Language can change the world. For real!
Imagine you’re at the wedding of two friends. They’ve walked down the aisle, they’ve said lovely things about each other, they’ve exchanged rings, some people are shedding happy tears, and things are approaching the big moment: “I do.” “I do.” “I now pronounce you married”. They kiss, you cheer, and the world is a little bit different now. Just a few moments ago your friends were unmarried and now they are married! This has real-world, material consequences for them. Perhaps your friends filed separate taxes last year, now they must file together. Maybe they had distinct medical insurance policies, now one can be a dependent on the other’s plan. If they live in a common law country, they now have spousal privilege. All of these changes to the world can be traced to those three utterances: “I do” “I do” “I now pronounce you married”! By uttering these words, your friends and the officiant have changed the world, ever so slightly.
There are other words and phrases, like pronounce and I do, that affect the world. For example, if you’re playing a game of chess and realize that your chance of winning is exceedingly low, you may tell your opponent “I concede”. The game is now over and you lost (sorry). After a successful job interview, if your hopefully-soon-to-be boss says “you’re hired!”, well congrats, you’ve got a new job now! These are examples of how we can “do things with words”, as the philosopher of language, J. L. Austin put it. They are examples of the performativity of language. Words and phrases like I concede are called performative speech acts. These are utterances that not only convey some kind of information but also perform a function or an action that affects reality. We will revisit performative speech acts in Section 8.9 when we discuss theories of meaning.
As much as performative speech acts are powerful in the sense that they change the world, they also require the right context to do this. When a group of kids on recess put on a ‘wedding’ and two of them ‘get married’, it doesn’t matter how many times or how loud another kid says “I now pronounce you married”, the world hasn’t changed in the same way that the same words changed your friends’ lives. If you simply shout “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY”, that’s not enough to actually change your financial situation! The ability for certain words and phrases to perform real-world actions depends on a combination of the authority and sincerity of the utterer and the uptake of the audience and general population. In other words, does the audience recognize the authority and sincerity behind the words and, therefore, accept their power to perform the intended action? The child officiant at a fake wedding doesn’t have the authority to pronounce anyone married and filing for bankruptcy requires more than one’s simple declaration! For words to do things, society must agree that certain words can do certain things in certain contexts; they have the power they do because we recognize that they have this power. That said, not 100% of people will agree on which words have power in which contexts, and disagreements over these questions can be contentious.
The philosopher Judith Butler extended the idea of performativity from certain speech acts, like I pronounce, I concede, you’re fired, I promise, I hereby declare etc., to suggest that aspects of our identities are forged into reality by way of our language use and other social practice. From this perspective, all language is performative, not just particular speech acts. Butler’s focus was on gender as a ‘performative accomplishment’: certain social practices (including language) come to be associated with men or women (or not) and these social practices then come to be seen as masculine or feminine (or not), and as people who express themselves as masculine or feminine (or not) repeat these patterns over and over again, a link between certain social practice and gender is reinforced. Social practices that reinforce gender include things like wearing a tie or wearing a pink skirt, picking flowers or cutting the lawn, walking into certain bathrooms, and, most importantly for us, using language in certain ways. As we’ll discuss in Chapter 10, language features are used, both directly and indirectly, in the performance of different ways of being a man, or being a woman, or not.
We can extend Butler’s idea beyond gender and understand all aspects of our identity as being performative accomplishments. Our identity is something socially constructed, and through sustained social practice that we mutually agree has certain meaning, we are active in its construction. Every time I say the Canadian English linguistic stereotype eh, I am both carving out my identity as a Canadian and reinforcing the link between eh and Canadian-ness. If, at the beginning of a lecture, I ‘drop my gs’ (e.g., I might say good mornin’ and how is everybody doin’ today instead of morning or doing), I signal that I am a laid-back person who isn’t interested in abiding by the general expectation that a university lecture is a formal context. If I take a sip of a beer and, using the jargon of craft beer connoisseurship, ask “am I detecting a hint of Cascade hops on the finish?” I am staking a claim as a member of the craft beer drinking community; I am expressing that I not only enjoy and am knowledgeable about the drink but that I am the kind of person who enjoys and is knowledgeable about the drink and all the social associations that might entail (perhaps masculine, millennial, a hipster, and not too serious like those *wine* people!) (see Konnelly 2020).
When we talk about performativity it’s important to make a distinction with another common understanding of performance. When we say that aspects of our identity are performative, we aren’t saying that, for example, our gender is like a role we play in stage performance. It’s not about acting and definitely not about acting like someone who isn’t you. When we talk about performativity and language, we mean that language performs certain functions for us. It’s the idea that we make ourselves through our behaviours and language performs that function for us.
If language can be used to perform actions, then language has power to do both good and harm.
Austin, J. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Harvard University Press.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge.
Konnelly, L. (2020). Brutoglossia: Democracy, authenticity, and the enregisterment of connoirsseurship in ‘craft beer talk’. Language & Communication, 75, 69–82.