Module 4: Task 2

Notes: “What is a Speech Act?”

Speech Act

  • Utterance that serves a function in communication
  • Apology, greeting, complaint, invitation, compliment, refusal
  • Could be 1 word, could be several
  • Real-life interactions
  • Require knowledge of the language
  • Require correct use w/in a given culture
  • Difficult to perform in a second language
  • May not know cultural norms
  • May transfer 1st language rules & conventions (i.e. English: I couldn’t agree w/ you more; Chinese hearer: You don’t agree w/ me)
  • Misunderstandings btw language and culture
  • American guests compliment when giving thanks; Japanese may compliment but also apologize a lot for putting a host out of his way


The Power of Indirectness in Speaking and in Writing

  • A way of conveying a message through hints, insinuations, questions, gesture, or circumlocutions
  • Used more frequently in some cultures (i.e. Indian & Chinese) than others (North American, Northern European)
  • May express avoidance of a confrontational speech act
  • Avoidance of the semantic content of the utterance itself
  • Indirectness possible in different ways & various degrees
  • Direct acts are those where surface form matches interactional function (i.e. Be Quiet!) vs Indirect (i.e. It’s getting noisy in here)
  • Indirectness also affects how a listener interprets messages
  • A hearer generally knows if a speaker is speaking directly or indirectly by applying contextual appropriateness
  • Indirectness may be used more often by ppl in heavily hierarchical societies
  • As not to offend higher up; or intimidate ppl lower in hierarchy
  • Men tend to use more features associated w/ directness
  • Women tend to use indirectness strategies which encode collaboration
  • Benefits of Indirectness
  • Defensiveness – speaker’s preference not to go on record with an idea
  • Rapport – pleasant experience of getting one’s way not through demand but because the other person wanted the same thing (solidarity).
  • Two basic dynamics that motivate communication:
  • Co-existing and conflicting human needs for involvement and independence

Performative Verbs

  • A verb that conveys the type of speech act being performed
  • Introduced by Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin; further developed by American philosopher J. R. Searle and others
  • Linguistics Encyclopedia
  • Performative verbs name actions performed, wholly or partly by saying something
  • Non-performative verbs name other types of actions independent of speech
  • Apologies
  • By saying we apologize we perform an expressive act simultaneously with the naming of that expressive act; which is why it is a performative verb
  • Hedged Performatives
  • Verb is present but the speech act is performed indirectly
  • Example: I must apologize for my behavior
  • Speaker is expressing an obligation to make an apology, but implies that the acknowledgement of that obligation is the same as the apology
  • In Contrast Examples:
  • “I apologized” is a report
  • Must I apologize? Is a request for advice


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