A critical look at the description of speech acts
John Searle says that the aim of studying the philosophy of language, which the area of speech acts originally fell under, concerns universality: "The philosophy of language is the attempt to give philosophically illuminating descriptions of certain general features of language (…) and it is concerned only incidentally with particular elements in a particular language" (1969, p. 4). The aim is, of course, a good one. However, to understand the "general features of language," it follows that one would have to use a metalanguage that contains general features of language; a metalanguage that contains "particular elements' associated with "a particular language" or, in other words, an ethnocentric metalanguage would obviously not do. Yet, this is precisely how the study of speech acts is often conducted—with an ethnocentric metalanguage. It seems paradoxical that while scholars who study speech acts directly or indirectly engage in the pursuit of language universals, the metalanguage they use often effectively prevents them from reaching that goal. This chapter argues that we need to employ a minimally ethnocentric metalanguage, such as natural semantic metalanguage (NSM), as the analytic tool, if we want to fruitfully study speech acts in world languages. NSM could help us recognize speech acts from any language, even if there is no English word for it, and allow us to understand them from the inside. This chapter also argues that we should refrain from "comparing" speech acts by asking how people in various cultures perform the same speech act because this would necessitate the use of a language-specific speech act verb (e.g., request, apologize). A more fruitful way might be to formulate a generic situation using NSM and ask how people in various cultures respond in/to that situation.
Wong, J. (2016)., A critical look at the description of speech acts, in A. Capone & J. L. Mey (eds.), Interdisciplinary studies in pragmatics, culture and society, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 825-855.
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