Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Lexical Definitions of Some Performative Verbs

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Lexical Definitions of Some Performative Verbs

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Research into speech acts belongs in pragmatics, text-linguistics, and conversational analysis. Owing to their nature, speech act verbs cannot be thoroughly analyzed without inspecting their pragmatic use. This holds good to a lesser degree for the entire lexis, but since there are performative verbs used exclusively or typically to perform speech acts, their investigation comes within the scope of semantics as well. There must be a common core to their usage in speech, which can be revealed from a semantic point of view yielding diagnostic, lexical definitions. Although the mainstream approach to performative verbs in linguistics has been pragmatic (with the exception of important studies by Anna Wierzbicka), we shall concentrate solely on the semantic side, with the aim to show that the company these verbs keep (paraphrasing Firth's famous saying), is a good guide to their essence.

2. Aims

The purpose of this investigation is (1) to find scientific lexicological definitions for four performative verbs and one approximating them, and (2) to compare them (2a) mutually and (2b) to definitions in four modern English monolingual dictionaries: Collins COBUILD English language dictionary (Sinclair 1987; hereafter abbreviated to C), Hornby's Oxford advanced learner's dictionary (Hornby, Ashby & Wehmeier 2000; hereafter H), Webster's II new college dictionary 2005 (2005; hereafter W II), and Macmillans English dictionary for advanced learners (Rundell 2007; hereafter M), as well as to Anna Wierzbicka's explicatives. Wierzbicka has elaborated a method of creating explications, a kind of definitions derived from simple ordinary language, which are meant to highlight the most important, invariant meaningful elements of particular words (e.g., Wierzbicka 1972, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1988). Occasionally, she resorts to collocations, well aware that "[t]he meaning of a word can often be illuminated by the other words which it tends to co-occur with" (Wierzbicka 1987: 210).

We are going to work our way through semantic definitions of the verbs appoint, declare, pronounce, and excommunicate. These verbs are related to "[s]peech acts that bring about the state of affairs they name [...]: bids, blessings, firings, baptisms, arrests, marrying, declaring a mistrial. [...] The verbs include bet, declare, baptize, name, nominate, pronounce" (Kreidler 1998: 185, who calls them "performative" in a narrower sense than usual). These speech act verbs belong in the "exercitive" group of Austin's performative verbs, with the exception of declare in one meaning, which was classified as "commissive" (Austin 1962), while Searle (1969, 1976) classified them as "declarations". Wierzbicka assigns appoint to the permit group, excommunicate to the baptize group, and the rest to the declare group. For the sake of a more graphic comparison the verb elect has been added to the group although it is not on the list of Austin's and Wierzbicka's speech act verbs.

Since we have decided to analyze only sememes with a performative function or verging thereon, other meanings of appoint ('decide on a time/place'), declare ('tell that one owns taxable property'), and pronounce ('utter') will not be treated here.

3. The collocational method

In this study we shall proceed from the collocational approach. A systematic investigation into collocation as a means to produce semantic definitions was presented in Hlebec (2008 a, b, c, 2011 a, b, 2012, 2013). The customary collocational-method procedure that we are going to follow is this: (1) determine polysemy when present and concentrate on each sememe separately, (2) identify grammar words and content words as the collocators of the particular verb sememe, and (3) provide the content of the collocators that agree with the chosen sememe in order to use it as a source for definitions. Unacceptable collocations also serve as clues to defining (cf. …

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