutually shared background information, X knows that they cannot leave until Y is ready. Therefore, Y has rejected X’s proposition.
   Step 6: X knows that Y has said something other than the literal meaning and the primary illocutionary act must have been the rejection of X’s proposal.

Searle argues that a similar process can be applied to any indirect speech act as a model to find the primary illocutionary act (178). His proof for this argument is made by means of a series of observations that he takes to be facts.

   Observation 1: Indirect speech acts should not be confused with imperatives.
   Observation 2: Indirect speech acts “are not ambiguous as between an imperative illocutionary force and a nonimperative illocutionary force” (180).
   Observation 3: Indirect speech acts are usually used as directives.
   Observation 4: Indirect speech acts are not idioms of a particular language since they can be translated without loosing their original meaning.
   Observation 5: Indirect speech acts are idiomatic because a paraphrase may not produce the same primary illocution.
   Observation 6: Indirect speech acts have a secondary illocution that have meaning when taken literally but do not have any sort of indirect meaning.
   Observation 7: When a request is made using an indirect speech act whose literal meaning is also a request, the speaker adds meaning so that he may respond appropriately.
   Observation 8: When a request is made using an indirect speech act whose literal meaning is also a request, the speaker responds to both the primary and secondary illocution by virtue of responding to the primary illocution (Searle 180-182).

The last two observations (7,8) seem to not be indirect speech acts because both illocutions are requests; however, while they are both requests they may still have different meaning. Consider the example of a telephone call: (3) Speaker P: Is Tom there? Possible appropriate responses include:

       (4) Speaker Q: No, he’s not here right now.
       (5) Speaker Q: Yes, I’ll hand him the phone.

Observation 7 notes that there are two possible ways in which the speaker can respond while fulfilling the requirements laid out in Searle’s process (cooperation, relevance, sincerity, ect.). The question in 3 can be taken either as a question about Tom’s location or as a request to speak with Tom. Observation 8 notes that in Q’s responding to 3 by handing Tom the phone he has answered the primary illocution (P’s request to speak with Tom) and at the same time the secondary illocution (the location of Tom).

Searle has shown that his series of steps form a framework by which we can understand requests; however, he has yet to show that this process will work to help us point to the meaning of other indirect speech acts. To use this process on other indirect speech acts he will have to prove that there are two illocutionary forces for each utterance, one that is the speakers intent (primary) and one that is the literal meaning of the utterance (secondary). He will also have to propose a system by which we can differentiate the illocutionary forces. Searle offers the following process for doing this:

   Step 1: Understand the facts of the conversation.
   Step 2: Assume cooperation and relevance on behalf of the participants.
   Step 3: Establish factual background information pertinent to the conversation.
   Step 4: Make assumptions about the conversation based on steps 1-3.
   Step 5: If steps 1-4 do not yield a consequential meaning, then infer that there are two illocutionary forces at work.
   Step 6: Assume the hearer has the ability to perform the act the speaker suggests. The act that the speaker is asking be performed must be something that would make sense for one to ask. For example, the hearer might have the ability to pass the salt when asked to do so by a speaker who is at the same table, but not have the ability to pass the salt to a speaker who is asking the hearer to pass the salt during a telephone conversation.
   Step 7: Make inferences from steps 1-6 regarding possible primary illocutions.
   Step 8: Use background information to establish the primary illocution (Searle 184).

With this process, Searle concludes that he has found a method that will satisfactorily produce two illocutionary forces that explain how we can act upon indirect speech fr:Acte de langage nl:Taalhandeling no:Talehandlingru:Речевой акт sv:Talakt

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