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Some speech acts (Уface threatening actsФ) intrinsically

threaten the faces. Orders and requests, for instance, threaten

the negative face, whereas criticism and disagreement threaten

the positive face. The perpetrator therefore must either avoid

such acts altogether (which may be impossible for a host of

reasons, including concern for her/his own face) or find ways of

performing them with mitigating of their face threatening

effect. For example, an indirectly formulated request (a son to

his father) УAre you using the car tonight?Ф counts as a face-

respecting strategy because it leaves room for father to refuse

by saying УSorry, it has already been taken (rather than the face-

threatening УYou may not use itФ). In that sense, the speakerТs

and the hearerТs faces are being attended to.

Therefore, politeness is a relative notion not only in its

qualitative aspect (what is considered to be polite), but in its

quantitative aspect as well (to what degree various language

constructions realize the politeness principle). Of course there

are absolute markers of politeness, e.g. УpleaseФ, but they are

not numerous. Most of language units gain a certain degree of

politeness in a context.



It has been pointed out above that in indirect speech acts

the relationship between the words being uttered and the

illocutionary force is often oblique. For example, the sentence

УThis is a pig styФ might be used nonliterally to state that a

certain room is messy and filthy and, further, to demand

indirectly that it be cleaned up. Even when this sentence is used

literally and directly, say to describe a certain area of a

barnyard, the content of its utterance is not fully determined by

its linguistic meaning - in particular, the meaning of the word

УthisФ does not determine which area is being referred to.

How do we manage to define the illocution of an utterance

if we cannot do that by its syntactic form? There are several

theories trying to answer this question.

The inference theory

The basic steps in the inference of an indirect speech act

are as follows [37, 286-340]:

I. The literal meaning and force of the utterance are computed

by, and available to, the participants. The key to

understanding of the literal meaning is the syntactical

form of the utterance.

II. There is some indication that the literal meaning is

inadequate (Уa triggerФ of an indirect speech act).

According to Searle, in indirect speech acts the speaker

performs one illocutionary act but intends the hearer to infer

another illocution by relying on their mutually shared background

information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, as well as on

general powers of rationality and inference, that is on

illocutionary force indicating devices [43, 73]. The

illocutionary point of an utterance can be discovered by an

inferential process that attends to the speaker's prosody, the

context of utterance, the form of the sentence, the tense and

mood of verbs, knowledge of the language itself and of

conversational conventions, and general encyclopaedic knowledge.

The speaker knows this and speaks accordingly, aware that the

hearer - as a competent social being and language user - will

recognize the implications [32, 41]. So, indirectness relies on

conversational implicature: there is overwhelming evidence that

speakers expect hearers to draw inferences from everything that

is uttered. It follows that the hearer will begin the

inferential process immediately on being presented with the

locution. Under the cooperative principle, there is a convention

that the speaker has some purpose for choosing this very

utterance in this particular context instead of maintaining

silence or generating another utterance. The hearer tries to

guess this purpose, and in doing so, considers the context,

beliefs about normal behaviour in this context, beliefs about the

speaker, and the presumed common ground.

The fact that divergence between the form and the contents

of an utterance can vary within certain limits helps to discover

indirect speech acts: an order can be disguised as a request, a

piece of advice or a question, but it is much less probable as a


III. There are principles that allow us to derive the

relevant indirect force from the literal meaning and the context.

Searle suggests that these principles can be stated within

his theory of felicity conditions for speech acts [44, 38].

For example, according to SearleТs theory, a command or a

request has the following felicity conditions:

1. Asking or stating the preparatory condition:

Can you pass the salt? The hearer's ability to perform an

action is being asked.

Literally it is a question; non-literally it is a request.

2. Asking or stating the propositional content:

You're standing on my foot. Would you kindly get off my


Literally it is a statement or a question; non-literally it

is a request.

3. Stating the sincerity condition:

I'd like you to do this for me.

Literally it is a statement; non-literally it is a request.

4. Stating or asking the good/overriding reasons for doing

an action:

You had better go now. Hadn't you better go now? Why not go


Literally it is a statement or a question; non-literally it

is a request.

5. Asking if a person wants/wishes to perform an action:

Would you mind helping me with this? Would you mind if I

asked you if you could write me a reference?

