Language is a powerful form of communication. It can do more than merely express information. It can also be used to carry out a complex action. Speech act theory, introduced by the philosopher John Langshaw Austin in 1962, is an attempt to define performative utterances, or how do words become actions.
Speech act theory
Speech act theory is a branch of pragmatics that focuses on how words convey information and lead to actions that can be expressed verbally or non-verbally. A speech act serves its function once it’s said or communicated and generally includes acts such as promising, warning, greeting, apologizing, reminding, informing, and commanding.
A speech act involves performing three acts:
Locutionary act – Performing an act of saying something. It is the act of making a meaningful utterance, including its social, rhetorical, and verbal meanings. “I postpone the meeting” is a locutionary act. It establishes the act of taking a rain check on the meeting. Furthermore, the declarative form of the sentence indicates the speaker’s relations with the addressee, or his power over him, allowing the speaker to take the action in such an explicit way.
Illocutionary act – Performing an act in saying something. It is the use of language to express an attitude with a certain “force” or function to affect the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the other person. It conveys the meaning intended by the speaker. “I suggest we’ll postpone the meeting” is an illocutionary act of saying something for the purpose of suggesting. By saying I suggest, the speaker is literally suggesting. He has the desire to have the meeting at some other time and hopes to achieve it by performing an illocutionary act of suggesting.
Perlocutionary act – Performing an act by saying something. When the perceived meaning uttered by a speaker affects the listener and results in an action. “I think it is better if we’d postponed the meeting” is a perlocutionary act of persuading. The overall aim of this utterance is to talk the other party into postponing the meeting.
Speech act theory deals with the functions and uses of language, the acts we perform through speaking, and all the things we do when we speak. Speech acts ultimately help us gain a better understanding of how humans interact.
In ordinary conversations, the speaker’s meaning is often different from the literal meaning of the sentence they have just spoken. In other words, performing a non-literal illocutionary act means there is more beyond the proper semantics of the speech, as in the case of metaphors, irony, and indirect speech acts.
By using such subtleties in language, people can communicate and build societies. Speakers are signaling implicit messages and defining their relationship with each other and placing themselves in the social hierarchy.
Speech as an indicator of power relations
Word phrasing and its pragmatic value, such as how explicit or implicit a message is (theoretically referred to as politeness), has a significant role in describing the social fabric of our communities and societies. It reflects how close interlocutors feel to each other, how much solidarity, closeness, or distance exists between them, and how powerful socially each interlocutor estimates their addressee to be. The linguistic choices speakers make designate their social status. It further reveals the power dynamics between them and their addressees.
The perlocutionary act, i.e., the perceived meaning and what the speech act results in, depends on the context of the perceived power in a given conflict. For example, consider a situation where an inferior person tries to engage in an overt act of commanding to improve their situation and thus reduce the gap in power. Their act will likely, at best, be perceived as incongruent to the situation. Or, their actions may be viewed as “strange.” In any case, the likelihood of anyone listening to them is not very high.
High-power individuals tend to be more action-oriented in their speech. For instance, in a relationship amongst co-workers, a senior is more likely to hold authority over a junior than the other way around, which means his locutionary acts are likely to be more explicit, such as commanding.
Let’s look at another example. In a negotiation situation, the dominant party is more likely to initiate the first offer to close the deal. Practically, the competent negotiators make a persuasion attempt invisibly, that is, they’re performing an illocutionary act of justifying or refuting a particular opinion, using their status to affect the addressee’s mind to achieve the perlocutionary act of persuasion.
Power is a major variable inherent in any interaction and is reflected in our communication. Power dynamics is defined as an individual’s competence to modify the perceived status of others in a situation. It can be done by performing speech acts that result in providing or withholding resources such as knowledge, decision-making opportunities, affection, generosity, or acting severely with verbal abuse, rudeness, and even ostracism.
Viewing human interaction as a series of speech acts puts communication under the rule of the social hierarchy. Every utterance produced by an individual speaker with its illocutionary attributes is a display of the social power existing between that individual and the other interlocutor.
Austin J., 1962. How to do things with words
Nemani, F., & Rasekh, A. E., 2016. Investigating the Effect of Social Variables on Speech Variation: Social Class, Solidarity and Power
Van Eemeren, F. H., & Grootendorst, R., 2010. Speech acts in argumentative discussions: A theoretical model for the analysis of discussions directed towards solving conflicts of opinion