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LINGUIST List 25.1446

Wed Mar 26 2014

Review: Pragmatics; Psycholing; Semantics: Kissine (2013)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 15-Nov-2013
From: Hugo García <jhgarciaunm.edu>
Subject: From Utterances to Speech Acts
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-2528.html

AUTHOR: Mikhail V. Kissine
TITLE: From Utterances to Speech Acts
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Hugo García, University of New Mexico


When we speak, we not only convey information but also do things with words; we perform speech acts, such as commanding, promising, threatening, etc. Speech act theory has been devoted to these and other speech acts since the classic works of Austin (1975) and Searle (1969). However, little attention has been paid in the theory to how speech acts are understood, e.g., how a hearer understands that a given utterance is a promise and not another speech act. This book aims to fill this gap. The author adheres to Strawson’s (1964) separation between conventional and nonconventional speech acts. The former are those that depend on social or institutional conventions such as baptizing, bidding, declaring war, etc. Kissine, however, restricts his study to the latter. From the spectrum of nonconventional speech acts, the author specifically addresses three types: constatives (e.g., declarative statements), directives (e.g., commands, requests), and commissives (e.g., promises and threats).

In Chapter 1, Kissine reviews Austinian speech act theory and argues for a clear separation of the three speech act levels: the locution (the linguistic form), the illocutionary force (the action that the utterance performs), and the perlocutionary effects (the consequences derived from performing the speech act). He maintains that perlocutionary effects, such as informing, persuading, etc., should be separated from the illocutionary level because they are not attached to illocutionary force in the same way. More precisely, the effects that an utterance can have are independent of the illocutionary force. For example, the tone of my voice can convey that I am angry, although I am not trying to communicate a specific emotion. On the other hand, illocutionary force also should be separated from the locution because a locutionary act does not necessarily constitute a speech act. For example, according to Kissine, soliloquies do not constitute an illocutionary act, because they are self-addressed. Thus, Kissine restricts speech acts to conversational interaction.

In Chapter 2, Kissine studies how intentional states are related to locutionary acts. He rejects the traditional description of speech acts based on their directions of fit -- from mind to world for beliefs and from world to mind for desires and intentions (Searle 1976). For Kissine, this account is unsatisfactory because if the belief does not fit in the world, then it cannot be distinguished from an unsatisfied desire. Thus, the traditional approach does not distinguish between beliefs and desires, and, for Kissine, this distinction is crucial for speech act understanding. Instead of directions of fit, he considers intentional states as derived from the locution’s content. Only one feature of the locution’s content is used to retrieve the illocutionary force: if its content is potential or nonpotential. If the content is nonpotential, the locution is subject to truth-value assignment and therefore is a constative speech act. On the other hand, potential content can be interpreted as a speech act not subject to truth-value assignment (e.g., a directive). The author argues that this model has the advantage of not having to interpret the speaker’s mental states: potentiality can be found by itself in the locution.

Chapter 3 examines constative illocutionary force, i.e., affirmations or negations of nonpotential states of affairs. In this chapter, Kissine introduces the notion of conversational background. His notion of conversational background assumes that, in our minds, we divide shared knowledge into “possible worlds,” each of which is composed by a set of assumptions. When we interpret an utterance as a constative speech act, we pair it with a set of assumptions that entails it. For example, if somebody says, “John is coming this afternoon,” the hearer will interpret this utterance by searching for a possible shared set of assumptions in which this information is acceptable (e.g., that John is a person whom both hearer and speaker know, that he is likely to come this afternoon, that he has reasons to come, etc.). The utterance’s contents must be consistent with at least one set of shared assumptions to be taken literally. Kissine postulates a general preference for a literal interpretation of utterances because, he argues, hearers never understand utterances by inferring the speaker’s intentions, but rather they immediately accept every utterance as a reason to believe its content; this is a direct perception model of communication, which Kissine opposes to inferential models. If the utterance cannot be paired with any possible world, the hearer will solve the problem by accommodating the utterance’s content to the existent presuppositions in the conversational background. This is the case of indirect speech acts, such as insinuation, irony, and sarcasm.

In Chapter 4, Kissine studies directive speech acts. In this case, the speaker presents the hearer with reasons to act with respect to the conversational background. In congruence with his separation of speech act levels, he argues that the imperative mood does not code directive force. Moreover, Kissine denies a one-to-one correspondence between sentence types and speech acts: “coupling illocutionary forces with sentence-types proves very implausible, and particularly so from a cross-linguistic point of view” (p. 112). The major piece of evidence that the author cites in this respect is that some languages lack a specific imperative form. Thus, the basic condition for recognizing that a directive speech act is performed is found in the utterance’s content and not in the linguistic form. In order to be interpreted as a directive speech act, the propositional content must be potential and must correspond with the conversational background. This correspondence consists of the desirability of the utterance’s content and the possibility that the hearer can bring about this content. Consequently, a sentence such as “You will clean the room” does not constitute an indirect request, because its content is clearly potential, and the conversational background is in agreement with its interpretation as a directive. This demonstrates that the form-function pairing of locutionary-illocutionary force is implausible. However, indirect speech acts can be conventionalized: e.g., “Can you clean the room?” is directly interpreted as a request, not as a question about the hearer’s ability to perform the act. As in the case of constatives, directives also can lack direct illocutionary force. For instance, if the speaker says, “Get well soon,” the hearer will not find any possible world in the conversational background where she can perform the utterance’s content. In this case, the utterance does not have a literal direct illocutionary force.

