Speech Acts

"So help you God?"
"So help me God"
"Congratulations Mr President"

With these words, Barack Obama became president. A significant event for many reasons, but I want to talk about it here because it is a language event.

With these words, he became President - with these words. The swearing in of a president uses language, not to talk about reality, but to actually create it. Not describing, but doing. Consider these two utterances:
You're sacked!
Jim's being sacked.

The first sentence is a Speech Act: the very utterance of the words creates a change in a state of affairs. To sack someone requires the use of communication of some kind; the action and the words are one and the same.
The second sentence is not a Speech Act in the same way (though you could call it the act of describing). The action and its description are two separate things - Jim would still be sacked whether or not you say Jim's being sacked, and you can say it and Jim not be sacked (e.g. it could be a false statement). While they both appear to be talking about the same thing, the second sentence merely communicates information about sacking, but the first is the act of sacking.

Other prototypical speech acts include:

I name this ship...
Going...going...[bang!] gone
You're under arrest
You're barred
I pronounce you man and wife
I forgive you
I hereby declare...

Speech Acts are not limited to speech, but can be enacted by any communication, such as a signature, a nod in an auction, a red card in football, or even silence (or forever hold your peace...).

So, what's the big deal? Why is it interesting or important to label some language as Speech Acts?

1. Speech Acts help us look beneath the surface words and understand the structure of human communication.

Take these sentences:
Hadn't you better be somewhere else?
It's time to go
Well, must be getting on
Why don't you just leave?
Get out of here!

On the surface, they are very different (question, imperative, proposition), but they can all be realisations of an identical speech act: ordering someone to leave. Understanding this enables us to view the structure of almost any communication using Speech Acts.

For example, a letter of complaint typically goes like this:

declaring intention to complain - I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with...
narrating events - On 12th January, I purchased...
requesting action - I would like a full refund and...
threatening - If this matter is not resolved...

A telephone call usually opens like this:

answering - Hello?
identifying - Hi, it's Jim. Jim Smith. Is that Sara?
greeting - Oh, hello Jim

Notice how in a phone call the answerer says hello twice - first to say 'I've picked up the phone stranger - now speak', but the real greeting comes after the caller identifies himself - you can't say hello properly until you know who you're saying hello to. So what appears to be the same word actually functions in two different ways.
Viewing texts and conversations in terms of Speech Acts rather than a series of words and sentences helps us see the regularities and structure of language below the surface and beyond the sentence.

2. Speech Acts link language to human social communication.

The 1950s and 1960s was a time when linguists saw themselves almost like physicists - uncovering the laws that underlie grammar. They were focused on abstract sentence structure, ignoring the human beings that used language and the society in which they operated. Speech Act theory came from outside linguistics, from the philosophers Austin and Searle, and they showed how human being use language, not to merely communicate factual information, but to actually create their social reality.

The institutions of society hinge on Speech Acts:
promising (in a manifesto), electing an MP, declaring war
arresting, charging, entering a plea, taking an oath, delivering a verdict, imposing a sentence
marrying, naming a child

They also organise our everyday social relationships:
greeting, offering, accepting, ordering, complying, refusing, admitting, denying, asking, congratulating, complaining, apologising

Speech Act theory shows how language is not about data transmission, but social action.

Felicity Conditions
Of course, just saying the words doesn't automatically make it happen. All the interested parties have to agree that the right conditions for a speech act exist - felicity conditions. Normally, this simply involves nothing more than the speaker and the hearer both understanding a speech act in the same way. I'll pay you back Monday is understood as a promise. If I try to wriggle out of it by saying I didn't say which Monday I'd rightly be accused of not playing by the rules. Children sometimes cross their fingers behind their back, which is believed to break the felicity conditions for a promise or an oath, at least for the speaker.
Back to Barack Obama. For his swearing in to be valid, it must be in the context of due process of election, the correct officials being present, hand on bible etc. It is these condiditions that mean that an actor saying the same words would not become President in real life. So important is this Act of becoming President - and so many people needed to be convinced - the felicity conditions have to be watertight: he was required to say the oath a second time the following day because one word was out of order. It has also been suggested that he must take it a third time, because a Bible was not used the second time.

Good luck to Obama. Let's hope his acts are as strong as his speech.


  1. ChrisX11/2/09

    My young niece used to believe that she could make statements true simply by repeating them. So-called 'speech acts' reflect a similar magical belief. The addition of 'felicity conditions' gives the game away. Just saying 'YOU'RE SACKED' cannot make a person be sacked. Even if all the 'felicity conditions' were satisfied, such as being the person's boss, following the corect disciplinary procedure, etc, what would we say if the person carried on being paid for the same work? However we explained it - a joke, sarcasm, a tantrum - we'd be daft to pretend he was in fact sacked. The guy who said 'JIM'S SACKED' would be uttering a speech act too, if we counted as 'felicity conditions' the signs that Jim had actually been sacked. It makes more sense simply to stay with the simple idea that language is a social artefact which works by describing states of affairs - real or imaginary - but that we describe things for many different reasons. As for the President: do not swear at all ... for your words cannot make even one white hair black.

  2. There is, I think, a clear and useful difference between a description such as 'it gets dark at six o'clock' where the action and is description are completely independent, and an utterance such as 'I'll pay you back Monday' where the promise and its description are more or less identical. It is certainly possible to imagine situations where the participants don't participate in a speech act since all language and social action depends on some degree of mutual co-operation. Speech act theory can seem at times very clumsy, incomplete and over formalised; however I think it is one useful tool for viewing language in its social context.