Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Speech Act


Speech act is performed action via utterance. When speakers are saying words, they not only produce utterance containing words and grammatical structure, but they also perform action in those utterances, such as assertion, apology, greeting, request, complaint, invitation, compliment, or refusal etc. If you say, ‘I will be there at six’, you are not just speaking, you seem to be performing the speech act of promising.

Speech act theory belongs to the field of pragmatics.

A speech act might contain just one word, as in ‘Sorry!’  to perform an apology, or several words or sentences: ‘I’m sorry I forgot your birthday. I just let it slip my mind.’

Speech acts include real-life interactions and require not only knowledge of the language but also appropriate use of that language within a given culture.

Here are some examples of speech acts we perform every day:

Assertion:    The pigs are in the street again.

Greeting:     Hi, Eric. How are things going?

Question:     What time is it?

Request:      Could you pass me the mashed potatoes, please?

Complaint:    I’ve already been waiting three weeks for the computer, and I was told it would be delivered within a week.

Invitation:    We’re having some people over Saturday evening and wanted to know if you’d like to join us.

Compliment: Hey, I really like your tie!

Refusal:       I’d love to see that movie with you but this Friday I’ve a lot to do.

Surprise:      You’re crazy.

Speech acts are difficult to perform in a second language because learners may not know the idiomatic expressions or cultural norms in the second language or they may transfer their first language rules and conventions into the second language, assuming that such rules are universal. 

Speech acts are not to be confused with acts of speech. One can perform a speech act such as issuing a warning without saying anything: A gesture or even a minatory facial expression will do the trick. And one would perform an act of speech by uttering words in order to test a microphone, without performing a speech act.

According to Austin (1960), speech act is a theory of performative language, in which to say something is to do something. On any occasion, the action performed by producing an utterance will consist three related acts. The following examples show Austin’s categorization:

Locutionary Act

In speech-act theory, it is the act of making a meaningful utterance. A locutionary act is the basic linguistic action of voicing (or writing) a meaningful sequence of words. It is by means of locutionary acts that one succeeds in expressing information or doing other things with words. The term equally refers to the surface meaning of an utterance.

Illocutionary Act

Illocutionary act is what is done in uttering the word, the function of the word, the specific purpose the speakers have in the mind. For example the utterance ‘I swear to give it back next time’ is used to perform the illocutionary act of promising.

In speech-act theory, illocutionary force means a speaker's intention in delivering an utterance. When I say ‘how are you’  to a co-worker, I really mean ‘hello’. Although I know what I mean by ‘how are you’, it is possible that the receiver does not know that I mean ‘hello’ and actually proceeds to give me a fifteen minute discourse on his various maladies.

If a speaker asks ‘How's that salad doing? Is it ready yet?’ as a way of (politely) enquiring about the salad, his/her intent may be in fact to make the waiter bring the salad. Thus the illocutionary force of the utterance is not an inquiry about the progress of salad preparation, but a demand that the salad be brought.

Perlocutionary Act

An utterance that is uttered by someone often has effect to the listener.  In speech-act theory, perlocutionary act is what is done by uttering the word; it is the effect on listener, the listener’s reaction. For example: the utterance ‘there is something in your shoulder!’ may cause the listener to panic and to look on his shoulder. In other words, an action or state of mind brought about by, or as a consequence of, saying something. For example, my saying to you ‘Don't go into the water’ (a locutionary act) counts as warning you not to go into the water (an illocutionary act), and if you heed my warning I have thereby succeeded in persuading you not to go into the water (a perlocutionary act).

Persuading, angering, inciting, convincing, scaring, enlightening, comforting and inspiring, or otherwise getting someone to do or realize something, are often perlocutionary acts.

There is another example of speech acts. A child refuse to lie down and go to sleep, then his mother says, ‘I’ll turn your light off’. The locutionary act is utterance of this sentence ‘I’ll turn your light off’. However, the mother may be intending that the utterance be interpreted as a threat. The threat here is the illocutionary acts. It means that child does not sleep; his mother will turn off the light. As consequence behavior of that child, he must be frightened into silence and sleep is perlocutionary act.


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.

My remark that ‘you are standing on my foot’  is normally taken as, in addition, a demand that you move; my question ‘whether you can help me in this difficulty’  is normally taken as a request that you do so. These are further examples of indirect speech acts.

But, my question ‘whether you can help me in this difficulty’ is a request that you do so and my remark that ‘you are standing on my foot’ is a demand that you move; only if I intend to be so understood. So I need to make that intention manifest in some way. How might I do this? The best explanation of my remarking that you are standing on my foot, particularly if I use a stentorian tone of voice, is that I mean to be demanding that you desist. 

Several categories of speech acts have been proposed:


Speakers try to get their listeners to do something, such as begging, commanding, requesting, e.g. Please make the tea. Shut the door. Don’t go to the party.


Speakers commit themselves to a future course of action, such as promising, guaranteeing, vowing, e.g. I’ll be back soon.


Such as informing, e.g. It is raining. I met your parents yesterday.


Speakers express their feelings, such as apologizing, welcoming, sympathizing, e.g. I am really sorry. Thank You. I like your house very much.


The speaker's utterance brings about a new external situation, such as christening, marrying, resigning, e.g. I quit this job.

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