Wednesday, July 01, 2009

WNW: Speech Acts

This post goes back to my favorite professor and class from BYU whom I've raved over enough that I'll stop embarrassing him by pointing him out by name. (*cough* Dr. Oaks *cough*)

Actual definitions of what a "speech act" is varies from linguist to linguist, but the basic idea is what is being accomplished by what a person says when they're speaking.

The list we got in class included the following speech acts:

Statement: John is a doctor.
Question: Are you sleeping?
Apology: I am sorry.
Directive (Order): Go outside.
Threat: I'll kill you.
Promise: I'll come back at six.

Okay, so here comes the fun part. A direct speech act is pretty obvious.

The form follows the function. Basically, with a direct speech act, if it looks like a statement, it's a statement. If it looks like a question, it's a question. The form tells you what kind of speech act it is.

So a question in a direct speech act would always has a question mark after it:

Are you sleeping?

This is a simple question asking exactly what it appears to be asking.

Indirect Speech Acts, however, get a little trickier. Form doesn't always follow function here. And this is where people often get confused and miscommunicate, assuming someone said one thing when the other person meant something else entirely.

It's fascinating to me to watch families and the degree of indirectness they get in their communications.

(If you like this kind of stuff, I highly recommend reading Deborah Tannen's work, especially That's Not What I Meant! and You Just Don't Understand. She's a sociolinguist who studies conversational styles, including indirect speech acts. She changed the way I view a lot of things.)

Here's an example showing form not following function in an indirect speech act: a question mark after something that really isn't a question:

Can you pass the salt?

The speaker here is actually giving a directive (an order), but it's indirect so it sounds more polite than just telling someone to give them the salt.

Other common indirect speech acts we see take place in the dating world.

"So, what are you doing Friday night?" is a common way for a guy to enter into the waters of asking a girl out. They both know it, but he's not actually committed to asking her out yet.

So if she says, "Oh, I have a big midterm to study for," he can save face because he never put himself out on a scary limb of potential rejection in the first place.

And neither said anything directly. He never asked her out, and she never directly rejected him.

We all do this kind of thing all the time.

A couple of years ago I noticed a similar thing at a family reunion at Disneyland (I notice these things because I'm a total word nerd. We know that, right?). The Lyon clan was in line at a ride and trying to decide where to go next.

My sister-in-law piped up loudly so everyone could hear, saying, "We were thinking about going on X ride next."

That was the end of the the discussion. As a word nerd, the moment fascinated me. What she'd said looked like a commentary or a suggestion. In reality, it was a statement of a plan. Basically, "Unless someone else has an objection, this is what we're doing next." And that's exactly what the family did.

What she'd said was an indirect speech act, and the family's communications were such that they all understood that.

Other examples of indirect speech acts:

You left the door open.
Form = Statement.
Function = Directive (Close the door.)

Do you know where the bathroom is?
Form = Question.
Function = Directive (Tell me where the bathroom is.)

Get out of here!
Form = Directive.
Function = Showing disbelief. (Think Elaine on Seinfeld.)

Here's a fun speech act: Answering a question with a silly question.
The form is a question, of course, but the function is to affirm the original question.

Do birds fly?
Is the pope Catholic?

Performative Speech Acts are where you actually DO something by SAYING it.
Examples of these kinds of verbs include:
  • bet
  • nominate
  • apologize
  • promise
  • resign
  • baptize
  • testify
And so on. If you can say, "I hereby . . ." and add a verb to it, then it's a performative speech act. You do it by saying it.

"I hereby resign the presidency . . ." or, "I testify that I saw the defendant at the scene . . ." or "I nominate Joe for the position."

In a performative speech act,the speaker does what they're saying by saying it. You can't argue with it, saying, "No you don't," because the speaker has already done it. It's not a matter of opinion. They nominated or apologized or resigned or whatever. Whether they have the proper emotion is another story, but you can't say they didn't do the act.

A final bit: One of my favorite speech act quirks relates to the PROMISE and the THREAT.

Think about it: There is NO DIFFERENCE between the two except for what the listener wants. If the listener wants the thing to happen, it's a promise. If the listener doesn't want it, it's a threat.

Generally speaking, "I will kill you," is a threat. If it's Dr. Kevorkian talking, it's a promise.

I don't remember where it came from, but shortly after learning this, I saw this very idea used in a cute way (I have no memory where, alas).

One character said, "I'm going to kiss you."

And the other responded coyly with, "Is that a promise . . . or a threat?"

Cute line, but probably more so for word nerds like me than anyone else.

For those interested in this stuff, go back to last week's WNW, at the end of which I mentioned I'd be talking about speech acts this week. Scroll down to Jordan McCollum's comment (#3). Do you see why I giggled at it?

And another plug for Deborah Tannen's books. Read them. They are AWESOME.


* said...

Hey, I read some of Tannen's work in college...and she changed the way I view words and conversations, too.

You made some excellent points. I'm going to pay more attention to how I word things, in person and on paper in my WIP. Thanks!

Jordan McCollum said...

My two favorite performative speech act examples:

You're under arrest. (Obviously!)

I now pronounce you man and wife. (Yes, the guy will have to sign the paper and the witnesses, etc., but that doesn't "pronounce" them man and wife.)

I love those so much I forget about all other speech acts, LOL.

Jordan McCollum said...

(Sign the witnesses?)

Amber Lynae said...

You quote is driving me crazy. It seems so familiar yet I cannot remember where I've heard it. I was hoping to find out in your comments from another reader. Anyhow if I remember I will let you know.

Awesome post, I guess I have never really thought about the direct and indirect speech acts. But you have me interested in adding another book to my reading pile.

Heatherlyn said...

How interesting. Yes, people do this all the time. Language is as much psychology as linguistics. :)

Luisa Perkins said...

Ah, the wonderfulness that is you.

I just got my copy of TTT! I'm thrilled!

Lara Neves said...

I had to laugh about Dr. Kevorkian's promise. :)

I love how we use language to beat around the bush, and yet be perfectly understood anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'll be checkin' out Deborah's books for sure!
Thanks for the Seinfeld joke in there. Gotta love Elaine. I keep thinking about Bizzaro world when she said that and the Bizzaro friends said, "Haven't you done enough?" Hee hee hee.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Fascinating post as always. This is something I've never spared much thought for.

Chas Hathaway said...

Isn't that cool? (not intended as a question, but as a statement.) Makes me wonder how we discover these things in the first place. (not intended as a statement, but as a question.)

I hope to hear more such nerdy facts! (not intended as a claim, but as a request!)

- Chas

Anonymous said...

If someone was sleeping and you asked, "Are you sleeping", wouldn't that be indirect, since the hearer isn't awake to hear the question. Its sort of like a tree falling in a forrest where no one is around to hear it, so it doesn't make a sound. Its an indirect tree act. And that's a threat.

Kristina P. said...

How did I miss this post? I love any post with a Seinfeld reference.


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