Speech act theory (1930S-1960S)

Also ‘illocutionary act theory’.

Originally formulated by the British philosopher John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960), and developed by the American JOHN ROGERS SEARLE (1932- ), it is a branch of PRAGMATICS.

When saying something, one is simultaneously doing something. An ‘utterance act’ is performed in voicing words and sentences; a ‘propositional act’ is carried out by referring to entities and predicating states and actions.

The interpersonal act performed in speaking is an ‘illocutionary act’ (the central concept): ‘I promise to pay you $5.00’ counts as an act of promising if certain SINCERITY CONDITIONS or FELICITY CONDITIONS are fulfilled.

The intended effect on the addressee is a ‘perlocutionary act’.

Also see: negation, emotivism, prescriptivism, performative theory of truth, subjectivist theories of probability

J L Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford, 1962);
J R Searle, Speech Acts (Cambridge, 1969)


For much of the history of the positivist philosophy of language, language was viewed primarily as a way of making factual assertions, and the other uses of language tended to be ignored, as Austin states at the beginning of Lecture 1, “It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ‘statement’ can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to ‘state some fact’, which it must do either truly or falsely.”[4] Wittgenstein came up with the idea of “don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use,” showing language as a new vehicle for social activity.[5] Speech act theory hails from Wittgenstein’s philosophical theories. Wittgenstein believed meaning derives from pragmatic tradition, demonstrating the importance of how language is used to accomplish objectives within specific situations. By following rules to accomplish a goal, communication becomes a set of language games. Thus, utterances do more than reflect a meaning, they are words designed to get things done.[6] The work of J. L. Austin, particularly his How to Do Things with Words, led philosophers to pay more attention to the non-declarative uses of language. The terminology he introduced, especially the notions “locutionary act”, “illocutionary act”, and “perlocutionary act”, occupied an important role in what was then to become the “study of speech acts”. All of these three acts, but especially the “illocutionary act”, are nowadays commonly classified as “speech acts”.

Austin was by no means the first one to deal with what one could call “speech acts” in a wider sense. The term ‘social act’ and some of the theory of this sui generis type of linguistic action are to be found in the fifth of Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788, chapter VI, Of the Nature of a Contract).[7]

Adolf Reinach (1883–1917)[8] and Stanislav Škrabec (1844–1918)[9] have been both independently credited with a fairly comprehensive account of social acts as performative utterances dating to 1913, long before Austin and Searle.

The term “Speech Act” had also been already used by Karl Bühler.[10][11]

The term metalocutionary act has also been used to indicate a speech act that refers to the forms and functions of the discourse itself rather than continuing the substantive development of the discourse, or to the configurational functions of prosody and punctuation.[citation needed]

Overview: levels of speech acts

Speech acts can be analysed on three levels:

  1. A locutionary act: the performance of an utterance: the actual utterance and its apparent meaning, comprising any and all of its verbal, social, and rhetorical meanings, all of which correspond to the verbal, syntactic and semantic aspects of any meaningful utterance;
  2. an illocutionary act: the active result of the implied request or meaning presented by the locutionary act. For example, if the locutionary act in an interaction is the question “Is there any salt?” the implied illocutionary request is “Can someone pass the salt to me?”;
  3. and in certain cases a further perlocutionary act: the actual effect of the locutionary and illocutionary acts, such as persuading, convincing, scaring, enlightening, inspiring, or otherwise getting someone to do or realize something, whether intended or not.[1]

Speech acts in action

Speech Acts are commonplace in everyday interactions and are important for communication, as well as present in many different contexts. Examples of these include…

  • “You’re fired!” expresses both the employment status of the individual in question, as well as the action by which said person’s employment is ended.[12]
  • “I hereby appoint you as chairman” expresses both the status of the individual as chairman, and is the action which promotes the individual to this position.[13]
  • “We ask that you extinguish your cigarettes at this time, and bring your tray tables and seatbacks to an upright position.” This statement describes the requirements of the current location, such as an airplane, while also issuing the command to stop smoking and to sit up straight.
  • “Would it be too much trouble for me to ask you to hand me that wrench?” functions to simultaneously ask two questions. The first is to ask the listener if they are capable of passing the wrench, while the second is an actual request.
  • “Well, would you listen to that?” acts as a question, requesting that a listener heed what is being said by the speaker, but also as an exclamation of disbelief or shock.[14]

Illocutionary acts

The concept of an illocutionary act is central to the concept of a speech act. Although there are several scholarly opinions regarding how to define ‘illocutionary acts’, there are some kinds of acts which are widely accepted as illocutionary. Examples of these widely accepted acts are commands or promises.

