Theories behind Business Linguistics: Speech Acts

Speech acts, a key part of theory of Business Linguistics

In this first post on the theory behind Business Linguistics, we look at speech acts, locution and illocution.

What would you understand if I said:

‘I order you to read this post’?

Your opinion of me may vary wildly but your understanding of the sentence is probably fairly unambiguous.

This is an example of a performative speech act. Where the words I use capture exactly what I am doing.

What if I said ‘I’m very much looking forward to hearing your comments on this post’?

Based on the locution, the meaning of the words, we could assume that I want to know your opinion of the post but is that the whole story?

What if you had no intention of reading the post? Does the above statement pressurise you into reading it?

Here we’re considering illocution, or the meaning of an utterance, rather than individual words. Illocution is often contextual.

Effective communication often relies on successfully transmitting and interpreting  the illocutionary force of utterances – the meaning behind the words.

Sometimes the illocution is obvious but it can very easily be misinterpreted, particularly if your dealing with someone from a different culture, with different illocutionary norms.

Improving illocutionary awareness:

Stage 1

Give learners some simple sentences, such as:

I’m cold.

Can you see the salt?

I’m really busy at the moment.

Ask learners to write an appropriate response.

Discuss the responses.

Stage 2

Introduce different contexts

e.g ‘Can you see the salt?’

  1. You’re in a supermarket.
  2. You’re at the dinner table.

Ask learners what’s the appropriate response now and why?

Stage 3

Ask learners to analyse their own language and decide if they rely on the locutionary or illocutionary meaning of language.

How might this tendency cause miscommunication or perceptions of impoliteness?

To find out more:

How to do things with words, J L Austin

Speech Acts, The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy


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