Speech Act Theory: Definition & Pragmatics

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  • 0:02 Exploring Pragmatics
  • 1:23 The Theory of Speech Acts
  • 3:27 Five Types of Speech Acts
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rahman Johnson

Rahman is a TV News Anchor with a Master's Degree in Strategic Communications and Leadership.

Speech act theory takes a close look at what we say, how we say it and what it really means. This lesson focuses on helping us to communicate more effectively. You'll never look at a text message the same way again!

Exploring Pragmatics

When you see the word pragmatics, it may have scared you or made you think that it involves a complex theory. Although you may not have realized it, you have been using pragmatics since you were a child. Simply, pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that deals with language and how we use it in conversation. Pragmatics deals with three major communication skills: using language, changing language, and following certain rules.

Let's take a look at those major skills:

  • Following Rules: Using the basic rules of polite conversation, such as taking turns in conversation, steering the conversation in a new direction, and reading facial expressions and eye contact.
  • Changing Language: Adapting what you're saying and how to a particular situation or setting, such as filling in the details for someone who doesn't know much about the topic you're discussing, speaking differently in a class setting than you would in a bar, and speaking to a child differently than you would an adult.
  • Using Language: Putting words to use for a specific reason or goal, such as greeting, requesting, and informing.

Using language is mentioned last, since this is the pragmatic skill that is most closely related to speech act theory. However, understanding the basis of pragmatics helps us to better understand the theory and makes our overall communication that much stronger.

The Theory of Speech Acts

At one time or another, we have all heard someone speaking and have wondered if there are hidden messages behind what they are saying. Whether you know it or not, sometimes the intent of what we are trying to say is just as important as or more important than what we are saying. It's establishing that relationship between the person who is speaking and the one who is listening.

The earliest ideas of speech act theory were defined by British philosopher John L. Austin in his 1959 book, 'How to Do Things with Words'. It's a simple title but it's true. We are always using words to get things done. Sometimes it's to convey emotion or other times it's to get others to perform a task.

However we use words, at the basis of it all, we are trying to get something accomplished. American philosopher John Searle further advanced the idea and research of speech acts theory. Simply, he believed that each time that a word or phrase was spoken it was a speech or illocutionary act that could be placed in several different categories.

Although Searle extensively researched this theory, his hypothesis was based on the work and ideas of several other thinkers. Searle also used the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, G. C. J. Midgley, H. Paul Grice, P.F. Strawson, John Rawls, and William P. Alston to further expand on his theories.

Of course, remember, Austin defined what was called the illocutionary act, or the act of speaking and its meaning. An example would be if someone arrived late to a 10:00 a.m. meeting and the host said, 'Oh this must be the new 10 o'clock'. This is actually not a request for the time but a rebuke to the person getting to the meeting late.

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