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The notion speech act is a technical term in linguistics and the philosophy of language. There are several different conceptions of what exactly "speech acts" are; following the usage of, for example, Peter F. Strawson and John R. Searle, it is often meant to refer just to the same thing as the term illocutionary act, which John L. Austin had originally introduced in "How to Do Things With Words".

According to a preliminary characterisation Austin gives of the "illocutionary act", it can be captured by emphasising that "in saying something, we do something", such as when a minister joins two people in marriage saying "I now pronounce you husband and wife". (However, note that Austin eventually defines the "illocutionary act" in a more exact manner, as an act for the occurrence of which an audience must learn that the act is performed, and the performance of which entails "conventional effects" as, e.g., duties, obligations, and rights).

Greeting (in saying "Hi John!", for instance), apologizing ("Sorry for that!"), describing something ("It is snowing"), asking a question ("Is it snowing?"), making a request and giving an order ("Could you pass the salt?", "Drop your weapon or I'll shoot you!"), or making a promise ("I promise I'll give it back") are typical examples of "speech acts" or "illocutionary acts".


In saying "Watch out, the ground is slippery" Peter performs the speech act of warning Mary to be careful.
In saying "I will try my best to be at home for dinner" Peter performs the speech act of promising to be at home in time.
In saying "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?" Peter requests the audience to be quiet.
In saying "Can you race with me to that building over there?" Peter challenges Mary.


For much of the history of linguistics and the philosophy of language, language was viewed primarily as a way of making factual assertions, and the other uses of language tended to be ignored. The acclaimed 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. Earlier treatments may be found in the works of some church fathers[How to reference and link to summary or text] and scholastic philosophers[How to reference and link to summary or text], in the context of sacramental theology[How to reference and link to summary or text], as well as Thomas Reid[1], and C. S. Peirce[2].

Adolf Reinach (1883–1917) has been credited with a fairly comprehensive account of social acts as performative utterances dating to 1913, long before Austin and Searle. His work had little influence, however, perhaps due to his untimely death at 33 (having immediately enlisted in the German Army at the onset of war in 1914).

The term "Speech Act" had also been used already by Karl Bühler in his "Die Axiomatik der Sprachwissenschaften”, Kant-Studien 38 (1933), 43, where he discusses a Theorie der Sprechhandlungen and in his book Sprachtheorie (Jena: Fischer, 1934) where he uses "Sprechhandlung" and "Theorie der Sprechakte".

Austin distinguishes between illocutionary and perlocutionary 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.

The study of speech acts forms part of pragmatics, an area of linguistics.

In philosophy, especially in ethics and philosophy of law, speech act theory is often treated as related to the study of norms.

Indirect speech acts

In the course of the performance of speech acts we ordinarily communicate with each other. The content of communication may be identical, or almost identical, with the content intended to be communicated, as when I request Peter to wash the dishes in saying "Peter, could you please do the dishes".

However, the meaning of the linguistic means used (if ever there are ones, for at least some so-called "speech acts" can be performed non-verbally) may also be different from the content intended to be communicated. I may, in appropriate circumstances, request Peter to do the dishes in just saying "Peter ...!", or promise to do the dishes in saying "Me!" One common way of performing speech acts is to use an expression which indicates one speech act, and indeed to perform this act, but additionally to perform a further speech act, which is not indicated by the expression uttered. I may, for instance, request Peter to open the window in saying "Peter, will you be able to reach the window?", thereby asking Peter whether he will be able to reach the window, and at the same time requesting him to do so if he can. Since the request is performed indirectly, by means of (directly) performing a question, it counts as an indirect speech 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.

This poses a problem for linguists because it is confusing to see (using a rather simple approach) how the person who made the proposal is able to understand that his proposal was rejected. Following substantially an account of Paul H. Grice, Searle suggests that we are able to derive meaning out of indirect speech acts by means of a cooperative process out of which we are able to derive multiple illocutions; however, the process he proposes does not seem to accurately solve the problem. Sociolinguistics has studied the social dimensions of conversations. This discipline considers the various contexts in which speech acts occur.

Illocutionary acts

The concept of an illocutionary act is central to Searle's understanding of speech acts. An illocutionary act is the expression of a proposition with the purpose of doing something else. This is a bit more complex than a simple locutionary act (such as "It is raining") because an illocutionary force is attached to the utterance that indicates how the expression should be taken. Examples of illocutionary acts are: "I will return this book to you next week" and "Please hand me that pencil." In the first example the illocutionary act has the force of a promise to return a book. The second example is an illocutionary act with a force of the form I request that in which the speaker is soliciting a reaction.

