Speech Act Theory — just say yes!

By Frederic Friedel

In a separate article I described how my very promising career as a University philosopher ground to a halt when I became disillusioned by Aristotle, the Greeks, by metaphysics, and by classical philosophy in general. I was on the verge of packing up and looking for something completely different when we had a visitor at the University of Hamburg: John Searle, a flamboyant Professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was doing philosophy in a way that immediately appealed to me.

Searle’s Hamburg lecture was on Speech Act Theory, and it had a profound impact. During the rest of my studies I specialized in this area, and in fact wrote my thesis on the subject (the relevance of Speech Act theory to key questions in moral philosophy). I even visited Searle in Berkeley to discuss the thesis I was writing on him — unfortunately after ten minutes of quickly confirming that I was on the right track he switched to a different subject, one he was currently working on: Artificial Intelligence. At the end of an hour-long fairly adversarial debate — I was deeply interested in the subject myself — he took me to lunch and asked the famous Hubert Dreyfus, a leading critic of AI, to join us. More about this ruckus luncheon in an upcoming article.

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Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle in Berkley in the 1970s — discussing AI, not Speech Act Theory.

Well, as I mentioned above, I became a Speech Act theoretician, studying J. L. Austin’s Illocutionary Acts and How To Do Things with Words. It involved rigorously defining the “felicity conditions” (as Austin called them) for various kinds of speech acts: promises, declarative statements, etc. I promise to write more extensively about this fascinating field in the future.

My speciality became indirect speech acts, for instance saying “You are standing on my foot,” which is not intended to simply relay information, but is an urgent request to get off. Indirect directives are abundantly present in everyday life, and in every language I looked at. In fact it is very rare that you will hear a direct directive (in the form of an imperative sentence): Get me a cup of coffee, fetch the newspaper, tell me what you think, are seldom: at least you will hear “Can you…” proceeding the directive: Can you tell me what you think, etc. They are formally questions about your ability to do something, but everyone immediately understands what you want, what the intention of the utterance is.

As an Assistant at the University I started doing courses on Speech Act theory, and encountered a fair bit of rejection of indirect directives by the students: “That is sooo hypocritical and fake, we always use direct imperatives!” they would say, only to immediately use an indirect form like “Can you close the door, please!” in refutation of their own contention. I even sent teams of students into early morning transportation, to record labourers talking to each other. They taped very informal and sometimes bawdy exchanges, and we found that there would almost never be a pure imperative sentence used by the speakers: Do you have a cigarette for me? I want to sit next to the window. Your bag is in the way. Never: Give me a cigarette, let me sit next to the window, take your bag off the seat.

Wonderful times: my son Martin, Richard M. Hare at his house just outside Oxford, where we stayed on numerous occasions. Great time in my studies and in my life.

I need to narrate one very striking incident: during this phase I would often go to Oxford to work with moral philosopher Prof. R.M. Hare. We became personal friends and soon I was invited to bring my family along, to stay in their house.

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Language and speech virtuoso: Martin in Oxford

To prepare our three-year-old son Martin for the trip I tried to teach him a smattering of English: if you are thirsty you say “Give me water”. When I quizzed him the next day, what he would say when he was thirsty, he said (in German): “Can I have some water?” No, no, in English. Unfortunately he did not know what I meant by “English”, and he said (again in German): “I want to drink some water.” No, Martin, what did we learn yesterday? “Will you give me some water?”

I was getting frustrated when I suddenly realized: this child is dictating his entire repertoire of indirect directives to me — and hadn’t yet used a single imperative clause (“Give me water” — “Gib mir Wasser!”). I got a list of about eight different forms and used them often in my lectures — to illustrate how early the indirect pattern is established.

One of my lectures in Hamburg was attended by my professor, Willy Essler, together with his wife. They were sitting in the front row and, after a while, started whispering to each other, and in fact giggling. Afterwards I confronted them, slightly annoyed: “Did you not agree with what I was saying? Did you find it funny?” “No, no” said Willy and Uta, “what you said was very important for us. You solved a serious problem in our marriage.”

Really? It turned out that Willy, who had spent his childhood in a region of Germany called Sudetenland (that subsequently became Czechoslovakia), had been exposed to special rules governing directives: you always had to use indirect directives, fairly elaborate ones in fact (“Would it be possible for me to get another cup of coffee?”) except in one case: if you were very close to a person, a lover or a spouse, you used the direct imperative as a sign of affection! Give me another cup, or fetch me some more cake, was the equivalent of saying give me another cup, dearest, or fetch me some more cake, sweetie. However, Uta, who was raised in West Germany, always had the feeling that Willy was so polite to other people but sometimes quite rude to her. They had figured out their linguistic difference during my lecture on indirect directives.

Since we are speaking about Willy, who later became a family friend, there is another amusing little tale to tell. In Sudetenland there were also very strict rules about accepting offers. You had to decline them once or twice, before accepting. Willy called it “Schanderhalber”, which translates loosely to “out of shame or respect”. The way it worked was as follows: “Would you like a cup of coffee?” — “Oh, no, thank you so much.” — “But do have a cup.” — “Oh no, it is too much of a bother.” — “But please, no bother.” — “Okay, thank you.” Well, the result was that we would be at University gatherings or visiting friends, and everyone would be sitting around with coffee and cake — except Willy, who had nothing. North Germans accept the first, and certainly the second rejection, and do not press. On more than one occasion I had to intervene and explain to our host: “He means yes please!”

And finally a little anecdote that is not directly part of today’s subject, but linguistically relevant (and funny). Elisabeth is one of the most talented female chess players in Germany, and when she was about twelve or thirteen I took her home to stay with us for a week. While driving on the Autobahn I asked her: “Are you hungry, would you like a hamburger or something?” She replied: “No.” Then, when we drove past the McDonald’s, she looked at it in disappointment. So I tried again when the next one appeared. Again the answer was “no”, and there was clear disappointment when I did not stop.

So what is the solution to this puzzle? Elli is from East Germany, Saxony, and there the word “no” translates to “yes”! Well, it’s not exactly that crass: she kept saying “Noh?” with a slight rise of inflection. And that translates to something like “Why not?” But for north Germans a no is a no. It took us all a while to get used to Elli’s variant.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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