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Review of  Speech Acts in the History of English

Reviewer: Julie Marie Winter
Book Title: Speech Acts in the History of English
Book Author: Andreas H. Jucker Irma Taavitsainen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Historical Linguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
English, Old
Book Announcement: 19.3845

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EDITORS: Jucker, Andreas H.; Taavitsainen, Irma
TITLE: Speech Acts in the History of English
SERIES: Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 176
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2008

Julie Winter, unaffiliated scholar

This collection of eleven papers concerned with historical speech act analysis
is divided into three sections: ''Directives and commissives,'' ''Expressives and
assertives,'' and ''Methods of speech act retrieval.'' Eight of the articles were
presented in earlier forms in 2006 at a conference in London of the European
Society for the Study of English. The three papers that were not presented at
the conference were nevertheless inspired by it. The authors of the papers in
this volume used corpora or other empirical methods to collect speech act data
from earlier stages of the English language, since historical pragmatics
necessarily relies on written works for its data. While researchers of
pragmatics in Present-day English can use judgments speakers make about the
meaning of speech acts, there is no one still living who speaks an earlier
version of the language to provide such information. The problem of establishing
meaning in historical data is a leitmotiv for the entire volume.

Jucker and Taavitsainen underscore this leitmotiv in the introduction with a
quote by Bertuccelli Papi (2000, p. 64): ''We may climb a mountain with various
types of equipment, and starting from any of its slopes, but we need be aware
that they may be slippery and treacherous in various ways. And the history of
language is a very difficult mountain to climb.'' The editors then offer a brief
review of the work that has already been carried out in historical pragmatics
and point to the need for more studies in this area. They also supply readers
with definitions of critical terminology in the field, and they explain the
importance of learning more about diachronic speech acts in linguistics in
general. The editors furthermore emphasize the importance of using corpora
searches, automated or manual, to collect data necessary for research in
historical pragmatics. The various corpora, which contain millions of words,
offer a plethora of examples of the speech acts in question in order to analyze
them and reach conclusions about how they were used.

The first group of papers deals with directives and commissives, or requests,
commands, and promises. In his article ''Directives in Old English: Beyond
politeness?'' Thomas Kohnen explores issues of politeness in directive
interactions in Old English. While there are ways of softening directives in
Present-day English (e.g. _Could you give me a hand?_ (p. 27)), Kohnen writes
that similar examples are hard to find before the Early Modern period, and thus,
such softening mechanisms may have developed later in the language. He examines
four different formulations of directives in Old English in order to try to
establish the role of politeness in the Anglo Saxon's choice of which speech act
to use. He concludes that Anglo Saxons were much more direct when issuing
commands and requests than are speakers of Present-day English, but that this
directness did not mean that they were impolite by the standards of their society.

Jonathan Culpeper and Dawn Archer also focus on the issue of politeness and
directives in an earlier form of English in their paper ''Requests and directness
in Early Modern English trial proceedings and play texts, 1640-1760.'' They
examine requests in trial proceedings and play texts and then compare their
results with other studies. They find that impositives (direct requests)
predominate in their data, but similar to Kohnen, they do not believe this means
that speakers of Early Modern English were impolite. Rather, ''the lack of
distance associated with impositives, particularly imperatives, has neutral or
even positive value'' (p. 77).

In the third article of this section ''An inventory of directives in
Shakespeare's _King Lear_'', Ulrich Busse is also interested in politeness issues
in Early Modern English. He examines directive speech acts in Shakespeare's play
_King Lear_ in order to learn more about these speech acts. King Lear is an
ideal figure for such examination as his status changes so dramatically during
the course of the play: ''He falls from powerful ruler to irrational, irate, and
lunatic old man, and ends up as a most destitute human being'' (p. 85). Lear's
choice of constructions would reflect his changes in ''social status,
interpersonal relationships and emotional states of mind'' (pp. 85-86). Indeed
Busse finds that Lear is not polite at first as he has no particular need to be
but that later his directive speech acts show empathy toward others and reveal
his understanding of true politeness.

Gabriella Del Lungo Camiciotti continues the analysis of directives, but also
adds the speech act of promising to her study: ''Two polite speech acts from a
diachronic perspective: Aspects of the realisation of requesting and undertaking
commitments in the nineteenth-century commercial community.'' She examines
directives and commissives in a collection of business letters written in the
nineteenth century; her aim is to pinpoint the specific strategies used by
nineteenth century business letter writers when making requests and promises,
and to establish how these strategies are related to our contemporary ideas of
politeness. She finds that performative verbs are used often and that Searlian
indirect strategies are not frequently used: ''We never encounter utterances with
two illocutionary meanings such as the prototypical _It is cold in this room_
asserting something about room temperature and at the same time requesting that
the window be closed'' (p. 128). The author also notes that modulation is the
preferred way to request and make commitments in a polite manner.

The final paper in this section by Mari Pakkala-Weckström deals exclusively with
promises: '''No botmeles bihestes': Various ways of making binding promises in
Middle English.'' The author conducted a manual search of works such as Chaucer's
_Cantebury Tales_and _Troilus and Criseyde_ to inventory all possible ways of
promising. She writes that honor and keeping promises were very important in
chivalric literature of this period. Promises were so binding that they had to
be kept even when they were not made seriously—when the promiser wasn't sincere
or didn't know what the promise would involve. She points out that Searle's work
on promises ''concentrates on the speaker and his/her intentions and sincerity,
disregarding the other participants, i.e. the promisee and a possible audience.
So, the perlocutionary effects of these specific speech acts are somewhat
disregarded'' (p. 159).