In most instances of language, the speaker's meaning and the literal meaning of an utterance are identical. For example if a speaker says: "I will return this book to you next week" or "When will you need this book returned?" the speaker's intention and the literal meaning are the same. In either example, a third person that happens to overhear this portion of a conversation and has no prior experience in the conversation would be able to understand the correct meaning of the utterances. However, there are some cases in which the speaker’s meaning of an utterance is different from the literal meaning of an utterance. Consider this situation:

Speaker (S) asks hearer (H), "Would you mind turning down the volume on your radio?" and H responds by lowering the volume.

Both S and H spoke and behaved in a way that we would expect, S performed the perlocutionary act of getting H to turn down the volume. However, this case is problematic for linguists because the speakers meaning differs from the literal meaning. The literal meaning of the question is that S is soliciting a verbal response of yes or no from H (and perhaps followed by an explanation). However, S intended H to understand the question as a command to turn down the volume and H understood the question as S intended it. This exchange, while not uncommon, is troubling because one questions how it is possible for a speaker to say something and mean something different from the meaning of the utterance and for the hearer to understand both meanings. Utterances of this nature are troubling for linguists and the problems caused by such statements are the concern of Searle in his article Indirect Speech Acts . Further examples of indirect speech acts include:

  • "Can you hand me that pencil?"
  • "I hope you will arrive on time."
  • "Would you remove your hat?"
  • "Do you want me to drop that off for you?"
  • "It might help if you turn on the lights."
  • "I might ask you to observe silence in the library."

Although many indirect speech acts are softened or polite commands, indirect speech acts can also include apologies, assertions, congratulations, promises, and thanks.

John Searle's theory of "indirect speech acts"

Searle proposes a set of structural rules that generalize the steps that take place during indirect speech acts. His proposition is, "In indirect speech acts the speaker communicates to the hearer more than he actually says by way of relying on their mutually shared background information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, together with the general powers of rationality and inference on the part of the hearer." Searle's solution will require an analysis of mutually shared background information about the conversation that will be pieced together with a theory of speech acts and linguistic convention.

Searle begins by making a distinction between primary and secondary illocutionary acts. A primary illocutionary act is not literal rather it is what the speaker means to communicate. The secondary illocutionary act is the literal meaning of the utterance (Searle 178). In the example:

(1) Speaker X: We should leave for the show or else we’ll be late.
(2) Speaker Y: I am not ready yet.

The primary illocutionary act is Y's rejection of X's suggestion and the secondary illocutionary act is Y's statement that she is not ready to leave. By dividing the illocutionary act into two sub-parts, Searle is able to explain how we can understand two meanings from the same utterance while at the same time knowing which is the correct meaning to respond to.

Searle attempts to explain how we are to separate the primary illocution from the secondary illocution by means of a set of steps that the speaker and hearer must subconsciously complete. For the previous example a condensed process would look like this:

Step 1: A proposal is made by X and Y responded by means of an illocutionary act (2).
Step 2: X assumes that Y is cooperating in the conversation, being sincere, and that she has made a statement that is relevant.
Step 3: The literal meaning of (2) is not relevant to the conversation.
Step 4: Since X assumes that Y is cooperating; there must be another meaning to (2).
Step 5: Based on mutually shared background information, X knows that they cannot leave until Y is ready. Therefore, Y has rejected X's proposition.
Step 6: X knows that Y has said something other than the literal meaning and the primary illocutionary act must have been the rejection of X's proposal.

Searle argues that a similar process can be applied to any indirect speech act as a model to find the primary illocutionary act (178). His proof for this argument is made by means of a series of observations that he takes to be facts.

Observation 1: Indirect speech acts should not be confused with imperatives.
Observation 2: Indirect speech acts "are not ambiguous as between an imperative illocutionary force and a nonimperative illocutionary force" (180).
Observation 3: Indirect speech acts are usually used as directives.
Observation 4: Indirect speech acts are not idioms of a particular language since they can be translated without losing their original meaning.
Observation 5: Indirect speech acts are idiomatic because a paraphrase may not produce the same primary illocution.
Observation 6: Indirect speech acts have a secondary illocution that have meaning when taken literally but do not have any sort of indirect meaning.
Observation 7: When a request is made using an indirect speech act whose literal meaning is also a request, the speaker adds meaning so that he may respond appropriately.
Observation 8: When a request is made using an indirect speech act whose literal meaning is also a request, the speaker responds to both the primary and secondary illocution by virtue of responding to the primary illocution (Searle 180–182).

