Analysing Talk In Interaction
Lectures 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Charles Antaki
Loughborough University

Lecture / Seminar 1: Analysing 'language' in the social sciences, and a brief account of Speech Acts

In this introductory lecture, I'll sketch the various ways (outside linguistics) that social sciences have thought about language. I'll say where Conversation Analysis stands in that landscape. In the second half of the lecture, I'll start working towards CA by giving a brief account of speech act theory, one of its ancestors, halfway between linguistics and philosophy.

Philosophical/anthropological/macro-linguistic interests:

Language and its relation to thought, and to the external world; to human-ness, culture, identity ....
Methods: conceptual analysis, comparative linguistics, ethnography, field-notes, texts ...

Sociological and socolinguistic interests:

'Language in society'; as markers of (large-scale) groups; inequalities; varieties of languages/dialects, their relation to social forces, classes, etc.
Methods: empirical surveys; questionnaires; field observation.

Cognitive psychological interests:

Mental faculties of comprehension and production; psycholinguistics, cognitive and developmental psychology of language. Typical interests include reading, writing and their disorders; autism, development of syntax and semantics ....
Methods: audio and visual experimentation with: phonemes, morphemes, syllables, utterances, words, sentences, paragraphs.

Social Psychology interests

1. Mechanics: The 'social skills' of leadership, group decision making, interpersonal relations etcetera ...
Methods: coding behaviour 'live' or captured on video-tape or audio tape
2. Mediation. How social relations are mediated through use of language viz: Interpersonal relations and impression management (eg self disclosure, accounts, gossip, rumour ...) Person perception/impression formation: language use as a cue to 'personality' etc ..
Methods: content analysis, experimentation with pre-categorised stimuli (eg adjective lists, written vignettes, prepared sound or video tapes ...); questionnaires etc
3. Social Cognition. How people use schemas, scripts, causal judgement etc .. to 'predict and control' their world; beliefs, attitudes, values; etc.
Methods: experimentation with pre-categorised stimuli (usually written vignettes); highly structured questionnaires ...

The second half of this lecture, and Lecture 2,  will be on:


The communication of meaning over and above the individual meanings of words in a sentence.
Methods: logical and conceptual analysis of phrases and sentences, usually made up.

Lectures 3 to 13 will be on:

Ethnomethodology/Conversation Analysis (CA)

(Once a sub-discipline in sociology). The construction of local reality through the micro-organisation of language.
Methods: analysis of natural talk, with the aid of careful transcription

Discourse analysis (DA)

(Roots in linguistics, stylistics, and rhetoric). The construction of local & less local social reality by the deployment of themes, repertoires and rhetorical devices of language. Many different kinds of DA.
Method: analysis of talk, interviews, texts, documents, archives ...

Now let's turn to one of CA's predecessors, a theory with a foot in both philosophy and linguistics.

Pragmatics of language I: Speech act theory (a brief account)



You should get all you need from the entry under 'speech act theory' in any appropriate introductory linguistics, or preferably pragmatics, textbook. See the list of these in the Readings link above.

There's a really comprehensive account in:

Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics. CUP. A complete critical account; perhaps more than you need, but exceptionally intelligent.



Austin pointed out that 'words' (really, short utterances) do things; that they are in themselves social acts. In fact they are the only ways in which certain social acts can be done. Hence

     I name this baby Eric


     I promise I'll bring the book back tomorrow


     I bet it'll rain this afternoon

are respectively the very act of naming, promising and betting, with consequential effects for everyone involved (as Levinson puts it, after you've made an utterance like this, "the world has changed in substantial ways" (p 228). Moreover, these are the only ways in which those acts can be done (can you imagine any other way of doing any of those three?)

The most obvious cases (like the ones above) have got the name of the action contained in the verb, which is helpfully in the first person. But the field is much wider than that - look at these examples: :

     Do that one more time and see what happens. (warning)

     Get out of here! (order)

     The University accepts no responsibility for.....(disclaimer)

All these utterances do things. There are no special grammatical marks that identify them (they just look like ordinary sentences). 

Not just a separate class

Was Austin just talking about things like offering, bidding, promising and so on? If so it would be a clever, but limited, theory. But he had a much wider ambition. He wanted to make the point that utterances which 'do' things were not a separate class. All utterances do things. Certainly things like promising and warning are very clear about what they do. Even a 'plain statement' like "The moon is closer to the Earth than the Sun" is doing something - that is, it's saying "hear this as a statement of fact".

Can you say that? 'Felicity conditions'

Of course, it's not the case that just anybody, by saying any words at just any time or anywhere, will actually achieve naming, promising, betting, warning and so on. The circumstances have to be conventionally right (otherwise the performance is, as Austin puts it, 'unhappy', and will 'misfire' or 'be abused'). Suppose, in eg the baptism case, that the vicar was an impostor, or the baby had already been baptised (or in the Queen's case that she had abdicated an hour before pronouncing those words; or that there is no such vestibule in the University; and so on).

Even apparently 'plain statements' need to be performed felicitously. The dictionary level of the utterance may be semantically sensible, but is the utterance a sensible thing to say in the circumstances? Does the speaker pass the felicity conditions which give the utterance some status as an utterance? Is the speaker authorised to state what s/he states? If I solemnly 'state' or 'tell you' that 'you have ninety pence in your purse', without having looked, that is not really to 'state', 'it's to 'guess' or 'speculate'. It's not felicitous: it doesn't work as a 'statement'.

If the felicity conditions are right, then the speech act 'works' in its primary sense: it commits the act. (Last bit of jargon: it has what Austin calls an 'illocutionary force'). Of course, just because you bet someone that Brazil will win the next World Cup (or whatever), it doesn't mean they have to accept the bet; but you've done your part of the contract.


Austin successfully directed attention to language-in-use. In his words: "the total speech act in the total speech situation is the only actual phenomenon, which, in the last resort, we are engaged in elucidating". The meaning of the utterance was in what it did, not what it was.

The study of language was never the same after Austin. Everyone now accepts two things:

  • that one has to examine the use, not just the 'accuracy' or 'truth', of an utterance; and
  • that the conditions of the utterance are just as important as what was uttered.

I'll take up the second of those ideas next week, when I'll talk about Paul Grice's 'Co-operative Principle'. That will take us fairly directly on to Conversation Analysis in Lecture 3, and that's where we'll stay for the rest of the lecture course.

This week's seminar: discussing Speech Act theory

We'll discuss what we can get out of Austin's work. Some questions we'll talk about:

  • what is wrong with the simple idea that utterances are true or false?
  • if you were taken to court for failing to keep a promise, what could you say in your defence?
  • does it matter that all our examples have been invented ones?

For next week's seminar:

We shall move on to the next big landmark in the linguistic treatment of talk in interaction, Paul Grice's theory of a 'co-operative principle'. It would be very helpful if you could read up on Grice in the usual pragmatics textbooks (see Readings) and come along with questions that you would like to go over.

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A course for the University of Southern Denmark, Odense 2003