Luke’s Languages: Words, words, words—or are they?


Oh my goodness! You’re reading this! That means you survived Hurricane Sandy! The sheer stamina it must have required—just imagine, to have to carry an umbrella all Tuesday morning! Or was it Monday? It was hard to tell with all that rain going on at the same time. (Not to dismiss the very real effects in other places.)

Today’s topic is what are called “speech acts”, not very innovatively. The idea of speech acts is integral to belief of linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, and others that language has many uses, not just transmitting information.

What are they? You might remember being taught in high school that there are types of sentences: declarative, interrogative (“Remember to use a question mark, class”), and imperative. In regular English, that means statements, questions, and requests. Some of you might also have heard of interjections, like “What a day!”—and that’s pretty much where it ended.

In linguistics, classifying the types of things that come out of a person’s mouth isn’t so straightforward. The basic idea is that each one has a use, and the trick is finding out what that use is.

Consider this exchange: “Are you ready to go?” — “No.” We could read this as a request for information, and a reply containing that information.

But what about this one? “The play started five minutes ago.” — “I’m almost done my homework.” On one level, these are both declarative sentences; they both state a fact. But we know that the first speaker is actually asking the second one to get their rear in gear, and the second one is asking for a bit more time.

Similarly, the question “Would you like the paprika?”—as fun as it would be to muse on the hypothetical possibility of the person liking paprika—is really an offer to hand someone the paprika.

Our task as language researchers is to recognize these uses of language and explain them. And that’s not so straightforward. It turns out there are many more types of speech acts than we thought, and many different models from many different theorists.

One very influential concept from half a century ago is locution, illocution, and perlocution. Locution is the words of the sentence itself, and that’s where your high school grammar teacher has his day. Illocution is what you mean the sentence to do, like what we were just talking about. And perlocution is the actual effect of the sentence, for example that your guest actually takes the paprika, or that your guest thinks you are weird for offering them paprika. These are far from formal definitions, but the concepts have helped classify many different types of speech act.

One thing these ideas bring to light is just how far language is a factor in the way we think about the world. I’m fascinated by certain types of speech act where the utterance fulfills itself. There’s a kind of utterance where in saying you do something, you do it. That could be a pretty confusing idea, so let’s see what I mean.

Take promises. A bride who says “I promise never to leave you” isn’t just telling her lucky fiancé that she promises this. By saying that, she does promise it. Her claim to have made a promise is true because and only because she claimed it. Neat, eh?

Take an even stronger illocution: swearing, taking an oath, making a vow, or whatever you want to call it. In marriage, people make vows. Most often, that means they pronounce the words “I do”. So simple, right? But the fact that they said that has real consequences in just about every religion and legal system. In court, the judge asks the witness to swear to tell the truth.

Isn’t it wild that our legal system is built on this premise? Just think about it: why do we doubt a person’s integrity to tell the truth all on their own, but we trust their integrity to abide by an oath they take? To the law, this illocution is very real. There’s even a specific crime, perjury, for lying under oath.

Because of this whole integrity question, some faiths even prohibit taking oaths. (Jesus forbids it in the New Testament, as it happens, making the traditional “Do you swear on the Bible?” pretty ironic.) In at least some states in the U.S., people who for religious or sceptical reasons refuse to take oaths can also “affirm” that they will tell the truth. They do this by saying “I affirm that…” The words have changed, but what does it matter? The illocution is exactly the same.

Here are some more speech acts common in legal systems: “I hereby decree” (by the by, “hereby” is a great word for signalling illocution), “I pledge allegiance to”, and “We find the defendant guilty”. In days of yore, that last one might have had the perlocutionary force of being burned at the stake. And “I recant” might have saved you from the same thing.

As Hamlet groans: “Words, words, words.” But no. These speech acts are not just words.

One last note. Is there anything, you ask, that is just words? Can I ever say anything without it making an illocution?

Some linguists would say you could. Consider filler words, like the currently popular “literally”: “I literally walked into the room and everyone started laughing.” Can you pinpoint exactly what it’s contributing to that sentence? Or “like”, which may never be dethroned: “I couldn’t do my zipper up… Like, everyone just kept on laughing!”

Such words are very nebulous. But some theorists say even these are doing something. For example, “like” might signal that your “turn” in the conversation isn’t over, that there’s still more coming, so hold your horses. (In this sense, it would be just a fancier “um”.) No, you might never be just saying words.

That is, of course, unless you’re a weather forecaster predicting Hurricane Sandy’s effects on Toronto.