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10.4: Indirect speech acts across languages

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    138678
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    Searle states that his analysis of indirect speech acts as conventions of usage helps to explain why the intended illocutionary force is sometimes preserved in translation, and sometimes not. (This again is very different from the idiomatic meanings of normal idioms, which generally do not survive in translation.) He points out that literal translations of a question like Can you help me? would be understood as requests in French and German, but not in Czech. The reason that the intended force is sometimes preserved in translation is that indirect speech acts are calculable. They are motivated by Gricean principles which are widely believed to apply to all languages, subject to a certain amount of cultural variation. The reason that the intended force is not always preserved in translation is that indirect speech acts are partly conventionalized, and different languages may choose to conventionalize different specific forms.

    It is often difficult for non-native speakers to recognize and correctly interpret indirect speech acts in a second language. Wierzbicka (1985: 175), for example, states: “Poles learning English must be taught the potential ambiguity of would you– sentences, or why don’t you– sentences, just as they must be taught the polysemy of the word bank.” This has been a major area of research in second language acquisition studies, and most scholars agree that this is a significant challenge even for advanced learners of another language.

    There is less agreement concerning whether the same basic principles govern the formation of indirect speech acts in all languages. Numerous studies have pointed out cross-linguistic differences in the use of specific linguistic features, preferred or conventionalized patterns for specific speech acts, cultural variation in ways of showing politeness, contexts where direct vs. indirect speech acts are preferred, etc.

    Wierzbicka (1985) argues that Searle’s analysis of indirect speech acts is not universally applicable, but reflects an Anglo-centric bias. She points out for example that English seems to be unusual in its strong tendency to avoid the use of the imperative verb form. The strategy of expressing indirect commands via questions is so strongly preferred that it is no longer a marker of politeness; it is frequently used (at least in Australian English) in impolite speech laced with profanity, obscenity, or other expressives indicating anger, contempt, etc. Kalisz (1992) agrees with many of Wierzbicka’s specific observations concerning differences between English and Polish, but argues that Searle’s basic claims about the nature of indirect speech acts are not disproven by these differences.

    Wierzbicka (1985) argues that Searle’s analysis of indirect speech acts is not universally applicable, but reflects an Anglo-centric bias. She points out for example that English seems to be unusual in its strong tendency to avoid the use of the imperative verb form. The strategy of expressing indirect commands via questions is so strongly preferred that it is no longer a marker of politeness; it is frequently used (at least in Australian English) in impolite speech laced with profanity, obscenity, or other expressives indicating anger, contempt, etc. Kalisz (1992) agrees with many of Wierzbicka’s specific observations concerning differences between English and Polish, but argues that Searle’s basic claims about the nature of indirect speech acts are not disproven by these differences.

    It is certainly true that there is a wide range of variation across languages in terms of what counts as an apology, promise, etc., and in the specific features that distinguish appropriate from inappropriate ways for performing a particular speech act. For example, Olshtain & Cohen (1989) recount the following incidents to illustrate differences in acceptable apologies between English and Israeli Hebrew:

    One morning, Mrs G., a native speaker of English now living in Israel, was doing her daily shopping at the local supermarket. As she was pushing her shopping cart she unintentionally bumped into Mr Y., a native Israeli. Her natural reaction was to say “I’m sorry” (in Hebrew). Mr Y. turned to her and said, “Lady, you could at least apologize”. On another occasion the very same Mr Y. arrived late for a meeting conducted by Mr W. (a native speaker of English) in English. As he walked into the room he said “The bus was late”, and sat down. Mr W. obviously annoyed, muttered to himself “These Israelis, why don’t they ever apologize!” [Olshtain & Cohen 1989: 53]

    In a similar vein, Egner (2002) shows that in many African cultures, a promise only counts as a binding commitment when it is repeated. Clearly there are many significant differences across languages in the conventional features of speech acts; but this does not necessarily mean that the underlying system which makes it possible to recognize and interpret indirect speech acts is fundamentally different.

    Searle’s key insights are that indirect speech acts are a type of conversational implicature, and that the felicity conditions for the intended act play a crucial role in the interpretation of these implicatures. Given our current state of knowledge, it seems likely that these basic principles do in fact hold across languages. But like most cross-linguistic generalizations in semantics and pragmatics, this hypothesis needs to be tested across a wider range of languages.


    This page titled 10.4: Indirect speech acts across languages 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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