Speech Acts and Intentions
What do people do when they use language?
Perform actions (promise, request, criticize, etc.)
Earlier approaches to meaning (semantics) restricted meaning
to propositional/sentential meaning; what a sentence means (sense and reference;
truth-conditional approaches) in isolation (sentence meaning, or literal
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) and John Austin (1962)
proposed action-oriented approaches to language.
Austin's (1962) speech act theory
Impossible to determine the truth value of many utterances (e.g., "I promise to do it tonight")
Constatives truth value could be determined (e.g.,
It's raining out)
Performatives (e.g., "I apologize") used to perform
some act (their occurrence changes the world in some way); not amenable
to a truth-conditional analysis (although they can be infelicitous)
However, Austin eventually argues that constatives also
are actions. (E.g.,assertions implicate a particular stance regarding the
nature of the world; it is thus an action).
Austin abandoned the performative-constative distinction:
all speech acts have a dimension of meaning (or propositional
content) and a particular force.
Locutionary act: sense and reference; dimensions of language (phonetics, syntax, and semantics) with which linguists have traditionally been concerned.
Illocutionary act: conventional force associated with the uttering of the words in a particular context (e.g., I promise to do it tonight" (if performed felicitously) = illocutionary force of promise.
Perlocutionary act: effects the remark has
on the hearer (recognition of act performed)
John Searle (1969): Speech Act Taxonomy and Felicity
Meeting felicity conditions constitutes the performance
of that speech act; provides framework for comparing different speech acts.
Propositional Content; speech acts = form F(p), where F is the illocutionary force and p the propositional content.
Certain illocutionary forces specify what is acceptable
in terms of propositional content (e.g., promises and requests require
the specification of future courses of action)
Preparatory Condition; beliefs and desires of the interlocutors presupposed or implied in the performance of the act (e.g. requests: speaker believes the hearer has the ability to perform the requested act. Assertion: speaker believes the truth of the proposition and is not aware of the proposition).
Sincerity Condition; Speaker expresses a psychological attitude regarding the propositional content of the utterance (e.g., Promise; speaker is expressing intention to do the act that is being promised.)
Requisite psychological state the speaker must have in
order to perform a particular speech act.
Essential Condition; specifies the particular
illocutionary point of an utterance (e.g., "Please close the door" counts
as a request for the hearer to shut the door)
Taxonomy: Illocutionary points (exhaustive
and mutually exclusive):
Derived from a consideration of the possible relations
between one's words and the world (as it is or could be). (other systems
Illocutionary Point Direction
World-to-words (speaker) promise,
Expressive Null thank, apologize
Declarative World-to-words and declare war
Five illocutionary points but many speech acts that one
can perform; distinctions between speech acts within a type can be made
on the basis of the felicity conditions.
Speech Acts and Intentions
Speech acts are intentional acts
Grice (1957) distinguished between signs and signals.
Signs convey information, but recognition
of that information does not require a recognition of the speaker's intention
to have that information recognized (e.g., falling asleep may be a sign
that one is tired; but not intentionally communicative)
Signals convey non-natural meaning (or meaning-nn);
communicative acts that achieve their ends by virtue of the hearer recognizing
the speaker's intention to achieve those ends; the hearer's recognition
of the speaker's intention fulfills the intention.
Intention = illocutionary force, not perlocutionary effects.
Some perlocutionary effects are tied to the illocutionary
act; the illocutionary act can be viewed as a means of achieving a particular
goal (a perlocutionary effect). But some perlocutionary effects may also
(and simultaneously) be unintended. The inferences a hearer can make, the
emotional reactions that can be elicited, the beliefs that can be formed
or altered, and so on are infinite.
Problem: certain illocutionary verbs do not seem to be
characterizable in terms of a reflexive intention; e.g., brag.
Recognizing Illocutionary Force
How do hearer's recognize illocutionary force?
Do they recognize illocutionary force?
Austin (1962) illocutionary force recognition is conventional and based on the performative verb, along with sentence mood and type.
Performative verbs name the action that they perform (e.g.,"I promise to do it"
Recognition of illocutionary force may be componential;
comprehension involves recognition of the felicity conditions.
Amrhein (1992) - variations in the polarity of two components - speaker ability and speaker desire - underlie the comprehension of the four quasi-performative commissive verbs (promise, hope, guess, agree).
Comprehension of "promise" entails recognition of the
speaker's desire and ability, "hope" entails recognition of the speaker's
desire but not ability
Is illocutionary force recognized when performative verbs are not used?
