Speech act

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A speech act in linguistics and the philosophy of language is an utterance that has performative function in language and communication. According to Kent Bach, "almost any speech act is really the performance of several acts at once, distinguished by different aspects of the speaker's intention: there is the act of saying something, what one does in saying it, such as requesting or promising, and how one is trying to affect one's audience." The contemporary use of the term goes back to J. L. Austin's development of performative utterances and his theory of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. Speech acts are commonly taken to include such acts as promising, ordering, greeting, warning, inviting and congratulating.

Locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts

Speech acts can be analysed on three levels:

  1. A locutionary act, the performance of an utterance: the actual utterance and its ostensible meaning, comprising phonetic, phatic and rhetic acts corresponding to the verbal, syntactic and semantic aspects of any meaningful utterance;
  2. an illocutionary act: the pragmatic 'illocutionary force' of the utterance, thus its intended significance as a socially valid verbal action (see below);
  3. and in certain cases a further perlocutionary act: its actual effect, such as persuading, convincing, scaring, enlightening, inspiring, or otherwise getting someone to do or realize something, whether intended or not (Austin 1962)

Illocutionary acts

The concept of an illocutionary act is central to the concept of a speech act. Although there are numerous opinions regarding how to define 'illocutionary acts', there are some kinds of acts which are widely accepted as illocutionary, as for example promising, ordering someone, and bequeathing.

Following the usage of, for example, John R. Searle, "speech act" 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 (published posthumously in 1962). Searle's work on speech acts is also commonly understood to 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.).[1][2]

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 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.

Classifying illocutionary speech acts

Searle (1975)[3] has set up the following classification of illocutionary speech acts:

  • assertives = speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed
  • directives = speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice
  • commissives = speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths
  • expressives = speech acts that express the speaker's attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks
  • declaratives = speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife

Indirect speech acts

In the course of performing 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 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 open the window?", thereby asking Peter whether he will be able to open 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.

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 (on a rather simple approach) to see how the person who made the proposal can understand that his proposal was rejected. Following substantially an account of H. P. 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.

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.

John Searle's theory of "indirect speech acts"

Searle has introduced the notion of an 'indirect speech act', which in his account is meant to be, more particularly, an indirect 'illocutionary' act. Applying a conception of such illocutionary acts according to which they are (roughly) acts of saying something with the intention of communicating with an audience, he describes indirect speech acts as follows: "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." An account of such act, it follows, will require such things as an analysis of mutually shared background information about the conversation, as well as of rationality and linguistic conventions.

In connection with indirect speech acts, Searle introduces the notions of 'primary' and 'secondary' illocutionary acts. The primary illocutionary act is the indirect one, which is not literally performed. The secondary illocutionary act is the direct one, performed in the literal utterance of the sentence (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."

Here the primary illocutionary act is Y's rejection of X's suggestion, and the secondary illocutionary act is Y's statement that Y is not ready to leave. By dividing the illocutionary act into two subparts, Searle is able to explain that we can understand two meanings from the same utterance all the while knowing which is the correct meaning to respond to.

With his doctrine of indirect speech acts Searle attempts to explain how it is possible that a speaker can say something and mean it, but additionally mean something else. This would be impossible, or at least it would be an improbable case, if in such a case the hearer had no chance of figuring out what the speaker means (over and above what they say and mean). Searle's solution is that the hearer can figure out what the indirect speech act is meant to be, and he gives several hints as to how this might happen. For the previous example Direct Speech and Indirect Speech "While direct speech purports to give a verbatim rendition of the words that were spoken, indirect speech is more variable in claiming to represent a faithful report of the content or content and form of the words that were spoken. It is important to note, however, that the question of whether and how faithful a given speech report actually is, is of a quite different order. Both direct and indirect speech are stylistic devices for conveying messages. The former is used as if the words being used were those of another, which are therefore pivoted to a deictic center different from the speech situation of the report. Indirect speech, in contrast, has its deictic center in the report situation and is variable with respect to the extent that faithfulness to the linguistic form of what was said is being claimed." (Florian Coulmas, "Reported Speech: Some General Issues.") a condensed process might 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 Y 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 in 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 supposed "observations" (ibid., 180-182).