Literally it is a question; non-literally it is a request

(in the last example an explicit directive verb is embedded).

All these indirect acts have several common features:

1. Imperative force is not part of the literal meaning of these


2. These sentences are not ambiguous.

3. These sentences are conventionally used to make requests. They

often have "please" at end or preceding the verb.

4. These sentences are not idioms, but are idiomatically

used as requests.

5. These sentences can have literal interpretations.

6. The literal meanings are maintained when they question

the physical ability: Can you pass the salt? - No, itТs too far

from me. I canТt reach it.

7. Both the literal and the non-literal illocutionary acts

are made when making a report on the utterance:

The speaker: Can you come to my party tonight?

The hearer: I have to get up early tomorrow.

Report: He said he couldn't come. OR: He said he had to get

up early next morning.

A problem of the inference theory is that syntactic forms

with a similar meaning often show differences in the ease in

which they trigger indirect speech acts:

a) Can you reach the salt?

b) Are you able to reach the salt?

c) Is it the case that you at present have the ability to

reach the salt?

While (a) is most likely to be used as a request, (b) is

less likely, and (c) is highly unlikely, although they seem to

express the same proposition.

Another drawback of the inference theory is the complexity

of the algorithm it offers for recognizing and deciphering the

true meaning of indirect speech acts. If the hearer had to pass

all the three stages every time he faced an indirect speech act,

identifying the intended meaning would be time-consuming whereas

normally we recognize each otherТs communicative intentions

quickly and easily.

3.2. Indirect speech acts as idioms?

Another line of explanation of indirect speech acts was

brought forward by Jerrold Sadock [42, 197]. According to his

theory, indirect speech acts are expressions based on an

idiomatic meaning added to their literal meaning (just like the

expression Уto push up daisiesФ has two meanings: Уto increase

the distance of specimens of Bellis perennis from the center of

the earth by employing forceФ and Уto be deadФ). Of course, we

do not have specific idioms here, but rather general idiom

schemes. For example, the scheme УCan you + verb?Ф is idiomatic

for commands and requests.

However, the idiomatic hypothesis is questionable as a

general strategy. One problem is that a reaction to an indirect

speech act can be composite to both the direct and the indirect

speech act, e.g.

The speaker: Can you tell me the time?

The hearer: Yes, itТs three oТclock.

We never find this type of reaction to the literal and the

idiomatic intepretation of an idiom:

The speaker: Is he pushing the daisies by now?

Hearer 1: Yes/no (the idiomatic meaning is taken into


Hearer 2: Depends what you mean. As a gardener, yes (the

literal meaning is taken into account).

Another problem is that there is a multitude of different

(and seemingly semantically related) forms that behave in a

similar way:

a) Can you pass me the salt?

b) Could you pass me the salt?

c) May I have the salt?

d) May I ask you to pass the salt?

e) Would you be so kind to pass the salt?

f) Would you mind passing the salt?

Some of these expressions are obviously semantically

related (e.g. can/could, would you be so kind/would you mind),

and it seems that it is this semantic relation that makes them

express the same indirect speech act. This is different for

classical idioms, where the phrasing itself matters:

a) to push the daisies Уto be deadФ vs. to push the roses

b) to kick the bucket Уto dieФ vs. to kick the barrel.

Hence, a defender of the idiom hypothesis must assume a

multitude of idiom schemes, some of which are obviously closely

semantically related.

Summarizing, we can say that there are certain cases of

indirect speech acts that have to be seen as idiomatized

syntactic constructions (for example, English why not-questions.)

But typically, instances of indirect speech acts should not be

analyzed as simple idioms.

3. Other approaches to the problem

The difference of the idiomatic and inference approaches

can be explained by different understanding of the role of

convention in communication. The former theory overestimates it

while the latter underestimates it, and both reject the

qualitative diversity of conventionality. Correcting this

shortcoming, Jerry Morgan writes about two types of convention in

indirect speech acts [39, 261]: conventions of language and

conventions of usage. The utterance УCan you pass the salt?Ф

cannot be considered as a regular idiom (conventions of

language), but its use for an indirect request is undoubtedly

conventional, i.e. habitual for everyday speech that is always

characterized by a certain degree of ritualization.

