After reading the below stuff, you should be able to


- outline briefly what communicative linguistics is involved with in its study of language;

- explain the approach of the theory to the basic unit of language as activity;

- define the main constituents of the speech acts;

- comprehend how language is viewed from the perspective of pragmatics and the theory of speech acts;

- explain how speech acts are performed, classify them into groups and interpret their major dimensions.

III. Key words:structuralism, perlocution, macrolinguistic model, locution, complete, performative, meaningful, type, functional, direct, intentional,

indirect, illocutionary, pragmatics, sentence, utterance.

IV. Horizons of the Speech Acts Theory and Pragmatics

In the previous lecture we touched upon symbolic and non-symbolic acts. And we emphasized that when learning to talk a child communicates not with words or any other structural units but with acts to control his or her environment, and we defined the acts as symbolic

What are the acts? How are they different from the units of structural linguistics? The latter are constituent elements of language viewed as a structure, which functions irrespective of the environment. Communicative linguistics deals with actual human interactions conditioned by a great variety of factors which taken together constitute the model of communication. That is communicative linguistics describes communication as it really manifests itself in human society.

Communicative linguistics deals with what people mean by the language they use, how they actualize its meaning potential as a communicative resource.

In other words, while structural linguistics analyzes and models the system of constituent units of language and their functions inside the mechanism of language, communicative linguistics deals with actual human interactions conditioned by communicative intentions, psychology, cultural values and relations of speakers, i.e., it describes the role of communication in the human community.

The Theory of Speech Acts

It is evident that studying language as behaviour (activity) communicative linguistics cannot operate on the structural units, like phonemes, morphemes, words, and sentences as they break down the process of communication: none of these units can function separately and fulfill the communicative function. Besides, even the largest structural units, like utterances, are of little help for the theory of speech activity because their definition and singling out is based on formal criteria which disregards intentions, motives and contexts. Consider the following example of interaction:

A: What’s your problem?

B: I am fine!

This dialogue presents a clear-cut sample of speech episode as a unit of language structure. But it tells us very little about the speakers’ intentions and it allows of several interpretations unless we examine the whole macrolinguistic model of this episode: motives, channels, characteristic features of the speakers.

For the analysis of actual communication centered around the human speaker we need to model a different unit. It should be a complete, meaningful, functional, intentional, socially purposeful unit of motivated speech. This unit has acquired the name of speech act and its further exploration has led to the formation of the theory of speech acts (the speech act theory).

The theory of speech acts as a special discipline was devised initially by the philosophers of language J. Austin and J. Searle in the 50s and 60s of this century. Then, it attracted the efforts of philosophers and logicians who have also contributed much to the interpretation of communication as a purposeful (otherwise called illocutionary) act. This theory as well as the theory of speech activity on the whole, was developed in opposition to structuralism, and as an expansion and prolongation of the ideas of W.von Humboldt who defined language as activity many decades ago, and it certainly laid the foundation of future pragmalinguistics.

It was the hope of the early speech act philosophers that to study speech acts would be to study linguistic communication. J. Austin and J. Searle wanted to get away from the study of structural units, like sentences and words and instead concentrate on action-based units and their performance: ‘‘The reason for concentrating on the study of speech acts is simply this, - said J. Searle – all linguistic communication involves linguistic acts. The unit of linguistic communication is not, as has generally been supposed, the symbol, word or sentence, but rather the production or issuance of the symbol or word or sentence in the performance of the speech act’’ ( J. Searle, 1969 ).

On the basis of this functional orientation, the philosophers of language developed the theory of how acts are performed in utterances. According to their illocutions (aims, purposes) the speech acts were classified into types and therefore we single out: requests, orders, suggestions, abuses, statements, performatives, proposals, commitments (promises), etc. Naturally, scholars hold different views on the number, essence and classification of illocutions, and the lists of speech acts may vary with authors (we observed the variability of communicative models before). But on the whole, the lists of speech acts coincide with the lists of activity goals which people pursue and express linguistically.

Now it is important to note how the notion of speech act in this theory actually differs from the notion of sentence in structuralism. In early works of the philosophers of language the speech act was defined as structurally identical with the sentence, and on this formal principle speech acts were extracted from texts (discourse). Later on this limitation was reconsidered, but not completely, and in many instances these two phenomena (speech act and sentence) coincide in form. Let us observe the following simple example:

- This is my home.

When pronounced outside the context this chunk of speech may be regarded as a sentence. It has no addressee, no purpose, no illocution. But in real communication it should be motivated and purposeful, otherwise it would be not uttered at all. And it happens so that one sentence may represent several speech acts:

- This is my home. (Do come in!) – sounds as an invitation.

- This is my home. (Do not come in!) – sounds as a prohibition.

- This is my home. (Look around) – sounds as a statement, etc.