Analysis using Searle's theory

In order to generalize this sketch of an indirect request, Searle proposes a program for the analysis of indirect speech act performances, whatever they are. He makes the following suggestion:

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 reconstruct what happens when an indirect speech act is performed. Direct Speech and Indirect Speech "While direct speech purports to give a verbatim rendition of the words that were spoken, indirect speech is more variable in claiming to represent a faithful report of the content or content and form of the words that were spoken. It is important to note, however, that the question of whether and how faithful a given speech report actually is, is of a quite different order. Both direct and indirect speech are stylistic devices for conveying messages. The former is used as if the words being used were those of another, which are therefore pivoted to a deictic center different from the speech situation of the report. Indirect speech, in contrast, has its deictic center in the report situation and is variable with respect to the extent that faithfulness to the linguistic form of what was said isdo n= being claimed." (Florian Coulmas, "Reported Speech: Some General Issues."


For much of the history of linguistics and 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] He was one of the first people who made a systematic account for the use of language. Later 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). "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 intervention of 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."[7][8][9]

Adolf Reinach (1883–1917) and Stanislav Škrabec (1844-1918), have been both independently credited with a fairly comprehensive account of social acts as performative utterances dating to 1913, long before Austin and Searle. For Reinach see[10][citation needed]

The term "Speech Act" had also been already used by Karl Bühler.[11][12]

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]

In language development

Dore (1975) proposed 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


There is no agreed formalization of Speech Act theory. A first attempt to give some grounds of an illocutionary logic has been given by John Searle and D. Vandervecken 1985.[13] Other attempts have been proposed by Per Martin-Löf for a treatment of the concept of assertion inside intuitionisti type theory, and by Carlo Dalla Pozza, with a proposal of a formal pragmatics connecting propositional content (given with classical semantics) and illocutionary force (given by intuitionistic semantics). Up to now the main basic formal application of Speech Act theory are to be found in the field of human-computer interaction (in chatboxes and other tools: see below).

In computer science

Computational speech act models of human-computer conversation have been developed.[14]

Speech act theory has been used to model conversations for automated classification and retrieval.[15]

Another highly-influential view of Speech Acts has been in the 'Conversation for Action' developed by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in their 1987 text "Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design". Arguably the most important part of their analysis lies in a state-transition diagram (in Chapter 5) that Winograd and Flores claim underlies the significant illocutionary (speech act) claims of two parties attempting to coordinate action with one another (no matter whether the agents involved might be human-human, human-computer, or computer-computer).

A key part of this analysis is the contention that one dimension of the social domain- tracking the illocutionary status of the transaction (whether individual participants claim that their interests have been met, or not) is very readily conferred to a computer process- independent of whether the computer has the means to adequately represent the real world issues underlying that claim. Thus a computer instantiating the 'conversation for action' has the useful ability to model the status of the current social reality independent of any external reality on which social claims may be based.

This transactional view of speech acts has significant applications in many areas in which (human) individuals have had different roles- for instance- a patient and a physician might meet in an encounter in which the patient makes a request for treatment, the physician responds with a counter-offer involving a treatment she feels is appropriate, and the patient might respond, etc. Such a "Conversation for Action" can describe a situation in which an external observer (such as a computer or health information system) may be able to track the ILLOCUTIONARY (or Speech Act) STATUS of negotiations between the patient and physician participants even in the absence of any adequate model of the illness or proposed treatments. The key insight provided by Winograd and Flores is that the state-transition diagram representing the SOCIAL (Illocutionary) negotiation of the two parties involved is generally much, much simpler than any model representing the world in which those parties are making claims- in short- the system tracking the status of the 'conversation for action' need not be concerned with modeling all of the realities of the external world- a conversation for action is critically dependent upon certain stereotypical CLAIMS about the status of the world made by the two parties. Thus a "Conversation for Action" can be readily tracked and facilitated by a device with little or no ability to model circumstances in the real world other than the ability to register claims by specific agents about a domain.