In accordance with this approach the function of an

indirect speech act is conventionally fixed, and an inference

process is not needed. Conventions of usage express what

Morgan calls Уshort-circuited implicaturesФ: implicatures that

once were motivated by explicit reasoning but which now do not

have to be calculated explicitly anymore.

There is an opinion that indirect speech acts must be

considered as language polysemy, e.g. УWhy not + verb?Ф

construction serves as a formal marker of not just the illocutive

function of a question, but of that of a request, e.g. УWhy not

clean the room right now?Ф

According to Grice and Searle, the implicit meaning of an

utterance can always be inferred from its literal meaning. But

according to the relevance theory developed by Sperber and Wilson

[46, 113], the process of interpretation of indirect speech acts

does not at all differ from the process of interpretation of

direct speech acts. Furthermore, it is literal utterances that

are often marked and sound less natural than utterances with an

indirect meaning. For example, the utterance УShe is a snake.Ф

having an implicit meaning sounds more natural than УShe is

spiteful.Ф Exclamatory utterances УItТs not exactly a picniс

weather!Ф and УItТs not a day for cricket!Ф sound more

expressive and habitual than the literal utterance УWhat nasty

weather we are having!Ф The interrogative construction

expressing a request УCould you put on your black dress?Ф is more

customary than the performative: УI suggest that you should put

on your black dress.Ф

To summarize: there is no unanimity among linguists

studying indirect speech acts as to how we discover them in each

otherТs speech and УextractФ their meaning. Every theory has got

its strong and weak points, and the final word has not yet been




Speech act theories considered above treat an indirect

speech act as the product of a single utterance based on a single

sentence with only one illocutionary point - thus becoming a

pragmatic extension to sentence grammars. In real life, however,

we do not use isolated utterances: an utterance functions as part

of a larger intention or plan. In most interactions, the

interlocutors each have an agenda; and to carry out the plan, the

illocutions within a discourse are ordered with respect to one

another. Very little work has been done on the contribution of

the illocutions within utterances to the development of

understanding of a discourse.

As Labov and Fanshel pointed out, Уmost utterances can be

seen as performing several speech acts simultaneously ...

Conversation is not a chain of utterances, but rather a matrix of

utterances and actions bound together by a web of understandings

and reactions ... In conversation, participants use language to

interpret to each other the significance of the actual and

potential events that surround them and to draw the consequences

for their past and future actions.Ф (Labov, Fanshel 1977: 129).

Attempts to break out of the sentence-grammar mould were

made by Labov and Fanshel [35], Edmondson [29], Blum-Kulka,

House, and Kasper [24]. Even an ordinary and rather formal

dialogue between a customer and a chemist contains indirectness

(see table 4.1).

Table 4.1

Indirect speech acts of an ordinary formal dialogue

|Participant |Utterance |Indirect speech acts |

|Customer |Do you have any | Seeks to establish preparatory |

| |Actifed? |condition for |

| | |transaction and thereby implies the |

| | |intention to |

| | |buy on condition that Actifed is |

| | |available. |

|Chemist |Tablets or | Establishes a preparatory |

| |linctus? |condition for the |

| | |transaction by offering a choice of |

| | |product. |

|Customer |Packet of | Requests one of products offered,|

| |tablets, |initiates |

| |please. |transaction. In this context, even |

| | |without |

| | |УpleaseФ, the noun phrase alone will |

| | |function as |

| | |a requestive. |

|Chemist |That'll be | A statement disguising a request |

| |$18.50. |for payment to |

| | |execute the transaction. |

|Customer |OK. | Agrees to contract of sale thereby|

| | |fulfilling |

| | |t buyer's side of the bargain. |

|Chemist |Have a nice day! | Fulfills seller's side of the |

| | |bargain and |

| | |concludes interaction with a |

| | |conventional farewell. |

Discourse always displays one or more perlocutionary

functions. Social interaction predominates in everyday chitchat;

informativeness in academic texts; persuasiveness in political

speeches; and entertainment in novels. But many texts combine

some or all these functions in varying degrees to achieve their

communicational purpose. For instance, although an academic text

is primarily informative, it also tries to persuade readers to

reach a certain point of view; it needs to be entertaining enough

to keep the reader's attention; and most academic texts try to

get the reader on the authorТs side through social interactive

techniques such as use of authorial we to include the reader.

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