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Direct and Indirect Speech Acts in English

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Direct and Indirect Speech Acts in English

Major Bachelor’s Thesis
Veronika Justová

Supervisor: Mgr. Jan Chovanec, Ph.D. Brno 2006

I hereby declare that I have worked on this Bachelor Thesis independently, using only primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

20th April 2006 in Brno:

I wish to express many thanks to my supervisor, Mgr. Jan Chovanec, Ph.D., for his kind and valuable advice, help and support.


Introduction 5

1. Language, Speech Acts and Performatives 6

1.1. Explicit and Implicit Performatives 7

1.2. Felicity Conditions 9

2. The Locutionary, Illocutionary and Perlocutionary Acts 11

2.1. Locutionary Acts 12

2.2. Illocutionary Acts 13

2.3. Perlocutionary Acts 17

3. Indirectness 17

3.1. The Theory of Implicature, the Cooperative Principle and Maxims 18

4. Life x 3 21

4.1. Direct speech Acts As a Reaction to Direct Speech Acts 22

4.2. Indirect Speech As a Reaction to Direct Speech Acts 24

4.3. Direct Speech As a Reaction to Indirect Speech Acts 27

4.4. Indirect Speech As a Reaction to Indirect Speech Acts 30

4.5. Data Evaluation 32

Conclusion 34

Czech résumé 35

Bibliography 36

Appendix 38


This thesis deals with the theory of speech acts and the issue of indirectness in English. It sums up and comments on theoretical definitions and assumptions concerning the theory of speech acts given by some linguists and language philosophers. This work further discusses the usage of speech acts in various conversational situations, putting the accent particularly on indirectness and its application in the language of drama.

In the first three chapters, I am going to deal with the theoretical approach towards the speech acts. I will comment on the types of speech acts, I will explain how it is possible that the hearer successfully decodes a non-literal, implied message, what conditions must be met in order that the hearer succeeds in this process of decoding and I will suggest why people use indirectness in everyday communication.

In the last chapter, I will then concentrate on indirectness in the discourse of drama. For my analysis, I have chosen the play Life x 3 by a contemporary French author Yasmina Reza whose pieces are often based rather on exchanges between the characters than on some kind of complicated plot.

In Life x 3, I have identified four types of exchanges: direct speech acts motivated by direct speech acts, indirect speech acts motivated by direct speech acts, direct speech acts motivated by indirect speech acts and finally indirect speech acts motivated by indirect speech acts. They occur in various proportions, the most frequent being the direct-indirect exchanges and the least frequent being the indirect-direct exchanges.

Grounded on empirical data, I have found out that the play is based rather on indirectness since there are 62 exchanges out of which at least one is indirect, the total number of exchanges being 89.

Direct-direct, indirect-indirect and direct-indirect contributions are quite frequent throughout the play. It seems that the hearer in these exchanges accepts the strategy proposed by the speaker and chooses to pursue likewise, or in the case of direct-indirect exchanges, he decides to make his utterance more polite or evasive so that he does not offend the speaker. In direct-indirect exchanges, the hearer sometimes has more reasons to use indirectness (power, competing goals, desire to make his language more interesting).

On the other hand, indirect-direct strategy is somehow dispreferred as, based on this play, directness after an indirect utterance may initiate an argument between the speakers.

1. Language, Speech Acts and Performatives

Language is an inseparable part of our everyday lives. It is the main tool used to transmit messages, to communicate ideas, thoughts and opinions. It situates us in the society we live in; it is a social affair which creates and further determines our position in all kinds of various social networks and institutions.

In certain circumstances we are literally dependent on its appropriate usage and there are moments when we need to be understood quite correctly. Language is involved in nearly all fields of human activity and maybe that is why language and linguistic communication have become a widely discussed topic among linguists, lawyers, psychologists and philosophers.

According to an American language philosopher J.R. Searle speaking a language is performing speech acts, acts such as making statements, giving commands, asking questions or making promises. Searle states that all linguistic communication involves linguistic (speech) acts. In other words, speech acts are the basic or minimal units of linguistic communication. (1976, 16) They are not mere artificial linguistic constructs as it may seem, their understanding together with the acquaintance of context in which they are performed are often essential for decoding the whole utterance and its proper meaning. The speech acts are used in standard quotidian exchanges as well as in jokes or drama for instance.

The problem of speech acts was pioneered by another American language philosopher J.L. Austin. His observations were delivered at Harvard University in 1955 as the William James Lectures which were posthumously published in his famous book How to Do Things with Words. It is Austin who introduces basic terms and areas to study and distinguishes locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. As Lyons puts it: Austin’s main purpose was to challenge the view that the only philosophically (and also linguistically) interesting function of language was that of making true or false statements.(Lyons, 173) Austin proves that there are undoubtedly more functions language can exercise. The theory of speech acts thus comes to being and Austin’s research becomes a cornerstone for his followers.

It is Austin who introduces basic terms and areas to study and he also comes up with a new category of utterances – the performatives.

Performatives are historically the first speech acts to be examined within the theory of speech acts. Austin defines a performative as an utterance which contains a special type of verb (a performative verb) by force of which it performs an action. In other words, in using a performative, a person is not just saying something but is actually doing something (Wardhaugh: 1992: 283). Austin further states that a performative, unlike a constative, cannot be true or false (it can only be felicitous or infelicitous) and that it does not describe, report or constate anything. He also claims that from the grammatical point of view, a performative is a first person indicative active sentence in the simple present tense. This criterion is ambiguous though and that is why, in order to distinguish the performative use from other possible uses of first person indicative active pattern, Austin introduces a hereby test since he finds out that performative verbs only can collocate with this adverb.
1. a. I hereby resign from the post of the President of the Czech Republic.

b. I hereby get up at seven o’clock in the morning every day.

While the first sentence would make sense under specific conditions, uttering of the second would be rather strange. From this it follows that (1a) is a performative, (1b) is not.

Having defined performatives, Austin then draws a basic distinction between them. He distinguishes two general groups - explicit and implicit performatives.

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