Different speech acts here lead to different effects on the addressees (these effects are otherwise called ‘‘perlocutions’’). On the other hand, one illocutionary act may be verbalized in the form of different sentences (these forms are otherwise called ‘‘locutions’’), like in the following example featuring the act of invitation:

- This is my home!

- Come in, please!

- Welcome!

- Make yourself at home!

The choice of each variant in communication will depend on the relations of people, time, place and other settings of speech. Besides, illocutions may be expressed directly (like in Welcome! Come in, please!) or indirectly (like in This is my home!). And, therefore, we differentiate direct speech acts in which the form coincides with the purpose expressed (or in academic terms: locution coincides with illocution), and indirect speech acts in which the form is not indicative of illocutionary force but can be nevertheless decoded by the listener in the context of speech (compare, for example, how we understand rhetorical questions).

Hence, to understand the illocution (aim) of a speech act we need to know all the components and participants of the communicative process because the effect and successfulness of our speech depends on them. This idea unites the theory of speech acts with other branches of communicative linguistics. At the same time, the theory of speech acts in particular explains the forms of structuring of different acts, their regular grammatical models and types, the way indirect acts are created in the language (like, for example, a formal statement: I like it in a context turns into a threat or abuse or suggestion). Therefore it is evident that the theory of speech acts is closely related to grammar and text linguistics.

But let me show you that this theory is not free of limitations. Although a conception of language as part of a theory of action initially sounded promising, later it lead people to disappointments. In spite of its functional orientation philosophy of language has shown no interest in the way members of society actually behave in different types of social encounters, how they manipulate language to achieve their goals, and what rules govern this manipulation. It disregarded sociology and psychology of speech behavior of individuals and was criticized for it. But nevertheless, its appearance in linguistics is an outstanding event, an attempt to classify speech behavior, i.e., to model live speech.

Now, our next objective is to show how communicative linguistics overcame some of the limitations of the Speech Act Theory by expanding its object (speech acts) to include pragmatic strategies of speakers. This new branch has acquired the name of pragmatics or pragmalinguistics.


To begin with, let us ask ourselves the following question: How should speakers behave in order to make their speech effective?

It is commonly known that to achieve their goals people resort to different strategies in their behaviour. Do analogous strategies exist in speech? The answer is, certainly, yes. The attempt to study, describe and interpret these strategies directed at successful and competent speech behaviour has brought about new branch in the communicative linguistics, namely, pragmalinguistics.

The term originates from Greek ‘pragma’, meaning ‘deed’. First it was used in science to name a branch of semiotics – pragmatics that deals with the relation between signs and their users. As a linguistic discipline pragmalinguistics (otherwise called linguistic pragmatics) is comparatively young. It sprang up in the 70s of the last century when the interest of linguists to the social aspects of language was especially strong. Its recognition is due to the fact that the importance of contextual factors in recognizing speech act functions became widely agreed upon and a level was needed to account for such considerations. Thus, for example, G. Leech, who is a celebrity of American linguistics, and who once strongly opposed ‘contextualism’ and considered pragmatics as the ‘ragbag of linguistics’, had to admit that we cannot really understand the nature of language itself unless we understand pragmatics: how language is used for communication. His later publications, like ‘Principles of Pragmatics’ made a valid contribution in the development of the theory.

The new science also borrowed some older ideas of the philosophers of language, especially the ideas of L. Wittgenstein, the famous German philosopher. L. Wittgenstein considered that language as any other social activity is rule-governed; these rules lie outside the language itself in the extralinguistic reality, and they determine the choice of certain ‘linguistic games’, i.e. speech strategies: special forms of behavior necessary for communication to be successful. These rules of linguistic behaviour are fixed in the habits, norms and traditions of speakers, and their knowledge is a sign of an individual’s proper socialization.

The idea of speech strategies was further developed by N. Chomsky who introduced the notion of ‘communicative competence’ meaning speakers’ command of the interactionally proper and useful rules of speech behaviour (N. Chomsky, 1965). Let us illustrate the nature of these rules.

The question we have to answer now is: What should speakers know to ensure successful communication? Is it only the knowledge of language structures, like words, phonetics, grammar? Anyone would answer that a competent speaker should know a lot more.

D. Hymes considers that communicative competence involves not only the knowledge of language structure, but a lot of social and cultural information which enables speakers to understand the communicative value of linguistic forms (D. Hymes, 1972). Any speakers of a foreign language will find it easy to recall the situations when they were not sure how to express their anger or gratitude in a proper way, how to react to an invitation, or compliment, or offer, etc. These doubts always result from a low communicative competence, lack of knowledge of how conventional norms of behavior should be represented in linguistic forms.

