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Comparative Analysis of Austin & Searle’s Speech Act Theories

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Speech-act theory was elaborated by Austin J. L., a linguist philosopher; this theory was the reaction of Austin and his coworkers in opposition to the so-called logical positivist philosophers of language. Austin in contrasts to logical positivism that could be assessed in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ (‘known as truth conditional semantics’), was keen on the way regular people use language in everyday situations. Moreover, he was persuaded that we do not use language to tell only things, meaning to make statements, but also to do things, that is to perform actions (Thomas, 1995: 28-31). This is the core element of his theory.

Although, Searle accepts that the speech act is both meaningful and has conventional force, he analyses the dimensions of the speech act differently. The major difference is that Searle is postulating a propositional act which is subdivided into a reference act and an act of predication. In addition, he also speaks of the (incomplete) speech act of predication which Austin did not mention. (ibid.: 93). Therefore,the evaluation of Austin and Searle’s theories will illustrate the advantages and disantages but also the gaps of its theory.

Austin’s Theory

Performatives & constantives

The first distionction made by Austin concerning the use of language is the categoriazation of verbs into performatives nad constatives. He also maintained that only performative verbs are used to denote actions; for example: I name this ship the King George. Whereas, the sentence I drive a red car is a constative one. Constatives can be tested whether they are true or false, a phenomenon that does not occur in perfomantives because the utterance I name this ship the King George do not make statement, therefore it can not be treated as being true or false. This sentence is best interpreted as performing an action, thus a useful test for performative verbs is the insertion of the adverb hereby between subject and verb: I hereby name this ship the King George, whereas * I hereby drive a red car is odd.(ibid.: 32-3 & Coulthard, 1996: 13 & Stubbs, 1998: 154-5).

Although, the performatives do not drop to the distinction of true or false an agreed procedure must be followed in order for performatives not to “go wrong” (Thomas, 1995: 36). Therefore, Austin has established four conditions, the so-called felicity conditions, which must be satisfied if the action performed is not to miscarry (Brown et al., 1996: 231):

Felicity Conditions

The first condition refers to the existence of conventional procedure which must have a conventional effect. Moreover, this procedure must be performed by the appropriate persons but also must take place under certain circumstances. For example: a conventional procedure for a couple to get married in most cases involves a man and a woman, who are not prohibited to get married in terms of relation or cultural ethics. The procedure involves also the presence of an authorized person, the minister of religion or registrar; the procedure must take place in an authorized place, the place of worship or registry office, but also at approved time; and the couple must be accompanied by a minimum of two witnesses. Moreover, the wedding ceremony is illegal if not specific statements are made and if not certain expressions are spoken. Therefore, if an unauthorized person attempts to marry a couple by saying I hereby name you husband and wife this procedure will be infelicitous. (ibid.: 37-8 & Coulthard, 1996: 14)

According to the second condition regulated by Austin the procedure must be accomplished correctly and completely by both participants. Thus, a problem may arise if a verbal or non verbal situation is not the appropriate one. The wedding ceremony involves yes or no questions; in the question: Will you take this woman or man…? The person that will answer can not say oh! Yes, I will but Yes I do so as for the ceremony to be felicitous. Moreover, in certain cultures specific procedures must be followed, for example: in Britain the person that carry out the wedding and the couple must sign the register before witnesses, if not, although the existence of conventional procedures and the presence of the suitable participants, the utterance I hereby name you husband and wife is infelicitous due to misfire of certain procedures (Coulthard, 1996: 14 & Thomas, 1995: 38-9).

The third condition refers to cases where the conduction of a marriage is completed under duress that is the threatening of one participant to take part in the wedding procedure. In addition, the absolution that a murder gets from a priest after confessing his or her crime I hereby absolve you from your sins is felicitous only when the murder turn him/herself in (Thomas, 1995: 39).

