Speech Act Theory

by Joanna Jaworowska

§         Speech Acts and Meaning

§         Classification of Speech Acts

§         Are Speech Acts Universal or Culture and Language – Specific?

§        How to Teach Speech Acts?

What is a Speech Act?

            A speech act is a minimal functional unit in human communication. Just as a word  (refusal) is the smallest free form found in language and a morpheme is the smallest unit of language that carries information about meaning (-al in refuse-al makes it a noun), the basic unit of communication is a speech act (the speech act of refusal).


The Meaning of Speech Acts

According to Austin’s theory (1962), what we say has three kinds of meaning:

1.      propositional meaning – the literal meaning of what is said     

  It’s hot in here.

2.      illocutionary meaning – the social function of what is said                           

It’s hot in here’   could be:  

– an indirect request for someone to open the window                                                            

– an indirect refusal to close the window because someone is cold                                          

– a complaint implying that someone should know better than to keep the windows closed (expressed emphatically) 

3.      perlocutionary meaning – the effect of what is said 

 ‘It’s hot in here’ could result in someone opening the windows                                              


Classification of Speech Acts

Based on Austin’s (1962), and Searle’s (1969) theory, Cohen ( 1996) identifies five categories of speech acts based on the functions assigned to them.

Representatives Directives Expressives Comissives Declaratives
assertions   suggestions apologies promises decrees
claims requests complaint threats declarations
reports   commands thanks offers  


Speech Act Theory

Speech act theory attempts to explain how speakers use language to accomplish intended actions and how hearers infer intended meaning form what is said.  Although speech act studies are now considered a sub-discipline of cross-cultural pragmatics, they actually take their origin in the philosophy of language.

It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ‘statement’ can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to ‘state some fact’, which it must do either truly or falsely. (…) But now in recent years, many things, which would once have been accepted without question as ‘statements’ by both philosophers and grammarians have been scrutinized with new care. (…) It has come to be commonly held that many utterances which look like statements are either not intended at all, or only intended in part, to record or impart straight forward information about the facts (…). (Austin, 1962, p. 1)

Philosophers like Austin (1962), Grice (1957), and Searle (1965, 1969, 1975) offered basic insight into this new theory of linguistic communication based on the assumption that  “(…) the minimal units of human communication are not linguistic expressions, but rather the performance of certain kinds of acts, such as making statements, asking questions, giving directions, apologizing, thanking, and so on” (Blum-Kulka, House, & Kasper, 1989, p.2). Austin (1962) defines the performance of uttering words with a consequential purpose as “the performance of a locutionary act, and the study of utterances thus far and in these respects the study of locutions, or of the full units of speech” (p. 69). These units of speech are not tokens of the symbol or word or sentence but rather units of linguistic communication and it is “(…) the production of the token in the performance of the speech act that constitutes the basic unit of linguistic communication” (Searle, 1965, p.136). According to Austin’s theory, these functional units of communication have prepositional or locutionary meaning (the literal meaning of the utterance), illocutionary meaning (the social function of the utterance), and perlocutionary force (the effect produced by the utterance in a given context) (Cohen, 1996, p. 384).


Are Speech Acts Universal or Culture and Language – Specific?

Speech acts have been claimed by some to operate by universal pragmatic principles (Austin, (1962),  Searle (1969, 1975), Brown & Levinson (1978)). Others have shown them to vary in conceptualization and verbalization across cultures and languages (Wong, 1994; Wierzbicka, 1985). Although this debate has generated over three decades of research, only the last 15 years marked a shift from an intuitively based approach to an empirically based one, which “has focused on the perception and production of speech acts by learners of a second or foreign language (in the most cases, English as a second or foreign language, i.e., ESL and EFL) at varying stages of language proficiency and in different social interactions” (Cohen, 1996, p. 385).  Blum Kulka et. al., (1989) argue that there is a strong need to complement theoretical studies of speech acts with empirical studies, based on speech acts produced by native speakers of individual languages in strictly defined contexts.

The illocutionary choices embraced by individual languages reflect what Gumperz (1982) calls “cultural logic” (pp. 182-185). Consider the following passage:

The fact that two speakers whose sentences are quite grammatical can differ radically in their interpretation of each other’s verbal strategies indicates that conversational management does rest on linguistic knowledge. But to find out what that knowledge is we must abandon the existing views of communication which draw a basic distinction between cultural or social knowledge on the one hand and linguistic signaling processes on the other. (pp. 185-186)

Differences in “cultural logic” embodied in individual languages involve the implementation of various linguistic mechanisms.  As numerous studies have shown, these mechanisms are rather culture-specific and may cause breakdowns in inter-ethnic communication. Such communication breakdowns are largely due to a language transfer at the sociocultural level where cultural differences play a part in selecting among the potential strategies for realizing a given speech act. Hence the need to make the instruction of speech acts an instrumental component of every ESL/ EFL curriculum.


Why should ESL Students Learn to Perform Speech Acts?

