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Linguistics

Speech Acts: An Essay in the Phi1osoph.v of In Speech Acts, Searle provides an


Language. JOHN R. SEARLE. Cam- incisive and suggestive account of the im-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. plications of these observations for the
vi + 203 pp., chart, figures, index. $8.50 philosophy of language. Essentially, Searle’s
(cloth). argument is that anything that can be
“meant” can be “said,” and potentially,
Reviewed by MICHELLE Z . ROSALDO “undertsood,” by virtue of the fact that
Stanford University language is rule-governed on at least three
levels. Any “sentence” can be analyzed as: (a)
an “utterance act” (a grammatical sequence
In speaking, we do not simply say things of “words”); (b) a “propositional act”
about the world we live in, but also act in it. (involving “reference” and “predication”);
Our utterances are heard not as neutral and (c) an “illocutionary act.” Illocutionary
propositions but as socially situated activi- acts depend upon, and color, propositions.
ties-as commands, assertions, promises, If, for example, a proposition predicates
requests, or questionswhose meaning “honesty” of “Mr. Nixon,” illocutionary
depends on the relationships and intentions considerations may cast the issue as a ques-
of parties to a speech event. tion (“Is Mr. Nixon honest?”), an assertion
That saying is often (and perhaps always) (“Mr. Nixon is honest”), or a command
a kind of doing, was suggested by Searle’s (“Mr. Nixon, be honest!”). Where linguists
teacher, J. L. Austin, in his book, How to and philosophers have conventionally
Do Things with Words (1962). Austin directed their attention to the rule-governed
isolated a class of verbs-like command, properties of levels (a) and (b), Searle’s
accuse, promise, ask, name, request, and so concern is to demonstrate that “illocution”
on-which, when used in the first person is an orderly and rule-governed activity, and
singular present indicative, do not describe that an understanding of the rules which
but constitute an action, such that utter- govern various modes of illocution com-
ances like “I name this boat the Queen pletes and clarifies the analysis of grammar
Elizabeth,” when spoken in the appropriate and logic, or of utterance and propositional
context, count as doing just that. Such acts.
verbs, called “performatives,” were seen as In particular, Searle suggests that the
specifying the “illocutionary” force of utter- rules for any illocution will involve, in most
ances (what is being done in saying certain cases: (a) making an appropriate proposition
things), and Austin went on to suggest that (e.g., in the case of promises, that something
even when explicit performative verbs are will be done in the future); (b) fulfilling
absent, all speaking should be seen as certain preparatory conditions (e.g., that the
‘‘doing” and having “illocutionary force.” giver of a command is in a position of
To say “I do” is not to describe a marriage, authority, that a promiser proposes some-
but to indulge in it. To say “it’s hot in thing which an addressee may find desira-
here,” involves a proposition about the ble); (c) being sincere (e.g., wanting to know
temperature, but it is also an act-a com- the answer to a question, intending to fulfill
plaint or an assertion or a request that a promise); and (d) having one’s statement
someone open the door. “Would you like “count as” accomplishing what is essential
some tea?” can be heard as a question or an to the particular act (e.g., undertaking an
offer; “I wish you’d stop that” may be a obligation in the case of promises; requesting
request or a statement of desire. A first and information for a question).
crucial import of these observations is that Some rules, like the preparatory condi-
all utterances necessarily have socially tion that what is said should not be what
situated implications, that “meaning” any- participants take as obvious (e.g., we don’t
thing in speaking involves intentions as to promise to eat at mealtimes unless it seems
stood. It would seem, then, that any analysis questionable that we will) are likely to hold
of language must include an understanding for all successful illocutions; others, like the
of the fact that it is used in socially rules for questioning, may specify speech
constituted acts of speech. acts which can occur in all societies and all
153
154 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [76,1974

