Speech Act theory (SAT)   Wednesday, 5 September 2001  986 words

Thursday, 6 September 2001  1675

Monday, 10 September 2001       1892

Tuesday, 1993 2493



When people couldn't reach each other on the phone, they logged on to instant messaging systems to "talk" without delay. "There's no question this is going to be the biggest day in Internet traffic in U.S. history," says Allen Weiner of Nielsen//NetRatings.

America Online got an immediate spike in instant messaging traffic


in AOL chat rooms, people sought news and contact. "My dad is arabic," wrote one user in the "Friends — Lean on Me" chat room. "The entire side of my dads family is arabic."

"I hope they are fine," responded one chatter. But quickly, someone else piped in: "We dont trust peoople like you. We dont speak your language."

In another typical exchange, one said, "LETS PRAY FOR THOSE WHO WERE INVOLVED AND THERE FAMILIES." The next post? "All i hope they kill "




Every utterance in a chat room is significant, but not every utterance makes a statement, nor does it make a promise nor does it always make sense to the witness of the utterance.[i]



Questions in this section:


1)    What conditions are necessary for an intended speech act to succeed?

2)     Can sincerity be expressed in a chatroom speech act?

3)    How are words presented as setting up a condition?

4)    What is involved with a chatroom speech act?

5)    How do words, symbols (emoticons) and abbreviations denote intentions in chatrooms?


This section will use Speech Act Theory to create a reading construct of a chatroom. Speech Act Theory (SAT) which was developed from the work of linguistic philosophers[ii] focuses on Austin’s (1962) and Searle’s (1969, 1976) notion of the illocutionary force within a speech act.


Speech Act Theory follows Austin and Searle’s writings.  In 1955 John L. Austin gave lectures at Harvard University (William James Lectures) which were published in 1962 as How to Do Things with Words and Speech Acts. Though Austin is said to the founder of Speech Act Theory it is John R. Searle’s book, incorporating Austin’s work  published in 1969 entitled An Essay in the Philosophy of Language which has been the more influential in development of a Speech Act Theory.



Austin noted that not only were sentences used to report of statements but some sentences must be treated as the performance of an act.


For example:


Vanderveken (1981 and 1983) with Searle (1985) furthered Austin’s Speech Act Theory with the proposition that the three main components of sentence meaning are the illocutionary forces, senses, and denotations. (Vanderveken p.195). Searle deals with illocutionary acts in the context of philosophy of language (Crosby, 1990).  His social action of speech acts can be reduced to one of promising.  Promising as in intent is an act of sincerity.  In a chatroom sincerity is the smallest equation of meaning exchange.


Searle is concerned with the act of promising and lists several factors which he believes constitute the act of promising:

1.        intending to do the thing promised

2.        intending that the uttering of the words of promising place one under an obligation

3.        intending that the promisee learn that the uttered words place the promisor under an obligation,

4.        intending that the promisee recognize this last intention by understanding the meaning of the words of promising.


(It is easy to question where is the actual act of promising in this system of intentions of Searles’)


In a chatroom we take an utterance (group of words, emoticon, abbreviation) and analyse it to understand the speaker’s intent to accomplish a particular result. For there to be success in a chatroom dialogue the illocutionary acts are determined by the meaning of not only the utterances (including emoticons, and abbreviations and misspelt words) but also the relevant contextual features.  For example, to be successful in the astrotalk chatroom it would be a hindrance to dialogue completeness if one made an utterance thus: “crows downed port again”.  How could people in an astrology chatroom, and let us add that they were predominately from the States know what this means?  Did some crows knock over a bottle of port and drink it?  Of course in Australia if people are into football would quickly translate that this was about the two AFL football teams in South Australia.  Then again what would this have to do with astrology?  Conversley if we were talking in a South Australia sports chatroom, it would be doubtful that we would be understood if we said “umpires were off ‘cause of  square the umpire’s ”. If no one in the chatroom had any astrological knowledge there would be no successful illocutionary force present to untangle the utterance and to put it into a meaningful perspective.


Illocutionary force is the asking of questions presenting an intention.


<dingo42> in turn 2 asks

nicole wahts your sign ??


There is intention that with a properly understood question or intention there will be a properly understood response.  All elementary sentences contain an illocutionary force maker (Vanderveken p.197).  Therefore, <dingo42> would fully expect Nicole to tell what sign he or she is.  If Nicole responded by talking about the New York Yankees in the World Series then <dingo42>’s intended response would not be fulfilled.


But then this is the problem with multiple personed chatroom dialogue. It is not always clear whether the response or the next line of ‘speech’ is indeed concerned with the intended question. We only assume that Nicole was answering <dingo42> and not a question presented earlier which may have asked for a response in regards to the playing of the New York Yankees in the World Series.


In single person-to-person chatrooms, such as Instant Messenger and ICQ there can be a dialogue of question and answers.  Turn-taking is easier to follow and more obvious in these settings.  We can still track conversation and find turn-taking in a multied-person chatroom, though it is easier when there is a transcription process such as saving all the text of the chatroom talk.


