Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A speech act is an action performed by means of language, such as describing something ("It is snowing."), asking a question ("Is it snowing?"), making a request or order ("Could you pass the salt?", "Drop your weapon or I'll shoot you!"), or making a promise ("I promise I'll give it back."). Other examples of speech acts include greeting, apologizing or insulting.
For much of the history of linguistics and the philosophy of language, language was viewed primarily as a way of making factual assertions, and the other uses of language tended to be ignored. The work of J. L. Austin led philosophers to pay more attention to the way in which language is used in everyday activities. His student John Searle further developed this approach. However, the first systematic and comprehensive work on speech acts had already been done long before by the phenomenologist Adolf Reinach in 1913.
Austin distinguishes between illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts. An interesting type of illocutionary speech acts are performatives, which are expressions such as "I nominate John to be President.", "I sentence you to ten years imprisonment." or "I promise to pay you back.". In these expressions, the action that the sentence describes (nominating, sentencing, promising) is performed by the sentence itself; the speech is the act it effects. In contrast perlocutionary speech acts cause actions that are not the same as the speech.
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