Speech Acts, Intentions and Conversational Implicature

Credits: Speech Acts Theory was Developed by John Austin (1962) & elaborated by John Searle (1969) | Conversational Implicature was developed by Paul Grice (1989), Professor Thomas M. Holtgraves, Ball State University

This post will delve into two of the most prominent socio-linguistic theories:

  1. Speech Acts. Developed by John Austin (published posthumously in 1961/’62) and expanded upon by John Searle (1981), this theory explicitly conceptualizes linguistic meaning as “use.” Put simply, the intended meaning of an utterance is the “use” of that utterance.
  2. Conversational Implicature. This approach to non-literal meaning was developed by Paul Grice, whose views have been extremely influential on the field of pragmatics.

John Langshaw Austin (1911 – 1960), the father of “Speech Acts” theory | Stanford Encyclopedia

Austin’s speech acts theory arose from his observation that it’s impossible to determine the “truth” value of many utterances because they are extremely contextual and depend on many dynamic factors. For example, what is the truth value of the utterance, “I promise to do it tonight”? Austin suggested that all speech acts have a dimension of meaning AND a particular force, concluding that any utterance involves the simultaneous performance of a number of different acts. These acts include: 1) a Locutionary Act, which imparts basic phonetic, syntactic, and semantic meaning; 2) an Illocutionary Act, or the “act of saying,” which includes the force of change or vector of influence on reality generated by the utterance when it is spoken, as intended by the speaker; and 3) a Perlocutionary Act, which refers to the effect(s) the utterance has on the listener/receiver of the message.

It is clear today that Austin’s speech act theory marked the beginning of a new way of viewing language that placed emphasis on language as an action rather than as an abstract system for describing reality.

Enter John Searle, who provided a framework for more precisely specifying the actions that can be accomplished with language. This framework also defines the relationships between those actions, one’s words, and the mental states of the interlocutors.

Searle systematized and extended speech theory in several directions by offering 4 Felicity Conditions for Requests:

  1. Propositional Content, which predicates future act(s) taken by the listener
  2. Preparatory Condition, in which the speaker believes the listener is able to perform an act, although he or she has not yet done so
  3. Sincerity Condition, in which the speaker sincerely wants the listener to perform an act
  4. Essential Condition, in which the utterance counts as an attempt to get the listener to perform an act

According to Searle, utterances have 5 conventionally recognized illocutionary points:

  • Directive: an attempt to get the receiver of the message to perform some future action (requesting, ordering, questioning, etc). The speaker is attempting to alter “the world” with words; in a “world-to-words” fit, the speaker attempts to bring the world in line with his words.
  • Assertive: an attempt to present an actual state of affairs, committing the speaker to something “being the case it is presented to be.” Assertives can involve concluding, asserting, informing, predicting, and reporting.
  • Commissive: an attempt to commit the speaker to a future course of action, include promising, warning, threatening, guaranteeing, etc. Commissives are also a “world-to-words” fit but, unlike directives, it is the speaker’s actions that will change the world rather than the listener’s.
  • Declarative: an attempt to bring about a change in some institutional state of affairs. These may include declaring war, performing a marriage, cancelling a person’s right to freedom due to a felony, etc.
  • Expressive: an attempt to express a psychological state. Examples of expressives include thanking, complaining, greeting, apologizing, etc.

Speech Acts and Intentions

Paul Grice contributed to the field in 1957 and 1989 by making important distinctions between signs and signals.

Signs convey information, whether with or without the recognition of the speaker’s intention, and are perceived as relatively “objective” in nature.

Signals, on the other hand, convey non-natural meaning (meaning-nn) and are communicative acts that achieve their ends by virtue of words, the listener’s recognition of those words, and the speaker’s intention to fulfill their meaning.

Grice’s Conversational Implicature

Paul Grice
Herbert Paul Grice (1913-1988), a British philosopher of language whose work on meaning influenced the study of semantics and pragmatics

While Grice’s theory is considered brief and not completely “worked out,” its insights are profound and have had a tremendous impact on many areas of research. The theory is concerned with what today is called “language pragmatics,” and involves understanding how people convey non-literal meaning; in other words, how we mean more than (or something completely different from) what we say. Grice coined the term “Cooperative Principle” (CP), defined as follows: “One should make his conversational contribution such as is required, at the state which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”

Simply put, people should communicate in a rational and efficient manner, say what they mean, and stick to the facts without letting their conversation ramble. Grice further clarified these requirements in the following four “conversational maxims”:

  • Quantity – make your contribution as informative as required (neither more nor less)
  • Quality – make your contribution as factual (evidence-based) and truthful as possible
  • Manner – be clear; avoid ambiguity and obscurity
  • Relation – make your contribution relevant to the exchange

While clearly many (if not most) conversationalists do not abide by these guidelines, it is generally assumed that they represent a framework for understanding other people’s utterances. Consider the example,”Can you pass the salt?” The pragmatic meaning of this sentence is, “Please pass me the salt,” and it is a classic instance of implicature that arises to preserve adherence to a specific conversational maxim.

The more explicit an intended deviation from a maxim—e.g., abrupt topic changes such as “I hope it stops raining soon” in response to a personal question like “How’s everything going with your wife?”—the farther away the pragmatical/contextual meaning is from the literal (syntactic/lexical) one. It’s interesting to note that, if the speaker violating the maxim holds a mutually agreed upon superior social status rank, it is likely that, to avoid a conflict, the listener will supplicate by re-legitimizing the violating utterance with another utterance that is general enough to put the answer in a logical perspective.

Grice’s theory can be considered an important adjunct to Speech Act theory. It provides a framework by which speakers convey—and listeners recognize—illocutionary/pragmatic forces.

Grice’s Conversational Implicature is also importance because a person’s intended meaning (illocutionary force) cannot be derived from semantics alone. Context (including the two parties’ mutually assumed knowledge) is crucial in determining a speaker’s true and full meaning.

Grice’s baseline assumption, as reflected by his maxims, is that perfectly “clean” communication requires complete cooperativeness. Violations, therefore, bring in the pragmatic “noise” of signals.

I would argue that a “perfectly cooperative” communication (or an attempt to maintain such) is likely to occur between a mutually perceived inferior subject and a mutually perceived superior one, and only in that direction. A mutually perceived superior subject is expected to violate the maxims (in one or more forms of syntax) to maintain the “broadcasting” of his or her social value. In fact, I tend to believe that the higher the social status gap between the two subjects, the higher the expected level of violation.

This “violation vector” is hard-wired into our brains from early childhood. The classic parent-child relationship, for example, is very asymmetrical. What’s more interesting is that once we reach maturity, we attribute authority to violation and violation to authority. Theoretically speaking, a previously mutually perceived inferior subject can “level the playing field” to an extent by signaling superiority via moderate violations. As long as these violations remain explicit and moderate, the perceived social status gap (maintained by the superior) will start to shrink and the inferior will gain a social advantage in the situation.

Tech Entrepreneur, co-founder of SubStrata Technologies

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