But, Holtgraves & Ashley (2000):
"I appreciate your help yesterday" primes 'thanks'
Performative hypothesis (Gazdar, 1979); sentences have a performative clause as the highest clause in deep structure; can be deleted which produces implicit performatives (e.g., "I say to you that it is raining out" becomes transformed into "It's raining out.") Illocutionary force = performative clause, and this clause is true simply by being uttered (hence its truth or falsity is not an issue).
Evidence: sentences may contain adverbs that appear to
be modifying the implicit performative clause as in "Frankly, I don't give
a damn" (derived from "I say to you frankly that I don't give a damn").
(1) I apologize for what I did.
(2) I apologized for what I did.
performative treats these two utterances as the same (differing
only in tense), but (1) constitutes the performance of a specific action
in a way that (2) does not.
AI/Intentionalist view: (e.g., Cohen & Levesque, 1990).
Illocutionary force recognition not required. People assume others have
goals, plans, etc.
Bill: Small coke and fries, please.
Counter person: Would you like ketchup with that?
Bill: Yes, please.
Indirect Speech Acts
People frequently mean more than they say; intended illocutionary force not same as literal illocutionary force. (E.g., "It's warm in here")
Inferential Approaches. Assume: (1) an indirect
remark has both a literal illocutionary force and an indirect illocutionary
force, and (2) inferential processing required to recognize indirect.
Conversational Postulates (Gordon and Lakoff ,1975).
(inference rules) for converting literal meaning blocked by context (e.g,
"Can you x?" translates into "I request you to do x")
Links mechanisms for performing indirect requests with
the felicity conditions underlying requests; people perform indirect requests
by questioning hearer-based preparatory conditions such as ability, willingness,
etc., and by asserting speaker-based preparatory conditions.
Request Form Preparatory Condition
Can you shut the door? Question hearer's ability
I want you to shut the door. Assert speaker's desire
Would you shut the door? Question hearer's willingness
Did you shut the door? Question whether or not act
has been performed
Can be extended to other speech acts (but more difficult)
May explain indirect requests in many different languages (Brown & Levinson, 1987).
Searle (1979) ISAs involve two distinct speech acts; literal and intended.
Literal recognized and then rejected because it violates conversational maxim (see below). Intended indirect is then computed. Felicity conditions guide ISA recognition.
But, what about ISAs not based on felicity (I'm thirsty)
Grice's Theory of Conversational Implicature
Very influential approach.
Concerned with how people mean more than they say
Assume: interlocutors abide by the cooperative principle (CP):
"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"
1. Quantity - Make your contribution as informative as required (i.e., do not be either over-informative or under-informative).
2. Quality - Try to make your contribution true; one for which you have evidence.
3. Manner - Be clear. That is, avoid ambiguity, obscurity, etc.
4. Relation - Make your contribution relevant
for the exchange.
Conversationalists rarely abide by these maxims - But CP adherence is ASSUMED; remarks are interpreted AS IF they were relevant, truthful, etc.
Hearers interpret remark so as to maintain adherence to the conversational maxim (Pass the salt)
Speakers will sometimes intentionally flout or violate
a maxim; But hearer assumes speaker cooperativeness and generates a conversational
implicature that makes sense of the violation. Figurative language, e.g.,
tautologies such "Boys will be boys" or "War is war."
What implicature will a speaker make? (Many possible)
What counts as a violation? Individual and cultural variability; Kennan; Malagasy routinely withold information (quantity violation)
How many maxims? One? (Relevance; Sperber & Wilson).
Idiomatic Approaches. Intended indirect meanings are assumed to be idiomatic, or noncompositional. (E.g., Can you pass the salt?" is as an idiomatic expression).
Recognition and rejection of literal meaning not required.
Linguistic evidence: The constraints on where "please"
can be inserted are identical to those for direct requests (e.g., one can't
say "Could you shut please the door?"). Underlying semantic structure of
indirect requests = semantic structure of direct equivalents.
May be difficult to distinguish between literal and indirect
meanings (Gibbs). Some utterances may not have a literal meaning (e.g.,
How about a beer?). Often, literal meaning is rarely, if ever, intended
(e.g., Can you pass the salt?). Often, literal meaning is not context-free
(e.g., I've eaten)
Comprehending Indirect Speech Acts: Psychololinguistic
Inferential approaches assume addressees:
(1) always first recognize the literal meaning of a remark prior to comprehending the indirect meaning,
(2) search for an indirect interpretation only after deciding
that the literal reading is defective (i.e., it violates a conversational
maxim), (3) generate additional inferences in order to comprehend meaning
Support for inferential:
Clark (1979) - telephone requests (e.g., "Can you tell
me what time you close?"); replies frequently addressed both the literal
and the indirect meaning of the request (e.g., "Sure, 8 p.m.")
