Theolinguistic Developments in
Speech Act Theory
Johannes S. Rearle
and Johan A. Lustin
Professors of Pragmaticianalism
Austin and Searle and their (slightly contrasting) take on so-called speech acts have been the porridge and cuppa of what my old syntax tutor used to call a ‘Dorset myriad’ of linguistics studenten and studenterin for decades if not many years. And so they should be! There’s little more critical in (and to!) a budding linguist’s training than getting that ‘I name this ship the Florescent Lightbulb’ and ‘I’m leaving you, Timothy, you and your 8-years-in linguistics ‘thesis’ on God-knows-what’ are as much (if not more so) acts as/than they are statements. And that of course is not all: No, sir(le!)! If we accept that under certain circumstances words are effectively acts, the phenomenon of the indirect speech act suddenly gallops itself, white charger-borne, over the pragmatic horizon and demands, yea requires, to be given time, attention and indeed credence. ‘It’s cold’, in the right context, pragmatically translates to ‘Shut the window’; ‘There’s lots of onion in this’, in the right context, pragmatically translates to ‘If you mess up my Friday night bolognese dining experience again, ‘dear’, you can kiss goodbye to $120,000—plus car and expense account—that I bring in every year.’
For time immemorial, the trusty, trusted, trustworthy and well trousered triad of locution, illocution and perlocution has been taught, passed on, used (and in extreme circumstances, believed) as a framework for analysis of the so-just-how-does-it-do-that-then? of speech act theory. Illocutions, as any neonate knows, are fairly tricky in themselves: just what is it that indicates that what is said and stated is not what is meant and intended? But the big, bad, badass brown bear of the pragmatics mountain range ain’t illocutions but its younger, crazier, chaotic sibling, the perlocutionary act. ‘How infinite in faculty’ rattled on Hamlet in one of least coherent ‘defining texts of the Shakespearean canon’; well, ‘How infinite in number and possibility!’ might similarly be exclaimed of the perlocutionary act. Pretty much any act can be the consequence of an illocutionary force-carrying locution. Consider, for example, when Harold Godwinson of England asked to borrow William Duke of Normandy’s CD of Help!; the perlocutionary act was invasion and conquest, hardly a predictable outcome of what the Bayeux Tapestry suggests was Harold’s locution: ‘Golly gosh, Willie, old boy; I haven’t had even the fleetingest of escuchados of the sound-festivalio Help! since before Eddie the Conf got bedridden.’
Thankfully, new insights are at hand, thanks to Jack-and-the-beanstalk-antagonist-sized strides being taken in the application of theolinguistics to speech act theory. The Rev Professor Edwin Radagastius Lijkbliumenstrassendijkmann O’Cushion (or Rev Perl O’Cushion as he prefers to be addressed), rural dean of Blaukirk-under-Hemelsthwaite just outside Dundee and Professor of Applicatorialist Linguistics at the University of Camford, Cramford, Cranbourne, Camberwick, Cambridgeshire, suggests in his recent paper, The Divine Eye as ISA-Disambiguator: God Is the Perlocutionary Benchmark, that recourse to divinity may provide at least the impetus for a framework mapping perlocutions to (or off) illocutionary forces.
O’Cushion is unapologetic; he states (p.97,812,903) ‘If yer wanna getta handuw on these goddam perlocutions, yer gonna ’ave to fink up a moduw what lets yer map one to t’ other, like. An’ that, if yer fink ’bout it, is all where God comes in, innit? I mean, stands to bloomin’ reason, don’t it? Clear as. Goddit?’
The model itself (pp.1–2), termed the Divinity Hypothesis, is equally clear. The optimum perlocution for any illocutionary act is that defined as optimum by God. Thus, the theorist merely has to ascertain, for any set S of potential perlocutionary pickups (PPPs) the Divinity Quotient (DQ) of each, express this numerically, and, lo!, a scale of perlocutionary likelihood emerges cleanly and organically. Thus, under normal panentheistic assumptions, William of Normandy’s actual perlocutionary act ranks lower than, say, handing over the CD to Harold Godwinson with a benign, ducal smile because God is known to be more panentheistically present in handing-over-type acts, than in carting-half-an-army-across-the-English-channel-in-late-summer-type acts.
Of course, pragmatics being the battleground (if you’ll excuse the pun, Harold!) of ideas, egos, yoyos, personalities, ideologies and financial investment plans that it is, it is un- if not anti-surprising that Prof Perl has his detractors. Dr Wendy Wendysdottir-Windleborough von Klafenberg has not kept her opinions in the wings on this one. Her three-paragraph response to O’Cushion, Many Perlocutions; Many Gods, soon to be serialised in a ground-breaking five-part Nordic Noir drama, makes short shrift of the Divinity Hypothesis. Von Klafenberg argues that the nature of the Divine is not sufficiently clear for all perlocutions to be computable from the locutionary form. So, to take her second example, the locution ‘Here’s the obsidian knife, High Priest’, with the illocutionary force of ‘Please sacrifice the victim now’ has a high DQ for the perlocutionary act ‘Remove heart from living human’ if the nature of God approximates to the Aztec deity Huitzilopochtli. However, if the deity is more akin to Roman goddess Aphrodite (who multiple studies suggest correlates strongly with flowerbeds and white-hued birds), the DQ leans in favour of a perlocution of throwing away the obsidian knife and engaging in a romantic dalliance with the captive against a background of soft-toned flora.
The debate continues. Whithersoever the polemic will take the field is a question of time, further refinement of relevant ideas and of course ongoing experimental work. However, establishing that perlocutionary force is in fact a theolinguistic notion at least in part, not a purely pragmatic one, is a major step forward and bestows upon the study of speech acts the energy and dynamism that it so richly deserves.