The last two observations (7 and 8) seem to not be indirect speech acts because both illocutions are requests; however, while they are both requests they may still have different meaning. Consider the example of a telephone call:

(3) Speaker P: Is Tom there?

Possible appropriate responses include:

(4) Speaker Q: No, he’s not here right now.
(5) Speaker Q: Yes, I’ll hand him the phone.

Observation 7 notes that there are two possible ways in which the speaker can respond while fulfilling the requirements laid out in Searle's process (cooperation, relevance, sincerity, etc.). The question in 3 can be taken either as a question about Tom’s location or as a request to speak with Tom. Observation 8 notes that in Q's responding to 3 by handing Tom the phone he has answered the primary illocution (P's request to speak with Tom) and at the same time the secondary illocution (the location of Tom).

Searle has shown that his series of steps form a framework by which we can understand requests; however, he has yet to show that this process will work to help us point to the meaning of other indirect speech acts. To use this process on other indirect speech acts he will have to prove that there are two illocutionary forces for each utterance, one that is the speakers intent (primary) and one that is the literal meaning of the utterance (secondary). He will also have to propose a system by which we can differentiate the illocutionary forces. Searle offers the following process for doing this:

Step 1: Understand the facts of the conversation.
Step 2: Assume cooperation and relevance on behalf of the participants.
Step 3: Establish factual background information pertinent to the conversation.
Step 4: Make assumptions about the conversation based on steps 1–3.
Step 5: If steps 1–4 do not yield a consequential meaning, then infer that there are two illocutionary forces at work.
Step 6: Assume the hearer has the ability to perform the act the speaker suggests. The act that the speaker is asking be performed must be something that would make sense for one to ask. For example, the hearer might have the ability to pass the salt when asked to do so by a speaker who is at the same table, but not have the ability to pass the salt to a speaker who is asking the hearer to pass the salt during a telephone conversation.
Step 7: Make inferences from steps 1–6 regarding possible primary illocutions.
Step 8: Use background information to establish the primary illocution (Searle 184).

With this process, Searle concludes that he has found a method that will satisfactorily produce two illocutionary forces that explain how we can act upon indirect speech acts.

In language development

Dore (1975) stated that children's utterances were realizations of one of nine primitive speech acts:

  1. labelling
  2. repeating
  3. answering
  4. requesting (action)
  5. requesting (answer)
  6. calling
  7. greeting
  8. protesting
  9. practicing

In computer science

Speech act theory has been influential in computer science since the early 1980s, particularly in the design of artificial languages for communication between software entities ("agents" or "softbots"). The theory was used, for example, to give a semantics to Agent Communication Language (ACL), an agent language developed by the standards body Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (FIPA). This semantics built on the work of Phil Cohen, Hector Levesque and David Sadek, among others. The FIPA ACL speech act semantics, expressed semi-formally using epistemic modal logic, defines utterances in ACL in terms of the certain beliefs, uncertain beliefs, desires and intentions of the speaker. In principle, therefore, it enables agents using FIPA ACL to be sure that other agents will understand the meaning of utterances in the same way as the speaker. However, the FIPA ACL language syntax and semantics, although now widely used in agent systems, have been heavily criticized on theoretical and practical grounds.

See also


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  1. :"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)."
    "A man may see, and hear, and remember, and judge, and reason; he may deliberate and form purposes, and execute them, without the intervention of any other intelligent being. They are solitary acts. But when he asks a question for information, when he testifies a fact, when he gives a command to his servant, when he makes a promise, or enters into a contract, these are social acts of mind, and can have no existence without the interventionof some other intelligent being, who acts a part in them. Between the operations of the mind, which, for want of a more proper name, I have called solitary, and those I have called social, there is this very remarkable distinction, that, in the solitary, the expression of them by words, or any other sensible sign, is accidental. They may exist, and be complete, without being expressed, without being known to any other person. But, in the social operations, the expression is essential. They cannot exist without being expressed by words or signs, and known to the other party."
    (Reid 1969, 437-438)
    From Mulligan, K. Promisings and other social acts - their constituents and structure. in Mulligan, K., editor Speech Act and Sachverhalt: Reinach and the Foundations of Realist Phenomenology. Nijhoff, Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster 1987.
    Also see: Karl Schuhmann and Barry Smith "Elements of Speech Act Theory in the Work of Thomas Reid" in History of Philosophy Quarterly, 7 (1990), 47–66.
  2. Cf. Jarrett Brock “An Introduction to Peirce’s Theory of Speech Acts” in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 17 (1981), 319-326.

References & Bibliography

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