Furthermore, it has become apparent that the previous Austin’s assumption that only performatives can denote actions is invalid. Therefore, the form of ‘I + present simple active verb’ (Coulthard, 1996: 17) is not applicable in all situations denoting actions. For example: There are performative sentences with the verb in the passive voice: Passengers are kindly requested to fasten their seatbelt; or there are utterances that contains no verbs: Guilty (uttered by the court), Out! (denoting dismissal) Quiet! (referring to noisy children and such like). Moreover, Austin noticed that there no rule-governed devices restricting the use of performatives and in fact there no linguistic features which reliably and unambiguously differentiate performatives from non-performatives (Thomas, 1995: 44). The following examples exemplify the above problems:

The performatives do not have to be in the simple present or in the active voice, or even in the first person so as to perform an action: The court found the accused guilty. Additionally, some verbs can denotes more than one action like the verb promise: I promise I will come over there and hit you if you do not turn off the radio! This utterance does not perform the action of promising but the action of threatening. In English, there are expressions that contain no performative verbs but eventually they perform an act: “treading on someone’s corns”, “letting the cat out of the bag” and so on. Thus, people do not say: I hereby let the cat out of the bag or in cases where someone wants to insult someone else does not utter I hereby insult you. These linguistic features have led Austin to draw a distinction between ‘explicit performatives’ and ‘implicit performatives’; for example: I order you to be quiet (explicit performative) and Be quiet! (implicit performative) (Thomas, 1995: 46-7 & Brown et al., 1996: 231-2).

Austin has also noticed that statements can have a performative aspect, that is, they may be treated as implicit performatives. The utterance I have a red shirt is not a constative one but implicitly refers to the action of stating: I hereby state I have a red shirt (Thomas, 1995: 49). This phenomenon has made Austin to abandon the differentiation between constatives and performatives and to create another three-way distinction: ‘locution: the actual words uttered’, ‘illocution: the force or intension behind the words’ and ‘perlocution: the effect of the illocution on the hearer’ (Thomas, 1995: 49). For Austin, an illocutionary act is another form of the linguistic act performed in a given context, while perlocutionary act is a non-linguistic action carried out as a result of performing the locutionary and illocutionary acts.

Moreover, according to Austin locutionary act is interpenetrated with meaning and illocutionary with force. He interprets the sense of meaning unhelpfully by defining it as the application of language with “a certain more or less definite “sense” and a more or less definite “reference”‘. This point of view can not cope with the type of utterances, that are not placed in specific environment, such as Tom will get there in three ours from now whereas, it is not illustrated the reference by the name John but also neither time nor place are pointed out by there and now. Therefore, ‘meaning must be seen as an amalgam of textual and extra-textual information and it is the function of the locutionary act to transfer this meaning from speaker to listener’ (Coulthard, 1996: 18).

It is evident fro the aforementioned that Austin has attached substantial weight to speaker’s intention; thus, “the performance of an illocutionary act involves the securing of uptake” (ibid.: 20). This attitude emerges two major problems. Firstly, it is concluded from this opinion that each locution has only one illocutionary force but as Searle (1965: 20) has stated that primary performatives are not prospectively ambiguous but often intentionally. For example the utterance It’s really quite late could be interpreted as a fact, as an objection, as a suggestion or even as a request. Secondly, it is not clear from Austin’s opinion what the speaker’s intention is. Therefore, there is no actual need to trouble oneself with the speaker’s intention due to the fact that communication ensues in line with the listener’s interpretation of the force of an utterance (Coulthard, 1996: 20).

Searle’s Theory

Searle’s conditions for speech acts

After Austin’s original explorations of speech act theory there have been a number of works which attempt to systematize the approach. One important focus has been to categorize the types of speech act possible in languages. J. R. Searle has proposed ‘five macro-classes’ of illocutionary act:

1.Representatives, which commit the speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, for example: asserting, concluding.

2.Directives, which are attempts by the speaker to get the addressee to do something: requesting, questioning.

3.Commissives, which commit the speaker to some future course of action; such as: promising, threatening and offering.