contexts; and still others (the “essential” in a number of respects. To begin, judgments
conditions of a “promise”?) seem to be concerning the meaning and appropriateness
limited to culture and context-specific acts of particular illocutions are referred exclu-
of speech. An interesting result of Searle’s sively to the presumed internal states and
analysis is, then, that it suggests possibilities dispositions of participants-their sincerity,
for comparison, involving the specification capacities, intentionsrather than to the
of rules appropriate to all varieties of illocu- context at hand. But “Sincerity” is not, in
tion in natural conversation, and considera- fact, dissociable from social context. If I feel
tions as to what sorts of combinations of tired but say “fine” when someone asks me
these rules become specified in particular “How are you?”, I may be answering ap-
cultures and situations in conscious and propriately; the alternative, to say “lousy”
institutionalized expectations and in the use or “I’m tired,” may seem to be more
of particular performative verbs. Further- “honest,” but my choice of such an answer
more, Searle’s analysis of speech acts has is likely to have the consequence of focusing
immediate relevance for a number of issues the next few minutes’ discourse on my state
in philosophy and linguistics. For example, of health (cf. Sacks 1973). In other words,
in distinguishing the “illocutionary” and the social meaning of my answer might be
“propositional” content of utterances, he better represented by attending to socially
offers an alternative to the doctrine that structured strings of talk like “conversation-
Meaning is Use-a doctrine which leads to al openings” (cf. Schegloff 1968) than to the
the suggestion that to call something “good” conditions on the performance of a “sincere
means “to commend” it, or to say one response.”
“knows” or “remembers” is to presuppose A second, and related problem, derives
the problematic status of what is known or from the philosopher’s attention to our
recalled. Searle’s alternative is to factor out words for illocutionsquestion, answer,
propositions which predicate “good,” promiserather than to regular features of
“know,” or “remember” (themselves simply observed discourse. Searle isolates modes of
descriptive expressions) from the sorts of illocution by using the performative verbs of
speech acts (assertion, commendation) in English, and asking what conditions govern
which they are commonly used. Finally, the “literal” use of “I promise,” “question,”
Searle’s analysis is related to recent and the like. While he is aware that such
proposals in Generative Semantics (e.g., Ross verbs do not distinguish illocutions in the
1970; Gordon & Lakoff 1971) which claim same way in all languages, his method
that any utterance has associated with its depends on the assumption that they might.
logical structure an underlying performative Yet a number of considerations suggest
verb. Underlying performatives have otherwise. For example, not all instances of
interesting relations to the surface structure “questioning” are similar; to ask “How are
of sentencessuch that, for instance, to you?” at the beginning of an ordinary
assert a speaker-based condition on an illocu- conversation is hardly the same kind of
tion (“I want you to take out the garbage”) speech act as the same question uttered
or to question a hearer-based condition when someone has just been hit by a car.
(“Can you take out the garbage?”) can have Again, explicit performative verbs (“I
the same performative force (both are promise,” “I command”) appear rarely in
requests). informal discourse (even though we continu-
Searle’s discussion is, then, wide in scope ally take on obligations and give orders), and
and suggestive in its implications. At the occur, instead, in relatively limited and
same time, it suffers the limitations of a formal contexts (e.g., in instructing children,
range of recent developments in linguistics or in courts of law), or in ironic and what
which attempt to characterize language by Searle would see as “derivative” sorts of use
attending to individual speakers’ intuitions (“I promise to fail you if you cheat on the
to the exclusion of the actual social use of exam”). This suggests that the presence of
speech. So, for example, speech act theory such verbs in any language depends on their
uses the idea of “illocutionary force,” or use in certain social institutions, rather than
“underlying performative” to attach gram- on some natural propensity for our language
matical strings (or “sentences”) to a social to provide us with methods of labeling the
context. Yet the proposal seems inadequate things which we intend our utterances to do.
LINGUISTICS 155

In short, it seems unlikely that the proposal Kroeber and C. F. Voegelin. Approaches
that we attach performative verbs to t o Semiotics series, 14. The Hague:
sentences will go far in illuminating the social Mouton, 1972. xliii + 552 pp., figures,
organization of meaning in our talk. illustrations, map. DG 76.00 (cloth). [Re-
Both t h e advantages and limitations of printed from original, Sign Language
Searle’s approach should, then, highlight a among North American Indians: Com-
number of issues of concern to anthro- pared with That among Other Peoples
pologists. I t suggests, for instance, the and Deaf-Mutes, Smithsonian Institution,
interest of comparative studies of the kinds Bureau of Ethnology, 1881.1
and uses of “performatives.” I t is also
relevant t o studies in semantics. On the one Reviewed by KEITH H. BASSO
hand, its insistance that all utterances have University of Arizona
illocutionary force presents a challenge t o
those who would base semantic accounts This monograph, which originally ap-
solely o n the evidence of declarative peared in 1881 as the 1st Annual Report of
sentences (for example, the responses t o an the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, is a
ethnoscientist’s “question frames”). On the lengthy, uneven, and loosely organized
other, its proposal that “illocutionary” and treatise that explores the origins and devel-
“propositional” acts can be analytically dis- opment of human systems of gestural
tinguished, points the way towards more communication through an analysis of North
explicit accounts of the ways in which American Indian sign languages. It is a
“semantic representations” may be relatively pioneering effort in which D. Garrick
“context free.” Finally, the inadequacies of Mallery, a retired military officer turned
a performative analysis of social meaning anthropologist, attempted to give scope and
highlight our need for studies of actual direction to a fresh area of inquiry by
interaction, and ultimately, for a “social bringing together an enormous array of facts
semantics,” for an understanding of language and interpreting them according t o “avail-
which does justice t o the recognition by men able scientific theories and cautious objec-
like Saussure and Durkheim-that language tive reasoning.” In retrospect, it is apparent
is, primarily, a Social Fact. that Mallery’s own common sense served
him more effectively than the science of his
References Cited day, for when he applies the ideas of leading
theorists-Darwin, Tylor, and Morgan, among
Austin, John L. o t h e r s h e is led to commit some glaring
1962 How to Do Things with Words. errors. On the other hand, when he rests
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gordon, D. and G. Lakoff content with describing his data, assessing
1971 Conversational Postulates. Papers their implications, and drawing conclusions
from the Seventh Regional Meeting of about them in the form of explicit hypo-
the Chicago Linguistic Society. pp. theses, he is both provocative and sound.
63-84. That Mallery made any positive contribu-
Ross, John Robert tions a t all is quite remarkable when one
1970 On Declarative Sentences. In considers the many misconceptions he held
Readings in English Transformational about the world’s “savage races” and their
Grammar. R. Jacobs, and P. Rosen- so-called “primitive languages.” As already
baum, Eds. Waltham, MA: Ginn and
Company. mentioned, some of these misconceptions
Sacks, Harvey resulted from Mallery’s uncritical acceptance
1973 Tout le Monde Doit Mentir. Com- of nineteenth century evolutionary doctrine;
munications 20. others stemmed from the paucity of reliable
Schegloff, Emanuel A. information available to him concerning
1968 Sequencing in Conversational non-Indo-European languages, especially
Openings. American Anthropologist those spoken by American Indians. Here are
70:1075-1095. two examples.
On the kinds of gestures employed by
Sign Language among North American In- non-literate man and animals:
dians. GARRICK MALLERY. Foreword The gestures of the lower tribes of men
by Thomas A. Sebeok. Articles by A. L. may be generally classed under the