Speech Acts and Conversation

Language Use: Functional Approaches to Syntax

Handout for EDUC 537
Educational Linguistics
H. Schiffman, Instructor

  1. Language in Use

    Having described various kinds of syntactic structures and what they mean we see that people often don't seem to say what they mean. They use languages differently from its apparent meaning; it has functions are different from the apparent structure.

    Example: Could I get you to open that window?

    How'd you like to hand me that wrench?

    Would it be too much trouble for me to ask you to hand me that wrench?

    I know this is an imposition, but could you possibly open the window?

    instead of

    Open the window, Hand me the wrench, etc.


  2. Sentence Structure and the Function of utterances

    We are `used to' having questions being used to ask for information, declarative sentences to state something, and imperative sentences to give orders. But the following may also occur:

    1. [Form: request:] Can I ask you to please refrain from smoking?
      [Function: command:} (= Please stop smoking!)
    1. [Form: Statement:] We ask that you extinguish your cigarettes at this time, and bring your tray tables and seatbacks to an upright position.
      [Function: command:] (= Stop smoking and sit up straight!)
    1. [Form: question] Well, would you listen to that!
      [Function: exclamation] (= That's really something to listen to.)


  3. Speech Acts

    Speech acts are verbal actions that accomplish something: we greet, insult, compliment, plead, flirt, supply information, and get work done.

    • Types of Speech Acts
      • Representatives: assertions, statements, claims, hypotheses, descriptions, suggestions.
      • Commissives: promises, oaths, pledges, threats, vows.
      • Directives: commands, requests, challenges, invitations, orders, summons, entreaties, dares.
      • Declarations: blessings, firings, baptisms, arrests, marrying, juridial speech acts such as sentencings, declaring a mistrial, declaring s.o.out of order, etc.
      • Expressives: Speech acts that make assessments of psychological states or attitudes: greetings, apologies, congratulations, condolences, thanksgivings...
      • Verdictives: rankings, assessments, appraising, condoning (combinations such as representational declarations: You're out!)

    Locutions and Illocutions

      • Locutions: the utterance act. Sentences have a grammatical structure and a literal linguistic meaning; the bald, literal force of the act: what did the person say? (Not, what did the person mean?)
      • Illocution: the speaker's intention of what is to be accomplished by the speech act.Compare: How'd you like to hand me that wrench? (locution: a question) has the illocutionary force of a command:namely: Hand me the wrench!

    Can I get you to open the window? has a structure (locutionary force) and a linguistic meaning (`will I be able to be successful in getting your cooperation in opening the window?') but its illocutionary force is different: it has the force of a polite imperative Please open the window!

    Every sentence has both a locutionary force and an illocutionary force .

    • Distinguishing among speech acts

    How do we know what the force of a speech act is? By the context or the setting and by using their judgement and background knowledge of the language and the culture. If the Queen of Hearts (in Alice in Wonderland ) says `Off with their Heads!' it has a different force than if someone else says it in another setting.

    • Appropriateness conditions and Successful Declarations

    There are conventions that tell us that a particular locution probably has a particular force. People don't use language inappropriately, or they get into trouble, or the act may be interpreted as invalid.

      • utterance must be conventionally associated with the speech act: The preacher or officiating judge says:

    I now pronounce you husband and wife

    instead of

    Heybobareebob, you is hitched!

      • Context must be conventionally recognized

    The above declaration must be in a setting that is appropriate, like in a church or place of religious worship, etc. with people gathered for that purpose, perhaps even dressed for the part. Weddings (e.g.) don't happen spontaneously during, e.g., a baptism or a bar mitzvah.

      • Speaker must be sincere:

    Person pronouncing the words must believe what s/he is saying

      • Involved parties intend to create a marriage bond; the essential condition
      • Successful Promises: (commissive): must be recognized as a promise, must be sincere, essential; speaker must state the intention of helping. Preparatory condition: speaker and hearer are sane and responsible, speakers wishes to help, hearer wishes to be helped, etc. (Speaker cannot have fingers crossed behind her back...)


  4. The Cooperative Principle

    there is unspoken agreement that people will cooperate in communicating with each other, and speakers rely on this agreement.

    Grice: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

    • Maxim of Quantity

    Give as much information as is necessary, but not more. (Don't overdo it.)

      • [Mary:] Hi, John, how are ya?
      • [John:] Oh, not so good, Mary. I just had a tooth out, then last week I had an epidural injection in my spine, followed by restorative surgery on my little toe; you should have seen it, it was horrible, and you wouldn't believe what the surgeon charged, I just got the bill! Our health care system is outrageous, and the traffic on the way to work today! Unbelievable! (etc. etc. etc.)
    • Maxim of Relevance

    Be relevant; don't overload the conversation with superfluous or irrelevant material (as in the previous exchange). This requires speakers to organize their utterances so that they are relevant to the ongoing context: Be relevant at the time of the utterance.