11) <Nicole528>

im a Gemini

14) <Nicole528>



Now we have the facts <Nicole528> is a Gemini.  Of course we have no way of knowing whether this is true but the question has been answered.  She or he did not say that they were Hungairan with a size 12 foot. 





First we need to understand the concept of indirect speech acts.  Chatrooms thrive on indirect utterances primarly because of the milieu of a chatroom.  When there are dozens of utterances quickly scrolling past on a computer screen the observer, if he or she has any hope of responding must be able to interpret what is being said.  It is the action-character of linguistic phenomena that creates a response. There is movement in everything that is said.  All thoughts have action or energy and utterance is the hardcopy of thoughts. The word made manifest.  What is so different about chat room utterances is the hardcopy, the written utterance.  When chat room dialogue can be saved we have a long lasting copy of what is said.


Many chat rooms can not be copied or saved.  For example, several chat rooms I visited today (Thursday, 13 September 2001) would have been so ideal to have copied for later research.  This is two days after the airline crashes into the World Trade Building in NYC and the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes.  Even when we consider that chat rooms tend to be faceless and non-emotional, what I read was very emotional and very communicative.  But as the chat rooms in Yahoo


Without taking into account that there could be a huge mixture of cultures (see Seale’s speech act formulations with its emphasis on the speaker’s psychological state when he speaks of cross-cultural applications) at any moment in any chatroom involving people from anywhere in the world which would not only challenge one’s cultural codes of linguistics, but their time zone differences and even seasonal differences.


For example, in a chatroom at this moment it is winter with rain and cold and it is noon here in Australia whereas in New York it is midnight, summer and a hot balmy night and there not only could be a New Yorker, me here in Australia, a teenager in India, an elderly person in Argatina, a Palestinian in the Gaza Strip, and someone on board the QE2 on a Pacific cruise all in the same chatroom.  Furthermore, there could be someone who is orbiting the Earth aboard a space station, and a mountain climber at a base camp in the Hamiliayns. We could have several age groups, relgions, cultures and both genders and everyone with a different world view conversing.  After all the initial “hi J”, “hello ;)” “anyone in here from Maine” and on and on someone may create an utterance of “the jews are shooting at us”.  What does this mean? 


Using indirect speech act we would assume that this is someone in Palestine and Isreal is taking military action.  But it could mean a drive by shooting in the Bronx.  Other people in the chatroom can ask questions or ignore the utterance and say something about the weather, or say that the New York Yankees had a good game last night. 


Because of the nature of a chatroom we usually understand indirect speech and what it is regarding.  The nature of the chatroom often provides the coding mechanisim for the speech event.  .  For example;


<dingo42> in turn 2 asks

nicole wahts your sign ??


This could elcit any number of responses.   Are we discussing road signs?  Graffiti tags?  The sign of the end of an age?  Books on semiotics give us different definitions of the concept of signs which often are more complementary than contradictory. (Eco 1984)  C. S. Peirce says a sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (C. Peirce. 2.228).  Here we are using the concept of ‘the sign’ which is a primary basis of reference in the study of semiotics (throughout the history of Western thought, the idea of a semiotic theory was always labelled as a doctrine of signs (Jakobson 1974; Rey 1973; Sebeok 1976; Todorov 1977) to symboloize something entirely different.  How does one know when they are at a pub and someone asks what is their sign what is being asked?  Yet we instintively answer, “I am a Leo with Mars conjunct Uranus in my eighth house and I have an eclipse of Venus to Saturn”. The question is a difficult one to deal with in most settings.  What sort of response will we get? Does this person hate Leos?  Love Leos?  Hit Leos over the head with beer jugs? Is it a question asked out of bordom?  Or is it just an insignificant question used to meet someone?  A typical pick-up line?  I have done an indepth study of astrology for more than thirty-five years so I am more interested in one’s birth data than one who follows sun sign astrology in the newspapers.



im a Gemini


<Nicole528> has answered directly and simply. 


Linguistic action

Intention – can we read what the intention of a speaker is? Or do we superimpose what we think is the speaker’s intentions? Furthermore, in a chatroom the emphasis is the continuousness of the dialogue because one may never finish what they have begun to say.  The utterances have no development.  For example, 


Chatroom acts have necessary directness towards another person.  Therefore, chatroom acts constitute a miniature “civil society”.  The people in the room often establish rules of engagement or manners of civil dialogue.


There are basically two manners in which to deal with one who is not acceptable to the current conversation occurring. Either the person is ignored totally i.e. no matter what they say no one responds (for example in astrol…) or several voices group together in an attempt to either silence or force out the unwanted voice. (for example in astrol…).


Chat rooms are usually randomly assembled voices with people coming and going as well as changing their user name, and in some instances one person can be logged into as chatroom using several names creating a multi-personality in the chatroom that others may believe are in fact different identities all together. Therefore, the constantly changing make up of the chatroom society must be a self-governing and self-rule creating environment.


