Politeness theory and the classification of speech acts

  • Mara Hermes Katz Simon Fraser University
Keywords: discourse, speech acts


Speech acts are utterances that perform actions. Their focus is usually less on their truth value than on their illocutionary effect, the effect that a speaker wishes to have on his or her environment. The study of speech acts initially focused on performative acts such as making a bet, naming a ship (or a person), or declaring two people to be married (Flowerdew, 2013). However, no utterance exists in a vacuum, and all speech can be considered to have illocutionary effects. Therefore, the study of speech acts has broadened to include more or less every kind of utterance, as well as the interpersonal functions of whole texts.

A variety of methods exist for classifying speech acts based on their illocutionary effects. Austin (1975) and Searle (1976) devised two well-known taxonomies of speech act that are still used today to study the interpersonal functions of texts. However, both of these classification systems are incomplete in their description of speech acts. In this paper, I will address the shortcomings of both systems, including Searle’s criticism of Austin’s taxonomy, and propose a new taxonomy based on Searle’s that incorporates features of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory and Culpeper et al.’s (2003) impoliteness theory in order to make more precise distinctions among classes of speech acts.

Author Biography

Mara Hermes Katz, Simon Fraser University
Department of Linguistics, Master's student