Speech Acts and Conversation

Language Use: Functional Approaches to Syntax

Handout for EDUC 537
Educational Linguistics
H. Schiffman, Instructor

  1. Language in Use

    Having described various kinds of syntactic structures and what they mean we see that people often don't seem to say what they mean. They use languages differently from its apparent meaning; it has functions are different from the apparent structure.

    Example: Could I get you to open that window?

    How'd you like to hand me that wrench?

    Would it be too much trouble for me to ask you to hand me that wrench?

    I know this is an imposition, but could you possiblly open the window?

    instead of

    Open the window, Hand me the wrench, etc.

  2. Sentence Structure and the Function of utterances

    We are `used to' having questions being used to ask for information, declarative sentences to state something, and imperative sentences to give orders. But the following may also occur:

    1. [Form: request:] Can I ask you to please refrain from smoking?
      [Function: command:} (= Please stop smoking!)

    2. [Form: Statement:] We ask that you extinguish your cigarettes at this time, and bring your tray tables and seatbacks to an upright position.
      [Function: command:] (= Stop smoking and sit up straight!)

    3. [Form: question] Well, would you listen to that!
      [Function: exclamation] (= That's really something to listen to.)

  3. Speech Acts

    Speech acts are verbal actions that accomplish something: we greet, insult, compliment, plead, flirt, supply information, and get work done.

  4. The Cooperative Principle

    there is unspoken agreement that people will cooperate in communicating with each other, and speakers rely on this agreement.

    Grice: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

  5. Violations of the Cooperative Principles

  6. Politeness conventions

  7. Speech Events

    There are various kinds of events at which speech typically takes place: political rally, debate, classroom lecture, religious service (sermon, prayer, welcoming, singing); government hearing; courtroom trial; all involve particular kinds of speech events that are appropriate to that setting. Could also be informal: telephone conversation, purchasing a ticket, a newspaper, ordering a meal.

  8. The Organization of Conversation

    There is a covert structure of conversations, involving a number of different elements. Conversations are a series of speech acts: greetings, inquiries, congratulations, comments, invitations, requests, accusations... Mixing them up or failing to observe them makes for uncooperative speech acts, confusion, other problems. Violates the maxim of cooperation

  9. Cross-Cultural Communication

    Politeness and all of the other speech act formulae vary from culture to culture; what is polite in one may be considered brusque or rude, or on the other hand too evasive, too formal, too obsequious in another. In American telephone conversations, people immediately begin to chat and visit. In French telephone conversations, people first apologize:

    In Indonesian, the passive voice is more polite and deferential; the active voice is grammatical, but sounds brusque and blunt, and not as deferential as the passive:

    • (Sign in a furniture store, on a chair:) jangan diduduki! ( Not to be sat upon ) instead of

    • jangan duduk di sini ( Do not sit here! )

    The second form is grammatical, but not considered as polite, or sufficiently deferential.

    • Summary

haroldfs@ccat.sas.upenn.edu, last modified 11.27.97