16 April, 2009

Speech Acts and Events

Speech Acts
In linguistic communication, people do not merely exchange information. They actually do something through talking or writing in various circumstances. Actions performed via speaking are called speech acts.
" In English, specific labels are commonly given, such as apology, complaint, compliment, invitation, promise, or request." (Yule, 1996:47). These descriptive terms for different kinds of speech acts are directly related to the speaker's intention in producing an utterance, since he/she normally expects that the hearer will recognize his/her communicative intention. Concerning this, both speaker and hearer are usually helped in this process by the context/circumstances (speech events), which surround the utterance. Changing the context, the same utterance can be interpreted as two or more kinds of speech acts.

Types of speech acts

  1. Locutionary speech act – the action of making the sentence
  2. Illocutionary speech act – the intentions
  3. Perlocutionary speech act – the effects

Of these types, the most important is the illocutionary act because in communication people respond to an illocutionary act of an utterance, because it is the meaning intended by the speaker. “The basic act of utterance, or producing a meaningful linguistic expression.” (Yule, 1996:48); The Ilocutionary act, related to the fact that people produce “well-formed” utterances with a purpose or a function in mind. " It is performed through the communicative force of an utterance" (Yule, 1996:48). To make a statement, to ask, to make an offer, a promise, etc. are related to the illocutionary force of the utterance.
For example, if a teacher says, “I have run out of chalk” in the process of lecturing, the act of saying is locutionary, the act of demanding for chalk is illocutionary, and the effect the utterance brings about – one of the students will go and get some chalk – is perlocutionary.

Yule (1996) states that besides a purpose, people usually create an utterance with a function intending to have an effect. On the other hand, if the same utterance can have different illocutionary forces (promise versus warning), how can speakers assume that the hearer will recognize the intended illocutionary force? In order to answer this, one must consider the Ilocutionary Force Indicating Device (IFID), related to the slot for a verb (performative verb) that explicitly names the illocutionary act being formed, and the Felicity Conditions, related to certain circumstances for the performance of a speech act to be recognized as intended.
Among ordinary people contexts, there are pre-conditions on speech acts, such as

  • General conditions on the participants: that they can understand the language being used and they are not play-acting;
  • Content conditions, for both promise and warning, the content of the utterance must be about a future event;
  • Preparatory conditions for a promise are different from those for a warning. When I promise to do something, there are two preparatory conditions:
  1. the event will not happen by itself, and
  2. it will have a beneficial effect. When I utter a warning, it is not clear that the hearer knows the event will occur, the speaker does think the event will occur and it won’t have a beneficial effect;
  • The sincerity condition for a promise: the speaker intends to carry out the future action and for a warning the speaker believes the future event will not have a beneficial effect;
  • The essential condition: by uttering a promise I intend to create an obligation to carry out the action as promised (obligation). With a warning, under the essential condition, the utterance changes my state from non-informing of a bad future event to informing.

The performative hypothesis - The characteristic of each sentence to have a clause, as well as a performative verb, which make clear the illocutionary force. " The advantage of this type of analysis is that it makes clear just what elements are involved in the production and interpretation of utterances''. (Yule, 1996:52) However, there are some sentences in which the explicit performative use can be seen in a strange way, being the implicit performative use more suitable.

In terms of the speech act classification, Yule presents:

  • Declarations, those speech acts which you give a message and this is considered as a truth; for this reason, it changes the world through words;
  • Representatives, those speech acts which bring assertions, conclusions, descriptions based on what the speaker believes;
  • Expressives, those which convey speaker feelings (pain, likes, pleasure, dislikes, joy or sorrow);
  • Directives, those speech acts used to command, order, request, suggest in a positive or negative way; and
  • Commissives, speech acts which convey commitment in future actions. They express what the speaker intends (Promises, threats, refusals, pledges).

In English, illocutionary acts are also given specific labels, such as request, warning, promise, invitation, compliment, complaint, apology, offer, refusal, etc. these specific labels name various speech functions. As functions may not correspond to forms, speech acts can be direct and indirect.
There are two ways of communication (performing acts)

  1. Direct speech act: e.g. Close the door.
  2. Indirect speech act:e.g. It’s cold in here.

Why do people often speak indirectly in social communication?
Different social variables: age, sex, social condition
Politeness: communicative strategy
Indirect speech acts are related to appropriateness. Indirect speech acts are made for politeness, not vice versa. To make appropriate choices does not necessarily mean indirect speech acts.

Moreover, the speech act is ‘direct’, when there is a relationship between the structure and the function. On the other hand, an ‘indirect’ speech act brings an indirect relationship between structure and function (a relevant aspect to be mentioned is that ‘ indirect speech’ in English portrays a polite way of speech).
In a clear way, it seems that a speech event refers to the meticulous way to invade the other’s environment through language. For example, an indirect request presupposes some conditions to be stated. " There is a definite difference between asking someone to do X and asking someone if the preconditions for doing X are in place". (Yule, 199:56) So, a request is considered as an imposition by the speaker on the hearer, therefore it is better for the speaker to avoid a direct imposition through a direct request. For this purpose, to make use of a speech event is a significant way of interaction without being aggressive/direct to the hearer. As we could observe, an indirect speech act is associated with politeness within English environment.
YULE, G.(1996). Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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