Politeness: request politeness based on the remark's literal rather than indirect meaning. E.g.: "Could you shut the door?" is more polite than "I want you to shut the door"
Memory for politeness: people spontaneously remembered
the politeness wording of remarks at better than chance levels.
Above is not direct evidence (e.g., politeness recognized
simultaneously with (rather than prior to) the recognition of the conveyed,
or indirect, meaning)
Support for idiomatic:
Most psycholinguistic research on figurative language
fails to support inferential.
People do not take more time to understand the meaning
of figurative expressions (e.g., "He spilled the beans") than they do literal
equivalent expressions (Gibbs, 1980)
Literal and figurative meanings are assessed simultaneously,
and in some cases even in a reversed order.
In Kosinski's (1971) novel Being There, the president of the United States at one point asks Mr. Gardiner his opinion of the economy, and the latter responds with:
"In a garden ..... growth has its season. There are spring
and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer
again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be
well" (p. 45).
Nonliteral meanings activated even when the literal meaning
is acceptable in context (Gildea & Glucksberg, 1983)
Indirect requests facilitated subsequent sentence verification
judgments of indirect meanings but not literal paraphrases (Gibbs. 1983)
Evidences is mixed; inferential vs. idiomatic depends on several factors
Particularized vs. generalized implicatures
Generalized implicatures are context independent:
Much of the figurative language appears to produce generalized implicatures (e.g., "He spilled the beans")
The nonliteral meaning of many metaphors is not optional; even when context supports a literal reading, nonliteral meaning is still activated
Also, nonliteral meaning is derived primarily from the words in the utterance. Metaphors (e.g., My job is a jail) represent mapping process; prototypical name (e.g., jail) is used to represent an unnamed superordinate category without a name (things confining).
Particularized implicatures are context (discourse) dependent:
Little empirical research (psycholinguists believe idiomatic)
Relation maxim violations are particularlized:
Bob: What did you think of my presentation?
hard to give a good presentation.
Comprehension of these types of replies involves an inference
process. The conveyed indirect meaning (I don't like your presentation)
is optional; the indirect meaning is not activated if the context supports
a literal reading.
Particularized implicatures are not the result of any
particular feature of an utterance (there are an infinite number of utterances
one could use to violate the relevance maxim), but rather a feature of
the placement of the remark in a conversational sequence.
Particularized-generalized distinction is not a property
of utterances per se, but rather a property of use.
Figures of speech might also yield particularized implicatures.
Tom asks Bob if he should apply for a job with Bob's firm,
and Bob replies "My job is a jail". Tom will recognize the metaphorical
meaning (a generalized implicature) and some type of particularized implicature
Conventional means for performing a speech act means that the literal meaning of the utterance is pro forma, not to be taken seriously. Conventional indirect requests generally have the following features: (1) They can be performed by asserting or questioning the felicity conditions that underlie requests
(2) The utterance contains the request-based propositional content (e.g., 'shut the door' in "Could you shut the door?"),
(3) and the preverbal insertion of "please" is allowed
(e.g., "Could you please shut the door?").
People do not respond to the literal meaning of conventional
indirect requests and their indirect meanings are recognized in a direct
Negative state remarks: A speaker can perform a request
by asserting or (questioning) the existence of a negative state (or a state
that the hearer can infer is negative) if there is some action that the
hearer can perform in order to alter the negative state (e.g., "It's warm
in here" or "I'm thirsty")
Extension to replies to requests: Because requests project
to a next turn, the felicity conditions underlying a request should remain
relevant for that turn; same conditions can be denied as a means of refusing
to comply with the request. (E.g."Can you loan me $20?"; ("I don't get
paid until to Friday").
Strengths of SA theory:
Placement of language within the context of social activities.
Clear for declaratives (I declare war on Ohio), but necessary for other speech acts
To understand a directive, requires an understanding of
not just language as an abstract system, but an understanding of peoples'
relations with one another; that people can and do perform actions for
one another, that people have desires for others to perform such actions,
that people have various rights and obligations, and so on.
Research needed on comprehension(emphasis has been on production)
E.g., speaker status; effects production but comprehension
Research needed on perlocutionary effects (speech acts will differ)
Research needed on why people speak indirectly (politeness)
The unit of analysis in speech act theory is a speaker's single utterance; conversational utterances usually incomplete, fragmented, elliptical, etc. Also, single speech acts can be performed over a stretch of dialogue
Al: Hi, ya busy?
Bob: Sorta, what's up?
Al: I'm having problems with my computer.
Bob: I could look at it this evening.
Al: Great, thanks