4.Expressives, which express a psychological state (i.e. thanking, apologizing, welcoming, congratulating etc.)

5.Declarations, which effect immediate changes in the institutional state of affairs and which tend to rely on elaborate extra linguistic institutions; for example: declaring war, christening, marrying, firing and such like (ibid.: 24-5).

Searle through this categorization has wanted to formulate the previous verbal distinction of Austin (verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behabitives, expositives) and to eliminate the lack of consistent principle of Austin’s classification due to the fact that “a very large number of verbs find themselves smack in the middle of two competing “categories”‘ (Coulthard, 1996: 23). However, the new distinction made by Searle has not completely solved the problems. His taxonomy creates problems in spoken discourses. Firstly, in a dialogue such as:

Speaker A: Hello

Speaker B: Hello

which is basically ‘structuring’, the fist Hello can be treated as a directive requiring a second Hello but how one can categorize the second one? Secondly, some of the representatives are recognized by the hearer:

Speaker A: It’s raining again

Speaker B: Yeah

and in these situations the second utterance employs as an overt signal of “uptake”. The third and the most problematic situation is that Searle considers questions as directives a phenomenon that troubles the addressee in terms of which words she or he are asked to change; therefore, it is more perceptive to treat questions as a separate category that functions to educe instances of the other four classes, for example:

a) What time is it?It’s five o’clock (representative)

b) Can you help us?I’ll give a cake (commissive) and so on (ibid.: 25)

Searle uses a mix of criteria to establish these different types, including the psychological-state of the speaker; and the content of the act. The criterion of psychological state relates to the speaker’s state of mind: thus statements like It’s raining reflects belief, while expressives like apologies and congratulations reveal the speaker’s attitude to events. Finally, content relates to restrictions placed on speech acts by what they are about, their propositional content. Thus one cannot properly promise or predict things that have already happened. Or for another example: one way of viewing the difference between a promise and a threat is in terms of whether the future event is beneficial or harmful to the addressee.

Searle further developed Austin’s notion of felicity conditions into a classification of conditions that must hold for a successful speech act. Searle distinguishes between propositional, preparatory, sincerity and essential conditions for an act. The example below gives the conditions for the act of promising:

Conditions for promising (where S = speaker, H = hearer, A = the future action)

1.Propositional: S predicates a future act A of S.

2.Preparatory: S believes that doing act A is Hs best interest and that S can do A

3.Sincerity: S intends to do A.

4.Essential: the utterance counts as an undertaking to do A (Thomas, 1995: 94).

Among these conditions we might note that the preparatory condition suggests that one does not normally promise what would happen. Thus, when a husband says I’ll be home at five to his wife when leaving for work this might not be considered as typical promise. The propositional condition, as we mentioned earlier, reflects that in a promise a future act must be predicated of the speaker, so that something that has already happened cannot be promised.

However, there are problems regarding these conditions. Firstly, it is not plausible in all situations for someone to distinguish entirely between one speech act and another due to the fact that Searle’s conditions cover only the most typical procedures of a speech act verb. Secondly, the attempt to cover all the gaps in Searle’s theory we create a multifaceted collection of ‘ad hoc conditions’. Thirdly, the conditions set out by Searle do not cope with anomalous cases efficiently and some speech acts “overlap” (Thomas, 1995: 95).

Indirect speech act

Apart from the conditions set by Searle, he also introduce the term of indirect speech act meaning the one performed “by means of another”. For example, the utterance: Would all students refrain from smoking, which is an interrogative sentence is used instead of the directive Don’t smoke! Searle has not introduced something new because Austin already has made this distinction through explicit and implicit performatives. Therefore, the new terminology of Searle is of no importance, an unnecessary refinement (ibid.: 93-4 & Coulthard, 1996: 26-30).

