What is an illocutionary act?

In The Office skit below, Michael Scott is attempting to imitate a Southern American accent for a game. He tries to sound Southern by saying “I do declare” at the end of each sentence.

As Michael Scott is using it, “I do declare” is an exclamatory embellishment rather than an illocutionary act. The character of Ryan Howard points out that Michael doesn’t need to say “I do declare” at the end of every sentence because any time he says something it means he’s declaring it. The words are comically redundant.

An illocutionary act is terminology from the field of linguistics (pragmatics) and describes words which perform some sort of act in themselves.

How do you perform the act of firing someone? By saying, “You’re fired!”

How do you marry a couple? By saying, “I pronounce you husband and husband” or “wife and wife”.

How do you promise something? By saying, “I promise.”

In these situations, to say is to do. In order to work with illocutionary force, words must be explicit, understood by all, and said in a relevant context. Saying “You’re fired!” has no illocutionary force if the person saying it is not the addressee’s employer or if it’s said as part of a game.

The writers of The Office invert the gag in a different skit, in which Michael Scott thinks ‘declaring’ bankruptcy is an illocutionary act when it is not. At least, not when you say it in the context of complaining at work about your personal finances.

Humour from The Office shows that we all have an intuitive understanding of an illocutionary act, even if we don’t know what that act is called in the field of pragmatics. Writers of The Office created comedy from Michael Scott’s misunderstanding of what we all know to be true about how language works in practice.

Modern Family also created an illocutionary act gag when Phil Dunphy married Luke and Manny by explaining to them both how to officiate at a wedding.

The term illoucationary act was introduced into linguistics by John Austin. In 1962 he published a book called How To Do Things With Words. A different John (John Searle) later built on Austin’s concept. For John Searle, ‘illocutionary act’ is synonymous with ‘speech act’. Frankly, ‘speech act’ is easier to remember.

But the concept is a necessary and useful one, not just in storytelling and in humour writing but in daily life. If we have the name to describe illocutionary acts when we hear them, we are in a stronger position to see hate speech for what it is. Hate speech can guise itself as smalltalk and humour among friends and acquaintances.

Hate speech is an illucutionary act because the act of saying something can incite hatred.

MAGIC WORDS AS ILLOCUTIONARY ACTS

In fantasy, Abracadabra (and various equivalents) serve as illocutionary acts. Saying them makes something happen.

Today, Papa has decided to say plainly what he thinks: that his children are pigs, that the neighbor is an old goat … And immediately, all turn into animals!

TERM FROM THE SAME FAMILY

PERLOCUTIONARY ACT: (of a speech act) producing an effect upon the listener, as in persuading, frightening, amusing, or causing the listener to act.

Austin distinguished the act performed in saying certain words (the ‘illocutionary’ act) from the later effects achieved by saying them, (the ‘perlocutionary’ act).

These categories are not entirely distinct from one another. A word like ‘promote’ can be both illocutionary and perlocutionary.

‘Promote ’is a verb that straddles both sides of Austin’s distinction. The word has a perlocutionary, causal sense, and an illocutionary, constitutive sense. When smoking promotes cancer, it causes it. When tobacco companies promote smoking, they advocate it. By advocating smoking, they also cause it, since their advocacy brings about aneffect, namely that people smoke. So hate speech ‘promotes’ hatred in both illocutionary and perlocutionary ways: it advocates and causes hatred.

Beyond Belief: Pragmatics in Hate Speech and Pornography

It’s equally important to understand a perlocutionary speech act because some individuals will try to wriggle out of damaging speech by arguing that they are not ‘actually telling someone to shoot someone else’, yet their words are achieving ‘later effects’.

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