In the previous chapter I looked at discourse as a social semiotic approach to studying the 'what' of communication. In this chapter I will use the concepts of 'speech act' and 'genre' to outline a social semiotic approach to the 'how' of communication.
The term 'speech act' was coined by J.L. Austin (1962), a philosopher of language. Until the 1960s philosophers of language had seen language as predominantly a mode of representation, a resource for making statements about what is going on in the world. The task of language philosophy, as they saw it, was to formulate the precise conditions under which such statements would be true or false (see also chapter 8). Austin changed this. Some statements, he said, are neither true nor false. They create their own truth. They become true by the very act of uttering them. He called such statements 'performatives' and contrasted them to 'constatives', statements with a primarily representational function, which can therefore be true or false. He gave examples like 'I do take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife', as said in the course of a marriage ceremony, and 'I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth', as said while smashing a bottle against the hull of a ship (1962:5), noting that these utterances can only perform their performative work under certain conditions, which he called 'felicity conditions': unless the sentence 'I take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife' is said in the setting of a recognized marriage ceremony, it will not perform the act of marriage. The same applies to less institutionalized performances. An apology, for instance, will only work as an apology if it follows an action which is recognized, in the given context, as requiring an apology.
Austin stressed that every speech act combines three simultaneous acts, a locutionary act, an act of representing something that is going on in the world - for example, referring to 'this woman' and predicating of her that she is the speaker's lawful, wedded wife - an illocutionary act, that is, the performance of a communicative act such as promising, warning, apologizing, commanding, etc., and a perlocutionary act, the causing of an effect on the hearer. Speech act theory has become widely applied in pragmatics, the study of language in use (see for example, Blum-Kolka, 1997), but unfortunately most pragmaticians neglect the perlocutionary act. This is a pity because there clearly may be a difference between the intended and the actual effect of a speech act. The Indian version of Cosmopolitan magazine contained the following piece of advice for managers: 'If you manage a lot of people, maintain their morale by showing you have a sense of humour'. For readers who are 'managees' rather than managers reading this piece of advice might diminish the effect of the manager's jokes, because they could now be seen as somewhat less than spontaneous.