The speech act theory is a branch of semiotics that concerns how words depict actions. Early language theories posited that language was a means of describing a state of affairs or making a factual assertion. However, this primarily ignored other uses and relevance of language.
As such, in response to this traditional view that acting and speaking are two distinct phenomena, the speech act theory emerged. This theory posited that speech could express an action beyond stating a fact or describing an event. (Austin, 1975).
At the heart of this theory is the concept of a speech act. A speech act is the act performed by a speaker when he or she makes a statement. For instance, the statement, “I am sorry” functions as an apology. (Nordquist, 2020).
Furthermore, this theory explains that beyond the ordinary meaning of language, utterances have a distinct and precise substance to its listeners and users. This substance may then be either constative or performative.
A constative statement is one that describes a situation from the viewpoint of truth or falsity. For instance, a reply to whether one has ever stolen will reflect a situation that might either be true or false. (Bakir, 2012)
On the other hand, performative statements are those who do not describe an event. Instead, they have an inherent meaning. In such a case, the speaker’s feelings, emotions, thoughts, and attitudes are the center of attention. For instance, the statement “Will you marry me?” reflects an act – offer – which depicts love. (Bakir, 2012)
Consequently, this theory analyses the effect of a statement in connection with the listener’s behavior and speaker. As such, it examines statements from the position of the function they perform, rather than the form they take. Simply, when people speak, one should assess the statement from the viewpoint that they are acting through their words.
Additionally, in a bid to understand communication between humans, this theory posits that speech does not only present information. However, they also perform a language function. These functions performed by speech acts include apologies, requests, commands, offers, and suggestions, among others. As such, under this theory, utterances are regarded as equivalent to acts.
Examples of statements and their attendant functions include:
“I live in California” – A statement.
“Did you close the door?” – A Question
“Close the door” – An order.
“Take this cake” – An offer.
“Please, hold my coffee” – A request.
“Hi” – A greeting.
Furthermore, Austin, in expounding this theory, divided linguistic actions into three distinct categories. (Austin, 1975).
This involves making a statement with a determinate reference and sense. Naturally, it refers to an utterance that follows the grammatical conventions of language and makes sense. Hence, this aspect of speech posits that components of a statement reflect the literal and underlying meaning of a word.
Also, locutionary acts fall under the territory of semantics. For instance, in the statement, “Alex is within the house,” the words “Alex” and “the room” have meanings that one can identify.
This is an act performed by saying something that reflects an intention in a specific circumstance. This aspect of speech pays attention to intention rather than the production of a specific effect through a statement. Also, context is relevant in line with the intention of the speaker.
For instance, the statement, “I will withdraw your allowance” reflects the intention to threaten a person. Also, regardless of the speaker’s smile, the intention is to threaten since he has uttered threatening words.
Noteworthy, an illocutionary act may either be explicit or implicit. It is implicit where there is no performative verb and explicit where there is a performative verb.
This involves creating an effect on an audience by making certain statements. In such instances, the effect is usually unique or specific to the context in which one makes a statement.
For example, the statement, “Blake is in New York” may have a perlocutionary effect of disappointing the listener in a situation where Blake is not in New York.
Also, it is not within the territory of pragmatics and semantics. It concerns other facets of the circumstances, usually not within the control of the speaker.
Additionally, there are various categorizations of illocutionary acts that exist. (Essays, 2018). They include:
In this instance, a speaker concerns itself with the truth or falsity of a statement. For instance, belief, conclude, affirm, and deny. This is further illustrated through the statement, “the world is safe.” In this case, the speaker posits the world as he or she believes.
The speaker, in this case, directs the listener to perform an act. For instance, challenge, requests, advise, suggest, and command. The statement “please close the door” effectively illustrates this categorization. Here, the speaker directs the listener.
In this category, a speaker expresses a commitment to action. For example, oath, pledge, promise, refuse, and vow, among others.
The statement, “I will come back,” exemplifies this categorization. In this case, the speaker promises to return.
In this instance, a speaker expresses his attitude about a particular state of things. For instance, apologize, congratulate, welcome, and appreciate. The statement, “I am extremely sorry for my conduct,” displays this classification. In this case, the speakers offer an apology.
In this instance, a speaker changes the condition of a situation by making a statement. For instance, appoint, resign, sack, sentence, bid.
The statement, “You are guilty,” reflects this categorization. In this case, the speaker changes the status of an accused.
Communication is an essential part of human existence. Each day, humans convey meanings and information through writing, body language, speaking, and other mediums. Hence, in a bid to communicate better, humans, through the study of language has sought to understand the purpose and means of communication.
One of the prominent theories that have emerged is the speech act theory. It explores the function that a statement performs. Similarly, one cannot appraise such statements as to their truth or falsity since they reflect an intention to act. (Speech Act Theory, 2018).
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