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Direct and Indirect Speech Acts in English

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1.1. Explicit and Implicit Performatives

An explicit performative is one in which the utterance inscription contains an expression that makes explicit what kind of act is being performed (Lyons, 1981: 175). An explicit performative includes a performative verb and mainly therefore, as Thomas (1995: 47) claims, it can be seen to be a mechanism which allows the speaker to remove any possibility of misunderstanding the force behind an utterance.

2. a. I order you to leave.

b. Will you leave?

In the first example, the speaker utters a sentence with an imperative proposition and with the purpose to make the hearer leave. The speaker uses a performative verb and thus completely avoids any possible misunderstanding. The message is clear here.

The second utterance (2b) is rather ambiguous without an appropriate context. It can be understood in two different ways: it can be either taken literally, as a yes/no question, or non-literally as an indirect request or even command to leave. The hearer can become confused and he does not always have to decode the speaker’s intention successfully. (2b) is an implicit or primary performative. Working on Lyon’s assumption, this is non-explicit, in terms of the definition given above, in that there is no expression in the utterance-inscription itself which makes explicit the fact that this is to be taken as a request rather than a yes/no question (Lyons, 1981: 176).

The explicit and implicit versions are not equivalent. Uttering the explicit performative version of a command has much more serious impact than uttering the implicit version (Yule, 1996: 52). Thomas adds to this that people therefore often avoid using an explicit performative since in many circumstances it seems to imply an unequal power relationship or particular set of rights on the part of the speaker (1995: 48). This can be seen in the following examples:
3. a. Speak. Who began this? On thy love, I charge thee. (Othello, 2.3.177)

b. I dub thee knight.

In (3a) Othello speaks to his ensign Iago and asks him who initiated a recent fight. Othello addresses Iago from the position of strength and power and he therefore uses the explicit performative ‘I charge thee’. Iago understands what is being communicated and carefully explains that he does not know who had started it.

In (3b) the situation is different. In this example it is rather the particular set of rights on the part of the speaker which enable him to use an explicit performative. Dubbing was the ceremony whereby the candidate’s initiation into knighthood was completed. It could only be carried out by the king or any entitled seigneur who shall strike the candidate three times with the flax of the blade, first upon the left shoulder, next upon the right shoulder and finally upon the top of the head while saying I dub thee once.. I dub thee twice...I dub thee Knight.1 The ceremony was completed when the knight received spurs and a belt as tokens of chivalry. Levinson (: 230) declares that ‘performative sentences achieve their corresponding actions because there are specific conventions linking the words to institutional procedures’. The institutional procedures are not always the same, they differ considerably in different historical periods and cultures (e.g. the institution of marriage in western and eastern societies). Austin states that it is also necessary for the procedure and the performative to be executed in appropriate circumstances in order to be successful.

Shiffrin (1994: 51), commenting on Austin’s observations, adds: “The circumstances allowing an act are varied: they include the existence of ‘an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect’, the presence of ‘particular persons and circumstances’, ‘the correct and complete execution of a procedure’, and (when appropriate to the act) ‘certain thoughts, feelings, or intentions’.” These circumstances are more often called felicity conditions.

1.2. Felicity Conditions

The term of felicity conditions was proposed by Austin who defines them as follows (Austin, 1962: 14 – 15):

  1. There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances.

  2. The particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.

  3. The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and completely.

  4. Where, as often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings, or for the inauguration of certain consequential conduct on the part of any participant, then a person participating in and so invoking the procedure must intend so to conduct themselves, and further must actually so conduct themselves subsequently.

Linguistic literature concerning the theory of speech acts often deals with Austin’s example of marriage in connection with felicity conditions. Thomas for instance closely describes the institution of marriage and states that in western societies “this conventional procedure involves a man and a woman, who are not debarred from marrying for any reason, presenting themselves before an authorized person (minister of religion or registrar), in an authorized place (place of worship or registry place), at an approved time (certain days or times are excluded) accompanied by a minimum of two witnesses. They must go through a specified form of marriage: the marriage is not legal unless certain declarations are made and unless certain words have been spoken” (Thomas, 1995: 38). Only then are all the felicity conditions met and the act is considered valid.

However, this procedure is often not universal; the customs vary throughout countries and cultures. In Islamic world for example, the ceremony of marriage is considerably different. The bride cannot act herself, she needs a wali (male relative) to represent her in concluding the marital contract as without his presence the marriage would be invalid and illegal. The declarations and words spoken are also culture specific and thus different from the formulas common in Europe.2

For all that, there must exist a certain conventional procedure with appropriate circumstances and persons involved, it must be executed correctly and completely, the persons must have necessary thoughts, feelings and intentions and if consequent conduct is specified, then the relevant parties must do it. (Thomas, 1995: 37) Generally, only with these felicity conditions met the act is fully valid.

The term of felicity conditions is still in use and it is not restricted only to performatives anymore. As Yule (Yule, 1996: 50) observes, felicity conditions cover expected or appropriate circumstances for the performance of a speech act to be recognized as intended. He then, working on originally Searle’s assumptions, proposes further classification of felicity conditions into five classes: general conditions, content conditions, preparatory conditions, sincerity conditions and essential conditions. According to Yule (Yule,1996:50), general conditions presuppose the participants’ knowledge of the language being used and his non-playacting, content conditions concern the appropriate content of an utterance, preparatory conditions deal with differences of various illocutionary acts (e.g. those of promising or warning), sincerity conditions count with speaker’s intention to carry out a certain act and essential conditions ‘combine with a specification of what must be in the utterance content, the context, and the speaker’s intentions, in order for a specific act to be appropriately (felicitously) performed’.

In connection with felicity conditions as well, Austin later realizes that the category of performatives and constatives is not sufficient and thus, in an attempt to replace it by a general theory of speech acts, he ‘isolates three basic senses in which in saying something one is doing something, and hence three kinds of acts that are simultaneously performed’ (Levinson: 236): the locutionary, illocutioanary and perlocutionary acts.

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