One may ask if there are any general rules governing pragmatically adequate speech behavior. H.P. Grice, the American linguist and philosopher has answered this question positively. H.P. Grice investigated this issue and in the 70s he worked out and published the system of such basic rules, conversational postulates effective in any language community. These postulates (also known as Gricean Maxims) originate from his general Principle of Cooperation which reads that the speaker’s communicative contribution at every stage of encounter (dialogue) should be adequate to the common goal of this encounter. In other words, every speaker’s utterance in its quality, quantity, manner and mode should lead to success in communication (H.P. Grice, 1968).

Grice’s rules of cooperation list numerous communicative conditions under which speech is most efficient. Among these pragmatic, (i.e. useful) rules there are, for example, the following:

(1) Communication is more successful when the interlocutors have some common background knowledge.

(2) Communication is more successful when the interlocutors are mutually interested in the topic and results of interaction.

(3) The more the interlocutors know about each other the more successful is communication (H.P. Grice, 1968).

Therefore, pragmatics focuses on the intentions of speakers, on the conditions of communication and communicative strategies which lead to an effective organization of social activities. Language is modelled by pragmalinguistics in the form of activity organizing rules, also known as pragmatic norms. These norms are transmitted from generation to generation in every society alongside with other social institutions. Some of the pragmatic norms are systematized, like the norms of etiquette or the rules of politeness. Politeness makes up one of the closely studied fields of pragmalinguistics. G. Leech devoted his study of pragmatic rules to a discussion of the interpersonal rhetoric, principles of politeness and irony, to the principles of processibility, clarity, economy and expressivity. Other norms, though not recorded, are known to every educated speaker as rules of behaviour, like: speech should be brief, intelligeable, appropriate, etc. This interest in speech strategies modeling the process of adequate interaction within the society makes pragmalinguistics a very practical study.

Summing up what has been said above we may say that the authors working in the field of pragmatics claim that language provides a means whereby certain actions may be performed. Any human utterance, the speech-act theory claims, is not first of all a species of language, but is rather a species of action. Language, in this view, provides a means whereby certain actions may be performed. The main thesis is that communicants use language to form an utterance; in so doing, they also perform related actions and make possible the performance of certain actions in the response by the listeners or readers.

Focusing on language and other sign systems, structuralist and semiotic models regard language as a self-contained system whose manifestations are to be understood primarily through structural analysis. The discussed theory views it differently. In the view of its authors and followers language is not a semiotic system which absorbs and contains history, but one which emerges from history.

The speech-acts theory and pragmatics offer a new approach to the understanding of language by actually claiming that action is a larger and more basic category than language. Language is not prior to or more primary than action, but it is a product of human action and also a means whereby we perform certain kinds of action. Language is never autonomous and context-free. It is a means, an instrument, an enabling device for some of the actions of human beings. If everything that human beings do or can do is an instance of action, then both the development and use of language are actions, and even the working and reading of texts are actions. The speech-act theory and its followers, thus, try to show how language and texts function in the context of all human actions.

Below are extracts from books dealing with the issues discussed. See how the authors’ arguments correlate with what was said in the lecture.

V. Further Reading

From: J. Searle. What is a speech act // Language and social context. Ed. P.P. Giglioli. England: Penguin Books, 1980, p. 136-137.

In a typical speech situation involving a speaker, a hearer, and an utterance by the speaker, there are many kinds of acts associated with the speaker’s utterance. The speaker will characteristically have moved his jaw and tongue and made noises. In addition, he will characteristically have performed some acts within the class which includes informing or irritating or boring his hearers; he will further characteristically have performed acts within the class which includes referring to Kennedy or Khrushev or the North Pole; and he will also have performed acts within the class which includes asking questions, issuing commands, giving reports, greeting and warning. The members of this last class are what Austin called illocutionary acts and it is with this class that I shall be concerned in this paper, so the paper might have been called ‘What is an Illocutionary Act?’ I do not attempt to define the expression ‘illocutionary act’, although if my analysis of a particular illocutionary act succeeds it may provide the basis for a definition. Some of the English verbs and verb phrases associated with illocutionary acts are: state, assert, describe, warn, remark, comment, command, order, request, criticize, apologize, censure, approve, welcome, promise, express approval and express regret. Austin claimed that there were over a thousand such expressions.

By way of introduction, perhaps I can say why I think it is of interest and importance in the philosophy of language to study speech acts, or as they are sometimes called, language acts or linguistic acts. I think it is essential to any specimen of linguistic communication that it involve a linguistic act. It is not, as has generally been supposed, the symbol or word or sentence, or even the token of the symbol or word or sentence, which is the unit of linguistic communication, but rather it is the production of the token in the performance of the speech act that constitutes the basic unit of linguistic communication. To put this point more precisely, the production of the sentence token under certain conditions is the illocutionary act, and the illocutionary act is the minimal unit of linguistic communication.

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