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Direct and Indirect Speech Acts in English

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2.3. Perlocutionary Acts

Perlocutionary acts, Austin’s last element in the three-fold definition of speech acts, are performed with the intention of producing a further effect on the hearer. Sometimes it may seem that perlocutionary acts do not differ from illocutionary acts very much, yet there is one important feature which tells them apart. There are two levels of success in performing illocutionary and perlocutionary acts which can be best explained on a simple example.

13. Would you close the door?

Considered merely as an illocutionary act (a request in this case), the act is successful if the hearer recognizes that he should close the door, but as a perlocutionary act it succeeds only if he actually closes it.

There are many utterances with the purpose to effect the hearer in some way or other, some convey the information directly, others are more careful or polite and they use indirectness to transmit the message.

3. Indirectness

Indirectness is a widely used conversational strategy. People tend to use indirect speech acts mainly in connection with politeness (Leech, 1983: 108) since they thus diminish the unpleasant message contained in requests and orders for instance. Therefore similar utterances as in (14) are often employed.

14. It’s very hot in here.

In this example the speaker explains or even excuses the reason why he makes a request (Open the window!). Ardissono argues that the speakers often prefer indirect speech acts so that they do not infringe the hearer’s face, which might be the case here too. Ardissono claims that sometimes direct addresses may even appear impolite as in ‘Would you lend me some money?and ‘Lend me some money!’ The latter variant would be absolutely unacceptable in some contexts.

However, politeness is not the only motivation for indirectness. People also use indirect strategies when they want to make their speech more interesting, when they want to reach goals different from their partners’ or when they want to increase the force of the message communicated (Thomas, 1995: 143). These factors will be further discussed in chapter five when analyzing Yasmina Reza’s play Life x 3.

The motivation for indirectness seems to be more or less clear but the question most linguists deal with is: How is it possible that the hearer understands what the speaker actually communicates by his utterance?

To answer this cardinal question, the theory of implicature and the cooperative principle have been developed.

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

The author of this theory, an English language philosopher Paul Grice, scientifically clarifies the subject of mutual speaker-hearer understanding and says that we are able to converse with one another because we recognize common goals in conversation and specific ways of achieving these goals. In any conversation, only certain kinds of moves are possible at any particular time because of the constraints that operate to govern exchanges (Wardahaugh, 1992: 289).

Grice comes up with the theory of implicature in which he tries to explain in detail how the hearer gets from what is said to what is meant. According to Grice, there is a set of over-arching assumptions guiding the conduct of conversation which arise from basic rational consideration (Levinson, 1983: 101). Levinson also adds to this that the assumptions can be understood as guidelines leading the course of the conversation (Levinson, 1983: 101). Grice calls them maxims and states that they together form the cooperative principle: ‘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.’ (taken from Schiffrin, 1994: 194).

Grice distinguishes four basic maxims:

Maxim of Quantity:

  1. Make you contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true.

  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Relation: Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner: Be perspicuous.

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.

  2. Avoid ambiguity.

  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).

  4. Be orderly. (Schiffrin, 1994: 194)

What can be derived from the cooperative principle is the fact that maxims should be theoretically involved in every conversation. However, in everyday communication, the conversational situation is not always ideal and that is why the maxims are often not fully observed. There are several ways in which the speaker can fail to observe one or more maxims. These are flouting (the speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim), violating (unostentatious non-observance of a maxim), infringing (the speaker fails to observe a maxim without any intentions), suspending and opting out (the speaker indicates unwillingness to cooperate in the way the maxim requires) of a maxim (Thomas, 1995: 64).

As a result consequent upon non-observance of certain maxims, the speaker’s utterance may communicate something completely different from what was said. In other words, the utterance can imply something.

This finding helps to explain and comprehend indirect contributions. Although seeming inappropriate at the first sight, the hearer presupposes that the speaker has in mind and maintains the cooperative principle. The hearer, and sometimes also the speaker, thus understands what is actually being said.

This can be demonstrated on the following example:

15. A: Wouldn’t you want to be able to hunt later on the first day of hunting?

B: I said Saturday, so obviously that’s the day I prefer. (Tannen, 1990: 159)

This exchange is taken from an interview going on between husband and wife who are planning a dinner for their friends. A is trying to set the date while B gives reasons why he is busy. A loses patience and makes an indirect request in the form of a yes/no question. B decodes it and also reacts indirectly. A flouts the maxim of Manner and B flouts the maxim of Quantity (A is not brief, B is more informative than required).

Even though this exchange may seem strange as B does not utter a response relevant to a yes/no question, the message is clear for A as she relies on B’s conversational cooperation. She knows hence that B’s response must have some sort of interrelationship towards her utterance and she looks for non-literal, indirect meaning.

The cooperative principle, together with other contextual circumstances, helps in establishing the actual meaning of the utterance.

Indirectness is thus not an uncommon conversational strategy. On the contrary, it is widely used not only in everyday communication or jokes as we saw earlier, but also in literature and drama in the first place.

The employment of indirect strategies can be observed for example in Life x 3, a play by contemporary French author Yasmina Reza, I have chosen for my analysis.
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