Speech actions II
Speech act and speech action
A speech act has been, in the times of the origin of the theory, conceptualized as a discrete unit (cf. Austin 1962). Its main dictinctive feature, its illocutionary force, ensued from speaker´s intention (illocutionary point) and, in a prototypic case, materialized by an utterance with specific properties given mainly by the presence of an illocutionary verb used performatively, or from speaker´s use of some other illocutionary force indicating device, cf. Searle 1969. While an utterance as a speech item can be seen as a discrete/limited unit without major uncertainities (unmarkedly, its boundaries are delimited by intonation), the discrete nature of an “act“ (already when performed by the speaker) is far from being unambiguous. If we consider “acts“ related to speech act verbs such as confide (something in somebody), gossip (about somebody), it is clear that they do consist in conveying an item of information, i.e. they could be listed as assertives, but, at the same time, in every day (“real“) communication they probably would not be executed as a single utterance. Both communicative events of confiding or gossiping have in common that they transmit a piece of information (their propositional content is) of a specific kind: either it is something personally relevant for the speaker (and not publicly known at the moment of confiding), or it is something relevant for the speaker and (presumably) for the addressee. Most importantly, a content of a gossip concerns a third party, a non-present person, in an unfavourable way. Such information can hardly be conveyed right away, directly, without at least minimal preparatory steps, i.e. preliminary announcement or notification. There are common opening phrases of the kind: If you do not mind, there is something I need to tell you; You know, I think that you should be aware of …, etc. Moreover, confiding would probably be followed by a request that the addressee would keep the information for him/herself (e.g. don´t tell anyone, ok?) and a gossip by an assertion cancelling or weakening the speaker´s commitment towards the truthfullness of the content (e.g. well, that´s what I have heard), or transfering the burden of evidence to some other person (e.g. that´s what A.B. told me!). In their common most expected forms both confiding and gossip are represented by sequences of utterances (each of which can have its own subsidiary function) creating a complex unit covered by one major (macro-) illocutionary function (cf. van Dijk 1980).
Another example of common speech act-clusters are requests or pleas which quite regularly are preceded by apologies for bothering the addressee (e.g. sorry, but …; Sorry to bother you but …) and followed by explanations why the speaker wants the addressee to do p – Open the window, please / Would you mind opening the window, please? It is hot in here; I think we need some oxygen, etc.). Performing illocutionary acts of confiding, gossiping, requesting, and alike (as well as, with the exception of some ritualized declarations, most of the others, no matter which classification of them we use) in the form of a plain, isolated utterance is unusual, unconventional, and can be viewed as less felicitious. Illocutionary acts are more commonly performed as sequences consisting of smaller steps towards one major point, so we dare to conclude that it is more appropriate to describe doing things with words as continuous succession of minor actions aimed at a major goal than singular/discrete acts (cf. also German term sprachliche Handlung). This view has already been acknowledged in pragmatics literature, e.g. as a concept of subsidiary illocution (Rosengren 1983).; from other angles cf. e.g. May 2001, Hirschová 2004, Witczak-Plisiecka 2013. Nevertheless, the idea of speech acts as unitary utterances is still rather well established in general linguistics handbooks and in general educational contexts.
Following the above-mentioned complexity, it seems that the most cogent capture of particular classes of illocutionary acts might be to picture them as blocks of actions unified by speaker´s goal; an illocutionary point of a speech event can be seen as a flagpole or the main pillar supported by particular actions serving as foundations for its erected structure. The main purpose in such speech actions is recognized and secured step by step. The borderlines among such blocks are far from being clear-cut - indirectness is the most common way of fulfillment of speakers´ goals in conversation and, as G. Leech mentions (1983, p. 175), “… illocutions are in many respects (…) distinguished by continuous rather than by discrete characteristics.“ In addition, illocutionary acts can often be “negotiated“ (ibid, p. 23). It has also been suggested (Leech 2014, pp. 56-58) that the pragmatic meaning of what was said resides in the speaker´s communicative intention, but its interpretation depends on the recognition of that intention, which can also be seen as a goal, by the addressee (or by some third party). In this perspective what is fundamental for pragmatic interpretation is therefore the complex inferential process that is always present.
Between what is said and what is implicated:
Consider the following dialogue (a snatch of a conversation in a movie):
Charles: Do you have the wedding list for Banks?
Shop assistant: Certainly, sir. Lots of beautiful things for around about 1,000 pounds mark.
Charles: What about things around the sort of 50 pound mark?
Shop assistant: Well, you could get that pygmy warrior over there,
Charles: This? Excellent!
Shop assistant: If you could find someone to chip in the othe 950 pounds. Or our carrier bags one pound fifty each. Why don´t you just get 33 of them?
Is the shop assistant being helpful?
(Cf. Culpeper - Haugh, 2015, pp. 102-114.)