Towards an Extra-Linguistic Critique of J.L. Austin’s Speech Act Theory

Acheoah John Emike


The paper is an extra-linguistic critique of Austin’s speech act theory. In the context of the paper, extra-linguistic issues capture those factors that “legitimize” violations from the norms of English which are evident in Austin’s theory. We investigate the strengths and weaknesses of the theory from a socio-pragmatic perspective, exploring discursively, the Nigerian existential experience. The critique hinges on three evolved theoretical concepts (Geoimplicature, Emergent Context and Pragmadeviant) in the investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of Austin’s speech act theory. The study finds out that despite the strengths of the theory, some postulations therein are bedeviled by the dynamics of human communication. Conclusively, the paper contends for an “illocutionary component” of meaning as opposed to the age-long “propositional component” of meaning.



Speech Act, Speech Community, Society, Geoimplicature, Emergent Context, Pragmadeviant

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Austin, J. L.(1962). How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ayodabo, J.O. & Acheoah, J.E. (2013). Nigerian English in a Decolonized State: Prospects and Constraints. Online International Journal of Arts and Humanities, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp. 48-52.

Bloomfeild, L. (1933). Language. New York: Reinehart and Winston.

Bach, K. & Robert, H. (1976). Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1978). Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena. In Goody (Ed.), Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, J. (1985). Language, Society and Identity. London: Basil Blackwells.

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Levinson, S. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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See Goody (Ed.) (1978 Pages 56-311) for Brown and Levinson’s paper, Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena.

Before Austin’s work How to Do Things with Words, language philosophers focused on the declarative functions of sentences.

This tripartite classification shows the relationship that communication elements have with their encoders and decoders in terms of selection and functions.

For example, it makes a great difference whether an act of promise is “performed” or “attempted”. Perlocutionary sequels are often tied to acts performed.

See Bloomfeild, L. (1933) for more insights on the Behavioural Theory of Meaning.

The Advocate needs sound mastery of the etiquette of the court in which he pleads his client’s case. This pre-knowledge helps him to decide on appropriate ways of addressing, the court, his clients and his witnesses.

Apart from interpreting the utterance literally, the decoder may agitate if the encoder says “My wife could not go to church because she was sick.”

German speakers are said to be very polite in the expression of requests.

Encoders often have ideas that inform a given discourse in which they are engaged.

The fact “that what a speaker means in uttering a sentence can be arrived at by probing the illocutionary act performed”, negates the claim “that the study of illocutionary act is the study of linguistic meaning”.

Contexts superimpose meanings on sentences; the sentence “I am not a Bachelor” does not just mean “I am married”. It may also mean, based on contextual consideration, Can you marry me?”



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