    • Maxim of Manner

    Be orderly and clear; avoid ambiguity and obscurity.

    • Maxim of Quality

    Be truthful and provide evidence for statements:

      • [A:] Looks like it might rain!
      • [B:] Oh, yes, it's going to be ten inches of rain, followed by snow, at least 20 inches, then hail; then a plague of locusts, and the sun will shine from midnight until 2 a.m. Then there will be silence in heaven for about a half an hour, and when the seventh seal is opened...
      • [A:] Where do you get your information?


  5. Violations of the Cooperative Principles

    • Indirect Speech Acts and shared knowledge.

      • A: Did Pamela pay you back the money?
      • B: Is the Pope catholic?
      • A: She's honest as the day is long!


  6. Politeness conventions

    • Positive Politeness

    Making utterances that are conventionally polite, flattering, being very cooperative, etc.

    • Negative Politeness

    Avoiding saying things that are inappropriate, avoiding excessive intrusion, interruption, or inquisitiveness; using appropriate body language; avoiding particular gazes. No words are used, but politeness is maintained.

      • [A:] I'm a vegetarian, and I don't believe in killing any animals for any purpose!
      • (B looks at her feet to see if she's wearing shoes made of leather.)


  7. Speech Events

    There are various kinds of events at which speech typically takes place: political rally, debate, classroom lecture, religious service (sermon, prayer, welcoming, singing); government hearing; courtroom trial; all involve particular kinds of speech events that are appropriate to that setting. Could also be informal: telephone conversation, purchasing a ticket, a newspaper, ordering a meal.


  8. The Organization of Conversation

    There is a covert structure of conversations, involving a number of different elements. Conversations are a series of speech acts: greetings, inquiries, congratulations, comments, invitations, requests, accusations... Mixing them up or failing to observe them makes for uncooperative speech acts, confusion, other problems. Violates the maxim of cooperation

    • Turn taking and pausing

    People usually don't all talk at once; they signal that they are done by using certain phrases, e.g. ya know? Or somethin'; I dunno; isn't it? Whatever...


    • Adjacency Pairs Typically, certain kinds of turns have specific follow-ups: a question is typically followed by an answer; a invitation by an acceptance or an explanation of why it can't be accepted; an assessment is followed by agreement or disagreement; an apology is followed by acknowledgement of the apology:

      1. A: Sorry about last night!
      1. B: No problem; we were all pretty tired.

    but not:

      1. B: *Where'd you get those shoes?
    • Opening Sequences People ordinarily begin in conventional ways: greetings, general questions or comments about the weather, sports, etc.
    • Closing Sequences People conventionally prepare to end a conversations by summing up, using other locutions (Okay, all right then; well, that's about it; so umh; fine, then; ) followed by several repetitions of farewells: okay, goodbye then; okay bye; nice talkin' to you; see ya soon; thanks for calling/dropping by; good to see you! take care! alrightthumb_up.
    • Conversational Routines Openings and closings are more conventionalized than are other parts of the conversation, but there may be some other conventional things:
    • Repairs When people don't say what they intended to, or need to edit a previous statement, or misspeak themselves, or say something backwards, they then need to fix the utterance, i.e. they make repairs
    • Politeness: an organizational force in conversation The overriding force in conversations is politeness which means that there are conventionalized ways of doing all of the speech that we recognize as appropriate and polite; this differs from culture to culture and subculture to subculture. It may involve various kinds of illocutionary acts, titles and address forms, special honorific suffixes, the passive voice, circumlocutions, or any other kinds of locutions.


  9. Cross-Cultural Communication

    Politeness and all of the other speech act formulae vary from culture to culture; what is polite in one may be considered brusque or rude, or on the other hand too evasive, too formal, too obsequious in another. In American telephone conversations, people immediately begin to chat and visit. In French telephone conversations, people first apologize:

    • J'espere que je vous derange pas?
    • I hope I'm not disturbing you?

    In Indonesian, the passive voice is more polite and deferential; the active voice is grammatical, but sounds brusque and blunt, and not as deferential as the passive:

    • (Sign in a furniture store, on a chairemoticon_smile jangan diduduki! ( Not to be sat upon ) instead of
    • jangan duduk di sini ( Do not sit here! )

    The second form is grammatical, but not considered as polite, or sufficiently deferential.


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