When second language learners engage in conversations with native speakers, difficulties may arise due to their lack of mastery of the conversational norms involved in the production of speech acts. Such conversational difficulties may in turn cause breakdowns in interethnic communication (Gumperz, 1990). When the nonnative speakers violate speech act realization patterns typically used by native speakers of a target language, they often suffer the perennial risk of inadvertently violating conversational (and politeness) norms thereby forfeiting their claims to being treated by their interactants as social equals (Kasper, 1990, p. 193).

Communication difficulties result when conversationalists do not share the same knowledge of the subtle rules governing conversation. Scarcella (1990) ascribes high frequency of such difficulties to the fact that “nonnative speakers, when conversing, often transfer the conversational rules of their first language into the second” (p. 338). Scarcella provides the following example. (Bracketing indicates interruptions.)

1)    speaker A:     Mary’s invited us to lunch. Do you wanna go?

2)    speaker B:     Sure.     [I’m not busy right now.      [Why not?

3)    speaker A:                  [Good                                [I’ll come by in about thirty minutes

4)    speaker B:     Think  we  oughta  bring        [anything?

5)    speaker A:                                                  [No, but I’ll bring some wine anyway.

  (1990, p. 338)


In this exchange, the native speaker B inaccurately concluded that the nonnative speaker A is rude since like many Americans, he regards interruptions as impolite.

Rather than associate rudeness with A’s linguistic behavior, however, B associates rudeness with A herself. B’s reasoning might be as follows: A interrupts; interruptions are rude; therefore, A is rude. Such reasoning is unfortunate for A, who comes from Iran where interruptions may be associated with friendliness, indicating the conversationalist’s active involvement in the interaction. (Scarcella, 1990, p.338)

Learners who repeatedly experience conversational difficulties tend to cut themselves from speakers of the target community, not only withdrawing from them socially, but psychologically as well (Scarcella, 1990). “’Psychological distance’ or a ‘high filter’ might be related to a number of factors, including culture shock and cultural stress” (Scarcella, 1990, p. 343) All these factors ignite a cycle that eventually hinders second language acquisition.

  1. First, the learners experience conversational difficulties.

  2. Next, they become “clannish”, clinging to their own group.

  3. This limits their interaction with members of the target culture and increases solidarity with their own cultural group.

  4. That, in turn, creates social distance between themselves and the target group.

  5. The end result is that the second language acquisition is hindered since they don’t receive the input necessary for their language development. (Scarcella, 1990, p. 342)


How to Teach Speech Acts?


Cohen (1996) claims that the fact that speech acts reflect somewhat routinized language behavior helps learning in the sense that much of what is said is predictable.  For example, Wolfson & Manes, (1980) have found that adjectives nice or good (e.g., “That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing” or “it was a good talk you gave”) are used almost half the time when complimenting in English and beautiful, pretty, and great make up another 15 percent.

Yet despite the routinized nature of speech acts, there are still various strategies to choose form – depending on the sociocultural context – and often a variety of possible language forms for realizing these strategies, especially in the case of speech acts with four or more possible semantic formulas such as apologies and complaints. Target language learners may tend to respond the way they would in their native language and culture and find that their utterances are not at all appropriate for the target language and culture situation. (Cohen, 1996, p. 408)

At present, there is an increasing number of studies dealing with teaching speech act behavior in an ESL/ EFL classroom. Olshtein and Cohen (1990), for instance, conducted a study of apologies made by EFL learners in Israel who were taught a set of lessons on the strategies used by native English speakers to apologize. They found that situational features can indeed be taught in the foreign language classroom. Whereas before these apology lessons, the nonnative speakers’ apologies differed from the native English speakers’, after instruction, learners selected strategies, which were more native-like.

Scarcella (1990) provides second language instructors with a number of guidelines intended to reduce negative consequences of communication difficulties and increase the learners’ conversational competence through improving their motivation:

  1. Stress the advantages of conversing like a native speaker.

  2. Stress that it is not necessary to converse perfectly to communicate in the second language.

  3. Impress upon learners that they should not be overly concerned with communication difficulties.

  4. Help students accept communication difficulties as normal.

  5. Provide students with information about communication difficulties.

  6. Do not expect students to develop the conversational skills needed to overcome all communication difficulties.

  7. Provide communicative feedback regarding student success in conveying meaning and accomplishing communicative objectives.

  8. Teach students strategies to help them overcome communication difficulties in the real world. (1990, pp. 345-346)


Refusal Studies

Takahashi and Beebe (1987) investigated written refusals by native speakers of English, native speakers of Japanese, Japanese ESL students in the United States, and Japanese EFL students in Japan and found that there was a strong native language influence in the EFL context and negative transfer of negative speech act behavior occurring in the more advanced levels of ESL. The researchers claims that the advanced students had greater facility at speaking English which allowed them to express complex notions in Japanese like ‘being deeply honored’ to receive an invitation.

In another study, Robinson (1991) asked twelve native Japanese-speaking women to respond to a written discourse completion task calling for refusals of requests and invitations in English. He found that there was a sociocultural problem in the respondents’ refusals since Japanese women are brought up to say yes, or at least not to say no and thus the task of refusing was a difficult concept for them.

