|"Promises" by Christian Ditaputratama used with Creative Commons License.|
John Langshaw Austin first delivered his Speech-act Theory as a series of lectures at Oxford in 1955. In those lectures, which were posthumously published with the title How to Do Things with Words, he introduced the notion that there is a type of statement we do not often consider, but a type that is nonetheless “enormously meaningful for ordinary users of language” (Richter, 2007, pg. 680). Austin called that special type of statement a performative utterance.
Statement as Action: A Speech Act
Simply put, when a person makes a performative utterance, that person is performing an action. Although the action could be performed in some other way, the person chooses to complete the action by uttering the performative words. For example, a person can give a name to a new kitten by stating aloud, “I name this kitten ‘Bartholomew.’” A club member can make a pledge to behave in a manner expected by the club by stating, “I pledge to always behave in a manner expected by the tenets of this club.” A teacher could assign her class homework by simply stating, “I assign you pages 679 – 690 in the Richter text as homework.”
The Right Words, Intention, and Context
In order for any of our example statements to be considered performative utterances, however, there are certain conditions that must be met.
First, this type of statement does not simply make a verifiably true or false statement. It is more than informing, explaining, describing, arguing, or telling a story. For example, naming a kitten “Bartholomew” is not the same as stating the meaning of the name, which could be looked up (verified or proven false) in a dictionary of names. Pledging to behave in a certain way is not the same as explaining the pledge or describing the pledging ceremony to another person.
Second, the uttering of the words must take place in an appropriate context. For example, practicing one’s wedding vows alone in front of a mirror does not mean the person has married himself or herself. Pledging commitment to a club or organization is contingent upon conditional membership to the club or organization. Furthermore, a student will generally need to be enrolled in a teacher’s class in order for that teacher to assign homework to that student.
Lastly, there is a condition that follows from both the first and the second conditions: The statement must have a true intention. The act intended by the words must be enacted by the speaker or speakers in good faith and “taken seriously” (Austin, 1962, pg. 684). For example, a person sarcastically exclaiming “I bet!” to a statement he clearly believes is false does not mean he is placing a bet. To bet was not the speaker’s intended action. Additionally, a person who says “I promise,” without having the intention to follow through on her promise, has not made a promise at all.
With these three conditions in mind, a more complete definition of performative utterance might read, “A type of statement we make using the right words, with the right intention, and in the right context in order to perform an action.”
Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary Speech Acts
Throughout his lectures Austin continued to refine his Speech-act Theory, and over time he defined three types of speech acts: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. A locutionary speech act is the act of saying something. An illocutionary speech act is the act of doing something by saying something. A perlocutionary speech act is a statement that has some sort of intended or unintended effect. A performative utterance falls under the second type of speech act, an illocutionary speech act.
For example, in order to name the kitten, the words must be spoken as a type of locutionary act, with proper vocabulary, grammar, and intonation (Austin, 1962, pg. 686). This distinguishes the locutionary act from the second type of act, the illocutionary performative utterance of naming the kitten. The consequence of the performative utterance, or the perlocutionary act, may be that from that point onward everyone in the household will call the kitten “Bartholomew.”
It is the second type of speech act, the illocutionary, which is the most important of the three, according to Austin. The other two exist in his theory to help define, by contrast, the second (pg. 688).
So, to now further complete the definition, I can end by declaring that a performative utterance is a type of illocutionary speech act, a type of statement that by being said using the right words, with the right intention, and in the right context, is a performance of the action intended by the speaker.
- Austin, J.L. (1962). How to do things with words. In D. H. Richter (Ed.), The critical tradition; Classic texts and contemporary trends. (3rd ed.). (pp. 681-690). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.
- Richter, D. H. (2007). The critical tradition; Classic texts and contemporary trends. (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.
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