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10.1: Introduction

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    Deborah Tannen (1981) recounts the following experience as a visitor to Greece:

    While I was staying with a family on the island of Crete, no matter how early I awoke, my hostess managed to have a plate of scrambled eggs waiting on the table for me by the time I was up and dressed; and at dinner every evening, dessert included a pile of purple seeded grapes. Now I don’t happen to like seeded grapes or eggs scrambled, but I had to eat them both because they had been set out—at great inconvenience to my hosts—especially for me. It turned out that I was getting eggs scrambled because I had asked, while watching my hostess in the kitchen, whether she ever prepared eggs by beating them, and I was getting grapes out of season because I had asked at dinner one evening how come I hadn’t seen grapes since I had arrived in Greece. My hosts had taken these careless questions as hints—that is, indirect expressions of my desires. In fact, I had not intended to hint anything, but had merely been trying to be friendly, to make conversation.

    Tannen’s hosts believed that she was trying to communicate more than the literal meaning of her words, that is, that she was trying to implicate something without saying it directly. Moreover, the implicature which they (mistakenly) understood had the effect of doing more than the literal meaning of her words would do. Her utterances, taken literally, were simply questions, i.e., requests for information. Her hosts interpreted these utterances as implicated requests to provide her with scrambled eggs and grapes. In other words, Tannen’s hosts interpreted these utterances as indirect speech acts.

    A speech act is an action that speakers perform by speaking: offering thanks, greetings, invitations, making requests, giving orders, etc. A direct speech act is one that is accomplished by the literal meaning of the words that are spoken. An indirect speech act is one that is accomplished by implicature.

    Tannen (1981) states that “misunderstandings like these are commonplace between members of what appear to (but may not necessarily) be the same culture. However, such mix ups are especially characteristic of cross-cultural communication.”1 For this reason, indirect speech acts are a major focus of research in the areas of applied linguistics and second language acquisition. They also constitute a potential challenge for translation.

    We begin this chapter in §10.2 with a summary of J.L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, another foundational contribution to the field of pragmatics. Austin begins by identifying and analyzing a previously unrecognized class of utterances which he calls performatives. He then generalizes his account of performatives to apply to all speech acts.

    In §10.3 we summarize Searle’s theory of indirect speech acts. Searle builds on Austin’s theory, with certain modifications, and goes on to propose answers to two fundamental questions: How do hearers recognize indirect speech acts (i.e., how do they know that the intended speech act is not the one expressed by the literal meaning of the words spoken), and having done so, how do they correctly identify the intended speech act? (Both of these issues tend to be difficult for even advanced language learners.) An important part of Searle’s answer to these questions is the recognition that indirect speech acts are a special type of conversational implicature.

    In §10.4 we touch briefly on some cross-linguistic issues, including the question of whether Searle’s theory provides an adequate account for indirect speech acts in all languages.

    1 See also Tannen (1975; 1986).

    This page titled 10.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paul Kroeger (Language Library Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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