Speech Act in person-to-person would obviously have a different set of protocols than a SA in a chatroom.  In a group of a dozen people the dominant voices may be the males, the older people, the younger people, the Americans, the Leos or the Generals. Through the use of change in voice such as pitch, tone and the use of physical posturing: IE. Some people manage to manoeuvre themselves into the front of the group, or someone stands on a stage or on a desk and begins shouting, through gestures, IE. A person points, throws books or jumps up and down; the dominant voice or voices take charge of the linguistic space.  In a chatroom the linguistic space is constantly rearranged through the coming and going of voices.




As in any form of communication when we write in a chatroom we write with intentions.  The intentions can be to ask a question (IE.  “Does anyone know…?), to start a new thread (IE. “    “), To continue, change, disrupt or any of a series of intended illocutionary actions are begun with but a few words. 


Indirect Speech Acts in Chatrooms


How is a dialogue begun, continued, or understood with only three or four words, half of which may be misspelt plus an abbreviation or two in an utterance?  How do we instantly interpret and give meaning instantly beyond the literal description in front of us?


What I will try to do here is to explain how the speaker/hearer/writer of a text in a chatroom can understand several strains of conversation flashing by, sometimes at the rate of twenty or more speech acts per minute.  And not only understand but be able to abstract a particular thread or utterance and create a dialogue with it.


In some chatrooms, as will be explored in the Sex Chatrooms; it is quite clear what participators respond to.  If someone has a user name of <hot18f> and their utterance is “I so hot tonight”, even with rapidly scrolling text there will be instantly a lot of responses to <hot18f>.  Of course <hot18f> could be a middle age male writing from death row in Texas for murder and rape of young females.  Who is writing is not questioned.  It is the text which illicite the response and nothing else.  Intention is quite clear on both the speaker and the listener then respondent’s part.  We will come back to this later.


In this particular chatroom we are exploring now, astrochat, I am looking at the illocutionary acts as Searle (1975a) explains these acts.


When one reads a scrolling text they are faced with several choices of how to deal with the context of the message.

  1. The witness to the text decides that the literal illocutions is relevant and creates a response.  Example>>>>>
  2. The witness to the text decides that the literal illocutions is irrelevant and ignores the utterance.  Example>>>>> no one responds to the text
  3. The witness to the text decides that the literal illocutions is irrelevant and lets the speaker know it.  Example>>>>>
  4. The witness to the text decides that the speaker must have meant something else than what the words appear to be saying and creates a response.  Example>>>>>


There are many more variations to these overall global chatroom response themes and I will explore these contextually using all the theories I have used in the various chatrooms in chapter 7, which is the discussion of ‘Conversational analysis of chatroom “talk”’.







Searle, John R.  1975a.  Indirect speech acts.  Peter Cole and Jerry L, Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press, 59-82.


History of speech act theory:


Thomas Reid  - “social operations” or “social acts” such as promising, warning or forgiving, as opposed to the “solitary acts” of the individual, such as judging, intending or deliberating.

F. Brentano and Husserl = originates SAT –Austro-German phenomenologist

Husserl  - developed his theory of “objectifying acts: his approach leads to a view of uttered sentences of all sorts as abbreviated statements about certain underlying non-linguistic mental acts or states, for, beside other reasons, the sincerity of e.g a questions coincides with the truth of the corresponding statement.





Reinach the true founder of SPT, the first to clearly realize that linguistic acts are not just descriptive statements about intentional states.  Deals with illocutionary acts in the context of a legal philosophy.








Crosby, John. Speech act theory  and phenomenology in Burkhardt, Armin. Ed. Speech acts, meaning, and intentions: critical approaches to the philosophy of John R. Searle Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin, 1990, p. 63.


Pierce, C. S. 1931-58. Collected Papers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Jakobson, R., The Framework of Language. Michigan Studies in the Humanities  1980 .


Sebeok 1976


Todorov 1977


Vanderveken, Daniel. On the Unification of Speech Act Theory and Formal Semantics in Cohen, Phil; Morgan, Jerry; Pollack, Martha. Intentions in Communication.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1990. p.195 – 220..


[i]  This is a re-working of the Aristolian statements in the first chapter of his De interpretatione: “Every sentence is significant [...], but not every sentence is a statement-making sentence, but only those in which there is truth or falsity. There is not truth or falsity in all sentences: a prayer is a sentence but is neither true nor false. The present investigation deals with the statement-making sentence; the others we can dismiss, since consideration of them belongs rather to the study of rhetoric or poetry.” (17 a 1-5, Edghill translation). Barry Smith, Towards a History of Speech Act Theory, an essay rewritten from "Materials Towards a History of Speech Act Theory" which appeared in Karl Bühler's Theory of Language (Amsterdam 1988), edited by Achim Eschbach. The revised essay appears on the World Wide Web: http://wings.buffalo.edu/philosophy/faculty/smith/articles/speechact.html#N_1_ last accessed 13/09/2001.

[ii]  linguistic philosophers