Chapter 5 presents evidence to support the ideas of the previous chapter. It especially emphasizes the superiority of the direct perception model over inferential models of communication. The author contrasts findings on language acquisition, on the one hand, and autistic communication disorders on the other. The main idea is that both groups share a general inability to attribute multilayered intentions to the speaker, which are required by inferential models of communication. On the other hand, young children are more likely than autistic persons to interpret utterances with respect to a shared conversational background. Moreover, contrary to the performance of autistic persons, young children can correctly interpret the illocutionary force of an utterance as either constative or directive. Autistic persons cannot recover the illocutionary force of utterances because they base an utterance’s interpretation on literal meaning and do not use a conversational background. From these findings, the author concludes that conversational background is sufficient for the interpretation of illocutionary force. Inferential models of communication thus are not necessary.

In the final chapter, the author examines commissive speech acts, i.e., promises and threats. He claims that these speech acts do not depend on social conventions for their interpretation but merely require the assumption on the part of the hearer that, at some point, the speaker will effectuate the propositional content he is committing to. The involvement of the speaker’s agency is what distinguishes promises from predictions.

In sum, the author argues that speech act interpretation results from the interaction between the literal meaning and the conversational background. This produces two basic values: either the utterance content is potential or nonpotential. The latter case constitutes constative speech acts, whereas the former constitutes all other illocutionary forces.


The book revisits a classic problem of how hearers understand an utterance as a speech act. Kissine’s proposal is original in its attempt to find an intermediate point between the Austinian and Gricean approaches to this question. Instead of proposing that all speech acts are conventional, as Austin and Searle did, Kissine aligns with Strawson in distinguishing between conventional and nonconventional speech acts. However, contrary to Strawson’s viewpoint, Kissine denies that the hearer must infer the speaker’s intentions regarding the utterance in order to recover its illocutionary force. In Kissine’s model, illocutionary force is reduced to a function of the utterance modality. He reduces all illocutionary forces to three modalities: potential for the hearer, potential for the speaker, or nonpotential. In this context, the very concept of a speech act becomes irrelevant because speech acts are not really conceived as actions but as modal values of utterances.

Kissine’s approach to speech acts is rather traditional, based on logical analysis and invented examples. As is usually the case in studies of this kind, interactional aspects generally are overlooked. In this matter, Kissine’s proposal is less innovative than interaction-based approaches to speech acts such as Clark 1996.

Moreover, Kissine’s proposal is not exempt from problems. For instance, he does not explain exactly how the hearer pairs the utterance with the correct possible world in a conversational background, or exactly how presupposition accommodation works. In this sense, his theory is less comprehensive than an inferential model, such as relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson 1995), which he rejects.

Kissine’s rejection of the link between illocutionary force and linguistic forms also is problematic. He basically argues that sentence types do not convey illocutionary force because sentence type distinctions vary crosslinguistically. However, pointing at language diversity is not a valid argument to deny conventionalization of illocutionary force. It simply shows that conventionalization -- not only of speech acts but also of other social and cognitive values -- varies across languages; otherwise, the grammar of all languages would be the same.

The limited focus on three illocutionary forces also can be seen as a shortcoming because the book aims to be a general theory of speech act understanding.

One interesting aspect of Kissine’s proposal is the direct perception model of communication, which is based on Millikan’s work (e.g., Millikan 2004). However, the extension of this model for explaining speech act understanding is an overgeneralization. Millikan herself maintains a conception of speech acts as actions, and as such as conventionalized to some extent (Millikan 2005).

Finally, a rather controversial point is the empirical research Kissine uses to support his theory. He interprets the limitations of autistic persons and young children in understanding utterances as evidence of a noninferential model of communication. However, these limitations also have been interpreted the other way around: as associated to an impairment in pragmatic processing that does not allow for complex inferences (see Leinonen & Ryder 2011, and references therein).

Thus, the results of the investigations cited do not necessarily entail Kissine’s ideas.

In conclusion, the book presents a novel and original approach to speech act theory. It presents a model of communication that could be considered cognitively more plausible than inferential models. Nonetheless, it is limited in scope and thus leaves open several questions regarding how hearers interpret speech acts.


Austin, John L. 1975. How to do things with words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Clark, Herbert H. 1996. Using language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Leinonen, Eeva & Nuala Ryder. 2011. Relevance Theory and Communication Disorders. The Handbook of Clinical Linguistics, ed. by M.J. Ball, M.R. Perkins, N. Müller & S. Howard. Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

Millikan, Ruth Garrett. 2004. Varieties of meaning: the 2002 Jean Nicod lectures. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Millikan, Ruth Garrett. 2005. Proper Function and Convention in Speech Acts. Language: a biological model, 139-65. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press.

Searle, John R. 1969. Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. London: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John R. 1976. A Classification of Illocutionary Acts. Language in Society 5.1-23.

Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson. 1995. Relevance: communication and cognition. Oxford; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Strawson, Peter F. 1964. Intention and Convention in Speech Acts. The Philosophical Review 73.439-60.


Hugo García is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. His research is focused on typology and pragmatics. He is currently a Teaching Associate at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of New Mexico. He also held the position of Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, from 2002 to 2012. The topic of his dissertation is a typological study on how surprise and unawareness are conceptualized in language. In addition, he also has been interested in speech act theory and politeness, and has published several papers on these topics.

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