Yet another refusal study, undertaken by Tickle (1991), looked at pragmatic transfer in ESL refusals made by Japanese speakers in a business setting. Thirty-one Japanese men who all had at least five years of business experience (including a year in the United States) were asked to complete a discourse completion task (DCT) where hypothetical situations varied by turf (customer’s vs. the businessperson’s), relationship (positive, negative), status (higher or lower), and function (refusal to an invitation vs. refusal to a request). The results showed that refusals on a customer’s turf were more direct than those on the businessperson’s turf. They were also more direct when no prior relationship existed between the interlocutors. In refusals to invitation (e.g., to go drinking), lower-status interlocutors expressed more regret toward the higher-status one. In refusals to request (e.g., of co-workers), more negative willingness/ability (e.g., “I can’t”) and empathy occurred. Results of this particular study provided material for cross-cultural programs training American businesspeople to deal more effectively with Japanese clients.


Refusals in the Workplace as a Speech Event

A speech event is an identifiable type of discourse used in a particular speech situation. The speech event of refusing in the workplace can thus be described as the discourse associated with the entire interaction triggered by the speech act of refusal and placed in the work setting. 


S.P.E.A.K.I.N.G. Mnemonic
of the Speech Event 
 “Refusals in the Workplace”

(Adapted from: Meechan & Rees-Miller, 2001)



Sample Analysis

Setting or a locale

             Scene or a situation

Scientific information about where it occurred 
(place, time)

Los Angeles, 5 pm on May 21, 2004

Generic information about the social occasion

Business meeting


Who was there  
 (addressor/ addressee, performer/audience, questioner/answerer)

Addressor – Mr. Robertson, the manager  
Addressee – Doris, employee

Ends                       Outcomes   

                                 a Goals

Purpose of the event 
(exchange of goods, etc…)


Purpose of the participants 
(impart knowledge, minimize price)

Addressor – to request from the employee  
Addressee – to refuse the request

Act sequences

Content and forms particular to its use

Content: refusal to a request that the employee stays in late to finish an important proposal


Tone or mood  



Type of discourse or channel 
(spoken, written, recitation, etc.)


Types of speech 
(dialect, style)

Formal standard business English

Norms                   Interaction


                   a Interpretation

Conventions of the interaction

After addressing the employee, the manager makes a request, the employee says she would love to help, refuses politely and offers to come in early the next day

Normal interpretation

Employee recognizes that the manager’s is a little upset while the manager recognizes that the employee is making an attempt to offer an alternative solution to the problem


Category of event 
(poem, story, conversation)




Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blum-Kulka, S., House, J., & Kasper, G. (1989). Cross-cultural pragmatics: Requests and  apologies. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1978). Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In E. N. Goody (Ed.), Questions and politeness: Strategies in social interactions (pp. 56-289). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, A. (1996) Speech Acts. In S.L. McKay, & N.H. Hornberger (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language teaching (pp. 383 – 420). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In A. Jaworski, & N. Coupland (Eds.), The discourse reader (pp. 76-87). New York: Routledge. 

Gumperz, J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Gumperz, J. (1990). The conversational analysis of interethnic communication. In R. C. Scarcella, E. S. Andersen, and S. D. Krashen (Eds.), Developing communicative competence in a second language: Series on issues in second language research (pp. 223-238). Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers. 

Kasper, G. (1990). Linguistic politeness: Current research issues. Journal of Pragmatics, 14,193-218. 

Meechan, M., & Rees-Miller, J. (2001). Language in social sontexts. In W. O’Grady, J.Archibald, M. Aronoff, & J. Rees-Miller (Eds.), Contemporary linguistics: An introduciotn. (Fourth edition). (pp. 537-590). New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 

Robinson, M. (1991). Introspective methodology in interlanguage pragmatics research. In G. Kasper (Ed.), Pragmatics of Japanese as native and target language (pp. 29-84). (Technical Report; Vol 3). Honolulu: Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center, University of Hawaii. 

Scarcella, R. C. (1990). Communication difficulties in second language production, development, and instruction. In R. C. Scarcella, E.S. Andersen, & S. D. Krashen (Eds.), Developing communicative competence in a second language: Series on issues in second language research. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers. 

Searle, J. (1965). What is a speech act? In P. P. Giglioli (Ed.), Language and social context (pp.136–154). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. 

Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts: Am essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Searle, J. (1975). Indirect speech acts. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics, vol. 3: Speech Acts (pp. 59–82). New York. 

Takanashi, T., & Beebe, L. M. (1993). Cross-linguistic influence in the speech act of correction. In S. Blum-Kulka, & G. Kasper (Eds.), Interlanguage pragmatics (pp. 138 – 157). New York: Oxford University Press. 

Tickle, A. L. (1991). Japanese refusals in a business setting. Papers in Applied Linguistics – Michigan, 6(2), 84–108.   

Wierzbicka, A. (1985).  Different cultures, different languages, different speech acts: Polish vs. English, Journal of Pragmatics, 9, 145–178. 

Wolfson, N., & Manes, J. (1980). The compliment as a social strategy. Papers in Linguistics, 13(3), 391–410. 

Wong, S. M. L. (1994). Imperatives in requests: Direct or impolite-observations from Chinese, Pragmatics, 4, 491–515.




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