The first of these opinions is the one held by the man who coined the term “speech act” in his book How to Do Things with Words (published posthumously in 1962),[1] John L. Austin. According to Austin’s preliminary informal description, the idea of an “illocutionary act” can be captured by emphasizing that “by saying something, we do something”, as when someone issues an order to someone to go by saying “Go!”, or when a minister joins two people in marriage saying, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” (Austin would eventually define the “illocutionary act” in a more exact manner.)

An alternative to Austin’s explanation of the illocutionary act is that given by John R. Searle. According to Searle, a “speech act” is often meant to refer to exactly the same thing as the term illocutionary act. Searle’s work on speech acts is understood to further refine Austin’s conception. However, some philosophers have pointed out a significant difference between the two conceptions: whereas Austin emphasized the conventional interpretation of speech acts, Searle emphasized a psychological interpretation (based on beliefs, intentions, etc.).[15]

Perlocutionary acts

While illocutionary acts relate more to the speaker, perlocutionary acts are centered around the listener. Perlocutionary acts always have a ‘perlocutionary effect’ which is the effect a speech act has on a listener. This could affect the listener’s thoughts, emotions or even their physical actions.[16] An example of this could be if someone uttered the sentence “I’m hungry.” The perlocutionary effect on the listener could be the effect of being persuaded by the utterance. For example, after hearing the utterance, the listener could be persuaded to make a sandwich for the speaker.

Performative speech acts

An interesting type of illocutionary speech act is that performed in the utterance of what Austin calls performatives, typical instances of which are “I nominate John to be President”, “I sentence you to ten years’ imprisonment”, or “I promise to pay you back.” In these typical, rather explicit cases of performative sentences, the action that the sentence describes (nominating, sentencing, promising) is performed by the utterance of the sentence itself. J.L. Austin claimed that performative sentences could be “happy or unhappy”. They were only happy if the speaker does the actions he or she talks about. They were unhappy if this did not happen. Performative speech acts also use explicit verbs instead of implicit ones. For example, stating “I intend to go.” does convey information, but it does not really mean that you are [e.g.] promising to go; so it does not count as “performing” an action (“such as” the action of promising to go). Therefore, it [the word “intend”] is an implicit verb; i.e., a verb that would not be suitable for use in performative speech acts.[17]

Indirect speech acts

In the course of performing speech acts we communicate with each other. The content of communication may be identical, or almost identical, with the content intended to be communicated, as when a stranger asks, “What is your name?”

However, the meaning of the linguistic means used (if ever there are linguistic means, for at least some so-called “speech acts” can be performed non-verbally) may also be different from the content intended to be communicated. One may, in appropriate circumstances, request Peter to do the dishes by just saying, “Peter …!”, or one can promise to do the dishes by saying, “Me!”

One common way of performing speech acts is to use an expression which indicates one speech act, and indeed performs this act, but also performs a further speech act, which is indirect. One may, for instance, say, “Peter, can you close the window?”, thereby asking Peter whether he will be able to close the window, but also requesting that he does so. Since the request is performed indirectly, by means of (directly) performing a question, it counts as an indirect speech act.

An even more indirect way of making such a request would be to say, in Peter’s presence in the room with the open window, “I’m cold.” The speaker of this request must rely upon Peter’s understanding of several items of information that is not explicit: that the window is open and is the cause of them being cold, that being cold is an uncomfortable sensation and they wish it to be taken care of, and that Peter cares to rectify this situation by closing the window. This, of course, depends much on the relationship between the requester and Peter—he might understand the request differently if they were his boss at work than if they were his girlfriend or boyfriend at home. The more presumed information pertaining to the request, the more indirect the speech act may be considered to be.

Indirect speech acts are commonly used to reject proposals and to make requests. For example, if a speaker asks, “Would you like to meet me for coffee?” and the other replies, “I have class.” The second speaker has 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, as it is confusing (on a rather simple approach) to see how the person who made the proposal can understand that his proposal was rejected. Searle suggests that the illocutionary force of indirect speech acts can be derived by means of a Gricean reasoning process;[18] however, the process he proposes does not seem to accurately solve the problem[citation needed].

In other words, this means that one does not need to say the words apologize, pledge, or praise in order to show they are doing the action. All the examples above show how the actions and indirect words make something happen rather than coming out straightforward with specific words and saying it.

One thought on “Speech act theory (1930S-1960S)

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