Speech acts in context

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Some American linguist once said: ‘The text is all we have’. I would like to add that there is no text without context. With regard to speech acts, this idea is often encapsulated in the term ‘situated speech act’, in order to capture the notion that speech acts, in themselves, are not ‘real’: they have to be situated in reality, that is, in the context in which they were produced. This, by the way, is an insight already expressed by Austin as early as 1958 (Austin 1962). Not only are speech acts situated in a context; the context itself situates the speech acts, it creates them, as it were. A so-called indirect speech act is what the context makes it to be – not necessarily what the words spoken express by themselves; vice versa, a speech act (broadly: an utterance) may create the context for which it is appropriate. In international negotiations, for instance, the diplomatic speech acts are the instrument creating the final document, the communiqué or diploma, on which further negotiations are deemed to build; the felicity conditions for such acts cannot be captured by simplistic principles such as ‘sincerity’ or by universal maxims such as ‘quantity’ or ‘quality’ (as already remarked by the British diplomat Harold Nicolson in 1919; Nicolson 1934: 208). Similarly, the Conversation Analysts are partly right in maintaining that conversation creates the structure in which it happens; but in addition, one should be mindful that conversations are also ‘situated’, that is, their structuring happens in a general context of society. Here, ‘parts meet a greater whole’: speech acts are always ‘situated’, that is they are basically pragmatic acts (Mey 2001).


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