In my opinion, none of these theories interpret the utterances efficiently. Austin’s theory is the base, the form of Searle’s formalization so we can not distinguish the one theory from the other although they do not have obvious interrelated connections. The difference between Austin and Searle’s speech act theories can be traced back to their different conceptions of an act. An act can be defined as a psycho-physical gesture on the part of an individual and also the bringing about of a state of affairs. The former view is commonly accepted and is the one held by Searle. The latter view can be found in Austin due to the fact that he does not connect locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts with psycho-physical gestures.

Austin’s first distinction between performative and constatives has been abandoned by himself due to the fact this classification soon has been proved to be invalid in terms that there is no grammatical way of classifying performative verbs and also the occurrence of a performative verb is always the assurance that a specific action will be performed. Moreover, his new introduction of the three-way classification depending on locution, illocution and perlocution does not glosses the meaning powerfully and Austin does not regard meaning as a medley of textual and extra-textual information. In addition to this, he attaches more importance on speaker’s intention concerning the illocutionary force of an utterance and not on listener’s interpretation.

Furthermore, Austin’s classification of verbs although it is suggestive it is not ruled by a clear set of principles so many verbs are found in two competing “categories” (Coulthard, 1996: 23). Therefore, by doing so, Austin depends on ‘descriptive labels’ which are lexicalized and he skips those verbs that do not have lexical label (ibid.). This means that the expression I order you to or I request you to are treated as being alternative illocutionary acts, although these expressions could stand as expansions of the primary performative turn off the radio.

On the other hand, in Searle’s theory although he has tried to systematize and formalize Austin’s work, there are certain problems concerning his set of conditions as mentioned above. Firstly, it is not plausible in all occasions for one to distinguish one speech act from another because Searle tends to cover only a central usage of speech act verb. Secondly, the enrichment or systematize of his rules gives a complex amount of impromptu conditions. Thirdly, Searle’s conditions do not permit anomalous uses and there is an overlap in some speech acts (Thomas, 1995: 94-5).

Additionally, Searle’s theory does not eliminate anomalous examples. In the utterance ‘If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old’ although all Searle’s conditions of warning are met the peculiarity of this sentence is not exemplified, because Searle through his theory does not illustrate that in English there are two alternative types of warning having different conditions and grammatical forms. The type one warning is connected to situations where one can not do anything to avoid the event itself. Its grammatical form may be a declarative sentence: “The national Rivers Authority this morning reiterated that in Devon and Cornwall the severe weather warning remains in force” or an imperative one: Sophie, Sophie, beware of the dogs! The type two warning are designed to alert the unpleasant event and it is constantly formulated in terms of grammatical form as negative imperative: Do not smoke in the train or as conditional: If you smoke in the train, I’ll hit you. In the case of the anomalous example above, elements of both types are used (Thomas, 1995: 103-5)

I want to illustrate through this assignment that the coherence of discourse analysis does not depend only on acts, theories but also on the knowledge one possesses as user of a language, meaning our general socio-cultural knowledge. The general knowledge of the world helps the interlocutors not only to interpret a discourse but also every aspect, in some extends, of linguistic variants. The correct approach would be that no single level of theory will be ever able to state sufficient all the communicative gestures of a conversation, unless the utterances are delivered in a very direct way so as for one to eliminate chances of misfire. Through the study of one theory by excluding the general overview it will not be possible, according to my opinion, to study the ambiguity and indirectness of social interactions.

Last but not least, in order to interpret a discourse whether it is spoken or written we have to use accounts not only of lexical and syntactic cohesion; we need also speech act theories, the context-dependence of illocutionary force, the predictive power of certain speech acts and substantial amount of background experience and knowledge of different linguistic forms and socio-cultural variants. In other words, a complex analysis of discourse coherence.


1.Brown, G. & G. Yule. (1996). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

2.Coulthard, M. (1996). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis. New York:Longman.

3.Stubbs, M. (1998). Discourse Analysis. The Sociolinguistic Analysis of
NaturalLanguage. Oxford: Blackwell.

4.Thomas, J. (1995). Meaning in Interaction. An Introduction to Pragmatics. NewYork: Longaman.

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