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Direct and Indirect Speech Acts in English

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4.3. Direct Speech As a Reaction to Indirect Speech Acts

There are only 9 direct-indirect exchanges out of 89 exchanges in total. This number indicates that the direct-indirect strategy might be dispreferred by the speakers. Is it really so? Why is the direct-indirect strategy not sought after? These are the main questions I would like to deal with in this section.

Henri: ..... He wants a cuddle. Just a little cuddle.

Sonia: No. (71)

Henri’s utterance could be interpreted as an imperative or request (Go and give him a cuddle!). In saying ‘He (our son) wants a cuddle. Just a little cuddle.’ Henri performs two illocutionary acts: a primary illocutionary act of request which is communicated by way of performing a secondary illocutionary act of making a statement. He performs the secondary illocutionary act by way of uttering a sentence the literal meaning of which is such that its literal utterance constitutes a performance of that illocutionary act. (Searle, 1979: 33) In other words, the secondary illocutionary act is literal while the primary illocutionary act is not.

The speaker, Sonia, apparently understands what message her husband tries to transmit, she succeeds in decoding that he is making a request since she answers no. Her response is short but absolutely clear. In fact, her no accompanied with certain paralinguistic features could be taken as an invitation to an argument. And indeed, after Sonia’s brief no the couple starts quarrelling. Her direct no after a nice indirect request made Henry annoyed.

Henri: Will you go and get dressed, Sonia?

Sonia: No. (76)

This example is very similar to the preceding one. Henri utters an indirect request whose surface form resembles a question. Taken from a different perspective, the primary illocutionary act is again a request, the second illocutionary act is a yes/no question this time. Sonia answers no again. In this exchange, it is not easy to say whether or not she has decoded the primary illocutionary act of request produced by the speaker because the answer to both, to the yes/no question and to the request, might be no. However, everything indicates that she has decoded the speaker’s intentions correctly. It seems that Sonia wants to make Henry angry. She seems to resist his power. Requests like these typically do not normally call for any reply and if they do, then it tends to be in the affirmative or some avoidance strategy. And therefore it is easy for the situation to escalate into a quarrel – in a quarrel politeness, maxims, etc. are not observed. This time the dispute is evaded because the Finidoris are waiting outside, and therefore Henri only reacts in uttering ‘How can you be so selfish?’ Under normal conditions, it is probable that the row would have started.
Henri: I told him you were coming.

Sonia: I’m not going in there one more time, I hope that’s clear. (78)

In this example, Henri repeats his strategy from the first indirect-direct exchange. He communicates a request. Sonia, once again, correctly decodes the primary illocutionary act behind the statement and utters a corresponding answer. Her answer is a bit stronger than it was in the preceding two exchanges. She clearly does not observe the maxims of Manner (she is not brief enough) and Quantity (her contribution is perhaps more informative than required). Sonia’s answer provokes Henri to criticize her and once again, it might be taken as some kind of rudiment for an argument.
Hubert: See, and she knows what she’s talking about!

Inès: I’m not offended, you know. (77)

The situation in this example is slightly different from those commented on above. Hubert utters an indirect speech act which is to be understood as ironical or even sarcastic. The context and already mentioned paralinguistic features are an important part which helps to establish the meaning of the whole utterance. Without an appropriate context and Hubert’s intention to mock Inès, the sentence could have been taken literally. It is the speaker who can influence the meaning. “What is added in the indirect cases is not any additional or different sentence meaning, but additional speaker meaning.” (Searle, 1979: 42)
Hubert: Oh, look, there’s one more Wotsit!

Sonia: Eat it! (72)

The first part of Hubert’s utterance with hidden ironical meaning is intended for Inès; Hubert scornfully explains to her what Henri meant with topical. The second part of Hubert’s utterance seems a bit out of place, he suddenly and quite unexpectedly completely changes the subject of conversation by saying ‘Oh, look, there’s one more Wotsit!’ and thus flouts the maxim of Relation. “The maxim of Relation is exploited by making a response or observation which is obviously irrelevant to the topic in hand (e.g. by abruptly changing the subject).” (Thomas, 1995: 70) And this is exactly what Hubert does.

Bach and Harnish state that changing the subject is a common conversational practice with a range of possible purposes. One may change the subject to avoid revealing a secret, to keep from committing oneself on something, to avoid excessive dwelling on a subject painful to oneself or to the hearer, to confuse the hearer, to test the hearer’s interest or persistence, or simply to liven up the conversation (1984: 99). Hubert’s purposes for changing the topic can be connected with his decision not to put down his wife anymore. For him, this conversation is over and besides, he seems to really have a soft spot for Wotsits. The primary illocutionary act in this case is a question (Can I have the last Wotsit?), the secondary literal illocutionary act is a statement describing the situation about Wotsits. Sonia, the hostess, recognizes the primary illocutionary act in Hubert’s contribution and utters ‘Eat it!’. The indirectness was revealed and properly treated. The hearer understood the speaker’s message.

The indirect-direct exchanges are scarce in the play (9 out of 92). From the examples in the play it follows that a direct utterance employed after an indirect one might provoke an argument (there are 6 cases in 9 which could be taken as a possible impulse for an argument; three of potential ‘argument-starters’ are specified in more detail above). This might be the main reason, and the numbers empirically prove it, why the characters avoid using this conversational strategy.

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