Uses in technology

In making useful applications of technology to domains such as healthcare, it is helpful to discriminate between problems which are very, very hard (such as deep understanding of pathophysiology as it relates to genetic and various environmental influences) and problem which are relatively easier, such as following the status of negotiations between a patient and a health care provider. Speech Act (Illocutionary) Analysis allows for a useful understanding of the status of a negotiation between (for instance) a health care provider and a patient INDEPENDENT of any well-accepted credible and comprehensive understanding of a disease process as it might apply to that patient. For this reason, systems which track the status of PROMISES and REJECTED-PROPOSALS and ACCEPTED-PROMISES can help us to understand the situations in which (human or computer) AGENTS find themselves as they attempt to fulfill ROLES involving other agents, and such systems can facilitate both human and human-computer systems in achieving role-associated goals.

In multiagent universes

Multi-agent systems sometimes use speech act labels to express the intent of an agent when it sends a message to another agent. For example the intent "inform" in the message "inform(content)" may be interpreted as a request that the receiving agent adds the item "content" to its knowledge-base; this is in contrast to the message "query(content)" which may be interpreted (depending on the semantics employed) as a request to see if the item content is currently in the receiving agents knowledge base. There are at least two standardisations of speech act labelled messaging KQML and FIPA.

KQML and FIPA are based on the Searlian, that is, psychological semantics of speech acts. Munindar P. Singh has long advocated moving away from the psychological to a social semantics of speech acts—one that would be in tune with Austin's conception.[16] Andrew Jones[17] has also been a critic of the psychological conception. A recent collection of manifestos by researchers in agent communication reflects a growing recognition in the multiagent systems community of the benefits of a social semantics.[18]

Other uses in technology


  1. Sbisa, Marina, “How to read Austin”, in Pragmatics, 17:3 (2007), p. 461-73.
  2. Bruno Ambroise, From Speech Act Theory to Pragmatics: The loss of the illocutionary point. (= Pragmatics today) [1].
  3. Searle, John R. (1975), “A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts”, in: Günderson, K. (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge, (Minneapolis Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 7), University of Minneapolis Press, p. 344-69.
  4. Austin, J. L. 1962. How to do things with words. London: Oxford University Press, p. 1.
  5. Bach, Kent. "Speech Acts." Speech Acts. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2014
  6. Littlejohn, S. (2009). Speech act theory. In S. Littlejohn, & K. Foss (Eds.), Encyclopedia of communication theory. (pp. 919-921). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.fau.edu/10.4135/9781412959384.n356
  7. 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. Quote from Reid 1969, 437-438)
  8. 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.
  9. Jarrett Brock “An Introduction to Peirce’s Theory of Speech Acts” in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 17 (1981), 319-326.
  10. 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.
  11. "Die Axiomatik der Sprachwissenschaften”, Kant-Studien 38 (1933), 43, where he discusses a Theorie der Sprechhandlungen
  12. Sprachtheorie (Jena: Fischer, 1934) where he uses "Sprechhandlung" and "Theorie der Sprechakte"
  13. Searle, J.R., Vandervecken, D.: Foundations of Illocutionary Logic.Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 1985
  14. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/Xplore/login.jsp?url=/iel2/549/4024/00154675.pdf?isnumber=4024&prod=CNF&arnumber=154675&arSt=263&ared=264&arAuthor=Morelli%2C+R.A.%3B+Bronzino%2C+J.D.%3B+Goethe%2C+J.W.
  15. Using Speech Act Theory to Model Conversations for Automated Classification and Retrieval
  16. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  17. Andrew J. I. Jones
  18. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  19. A speech-act-based office modeling approach
  20. Detecting deception in synchronous computer-mediated communication using speech act profiling

See also


External links