Early Communication: Beyond Speech-Act Theory

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In Proceedings from the 24th Annual BU Conference on Language Development. Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 2000. Early Communication: Beyond Speech-Act Theory Anna Papafragou University of Pennsylvania

1. Introduction For the past two decades, speech-act theory has been one of the basic tools for studying pragmatics from both a theoretical and an experimental perspective. In this paper, I want to discuss certain aspects of the theory with respect to data from early communication in children. My aim will be to show that some of the central assumptions of the speech-act model of utterance comprehension need to be rethought. In the second part of the paper, I will outline a different pragmatic approach to verbal understanding and present a preliminary application of this approach to the developmental data. Let me start with a brief reminder of the basic tenets of the speech-act approach. According to standard speech-act assumptions, understanding utterances is a matter of knowing the rules according to which the utterances have been produced. Rules for producing utterances are rules for performing speech acts (warning, advising, requesting, promising, threatening etc.). The speech act or acts performed in uttering a sentence are in general a function of the meaning of the sentence (the literal force hypothesis – see Searle 1969): (1) a. b. c. You are going to dance. Are you going to dance? Dance.

The utterances in (1) are examples of the canonical (i.e. literal and direct) illocutionary forces of the three basic sentence types. The declarative in (1a) is used to perform an assertion, the interrogative in (1b) a request for information and the imperative in (1c) a request for action. It is often the case, however, that utterances are used to convey illocutionary forces which differ from their canonically specified ones. For instance, declaratives and interrogatives are frequently used to perform requests for action: (2) a. b. You will get up right at this minute. Will you get up?

The utterances in (2) are cases of indirect speech acts. The recovery of such speech acts is taken to proceed along broadly Gricean lines. Interestingly,

speech-act theorists propose that the recovery of a class of indirect speech acts is

compressed by precedent. Consider the examples: (3) a. b. c. d. e. Can you lend me that book? Could you lend me that book? Would you be kind enough to lend me that book? Would it be too much trouble for you to lend me that book? Would you be willing to lend me that book?

According to what is known as the standardisation thesis, the forms in (3) have become standardised for the (indirect) performance of the speech-act of request. Standardisation is defined as follows: A certain linguistic form (such as Can you_?) is standardly used to perform a speech act F in a community G if and only if: i. It is mutually believed in G that generally when a member of G utters T, his illocutionary intent is to F; and ii. Generally when a member of G utters T in a context in which it would be infelicitous to utter T with (merely) its literally determined force, his illocutionary intent is to F. (adapted from Bach & Harnish 1979: 195) It is assumed that standardisation (through repeated usage) gives rise to shortcircuited implicatures, thereby facilitating the comprehension of a great number of indirect speech acts (see also Searle’s 1975 conventionalisation thesis). The main motivation for using utterances with indirect illocutionary forces is politeness: in (3), the speaker is ‘asking without asking’ to borrow the book. Several concerns about the main claims of the speech-act approach have been expressed in the linguistic and philosophical literature. In particular, the association of sentences with literal and direct illocutionary forces, the connection between indirectness and politeness, and the way standardisation affects utterance comprehension have been the targets of much criticism (see Levinson 1983,...
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