The second group of papers is concerned with expressives and assertives, or
greetings, compliments and apologies. Joachim Grzega gathered numerous forms of
greetings from various corpora in his article ''_Hāl, Hail, Hello, Hi_: Greetings
in English language history.'' He offers an inventory of all greetings throughout
the history of English, and he examines where they came from and how they have
changed. He discovers that there were very few greeting forms in Old English and
an increase in forms in Middle English. Greetings are not only expressive, but
can also be assertive in function. Finally, greetings tend to lose their
original core meanings and become routinized formulae.

'''Methinks you seem more beautiful than ever': Compliments and gender in the
history of English'' by Irma Taavitsainen and Andrea H. Jucker explores the
history of compliments in English and their connection to gender over time. The
authors offer a detailed explanation of the contradictory nature of compliments
that are face-enhancing as well as face-threatening acts. They point to studies
of Present-day compliments that demonstrate that women tend to give more
compliments than men, and that the subjects of the compliments are different for
women and men. In their diachronic study of compliments the authors find that
these observations hold true for earlier stages of the language. They also note
that the primary function of compliments is to promote good relations between
speaker and addressee, although they can also be used at times to demonstrate
the speaker's power and authority.

Jucker and Taavitsainen turn to apologies in the final paper of this section
entitled ''Apologies in the history of English: Routinized and lexicalized
expressions of responsibility and regret.'' They compare Present-day apologies to
apologies in Renaissance English and find that those of today use relatively few
formulae for expression while those of the earlier period are much more diverse
in their formulation and are embedded in longer explanations. The types of
offenses considered necessary for an apology are also different in the two
periods. Finally, there has been the development of negative politeness in
Present-day English away from the positive politeness of Renaissance English,
which simply means that nowadays apologies are centered on the speaker, whereas
they were earlier centered on the addressee.

The final three papers are concerned with various technical aspects of automated
retrieval of speech acts from corpora. The first article in this section
''Showing a little promise: Identifying and retrieving explicit illocutionary
acts from a corpus of written prose'' by Petteri Valkonen focuses on the
difficulty of accurately identifying speech acts with a concordance query. While
some speech acts are routinely expressed with a fixed linguistic form, many are
not, and thus it is difficult to retrieve them from a large body of data. The
author employed a pattern-based retrieval program used in natural language
processing to retrieve promises that are manifested by a previously identified
limited set of performative verbs, but it was still necessary to check the
results manually to ensure accuracy. While precision and recall were reasonably
good, the author concludes that fully automated speech act retrieval is still
''an elusive goal'' (p. 270).

Andreas Jucker, Gerold Schneider, Irma Taavitsainen, and Barb Breustedt discuss
automatic retrieval of compliments from corpora in their paper ''Fishing for
compliments: Precision and recall in corpus-linguistic compliment research.''
Compliments can be difficult to retrieve since they do not rely on easily
identifiable performative speech act verbs. Therefore, the authors used lexical
patterns to search for compliments; they discuss nine compliment patterns
described by Manes and Wilson (1981), and convert these patterns into search
strings in order to retrieve compliments from the _British National Corpus_ of
Present-day English. Precision and recall problems meant that qualitative manual
assessments had to be performed as well. These manual assessments involve
interpreting meaning in speech acts, a highly subjective endeavor that greatly
depends on context; thus, speech acts are ''fuzzy notions'' (p. 292).

The final paper in this section by Thomas Kohnen ''Tracing directives through
text and time: Towards a methodology of a corpus-based diachronic speech-act
analysis'' takes a different approach toward automated speech act retrieval.
Kohnen devised a ''bottom-up'' method to try to deal with the problems of
precision and recall. He first selects a genre and a speech act and then carries
out manual searches to compile a complete list of all manifestations of the
speech act. Next, the procedure is repeated for other genres, making the list
more complete. Finally, the manifestations are searched for in a larger corpus.
The author finds that the genre-based bottom-up method yielded good results in
that it gave a large number of manifestations of directives, and it demonstrated
that some of the manifestations do not occur at all in certain genres.

This is an excellent collection of papers in the field of diachronic speech act
analysis that would appeal to anyone interested in the history of English,
historical pragmatics, corpus linguistics, and the philosophy of language. All
of the papers, which focus on intriguing problems and challenges in the field,
are clearly written, and the authors carefully describe their goals and
methodologies, and offer fascinating examples of speech acts they collected for
their data. Their analyses of the data and the results are thorough and
thoughtful. An additional strength of this book is that the introduction and
each paper discuss earlier research in pragmatics and include extensive
bibliographies for further exploration.

The main caveat I offer is that this volume is not intended for the
non-specialist reader. Aspects of the papers are quite technical, and most of
the authors assume a fairly deep knowledge of pragmatics and familiarity with
statistical analysis. Many of the authors use the early work in pragmatics
carried out by Austin and Searle as their starting points, so it is necessary
for readers to be acquainted with these writers. Nevertheless, due to the clear
explanations and discussions, even a motivated novice can learn a great deal
about historical pragmatics from this collection. As mentioned earlier, the
editors, Jucker and Taavitsainen, provide helpful definitions for important
concepts in pragmatics in the introduction; furthermore, in their papers they
offer clear discussions of pragmatic concepts such as ''face-threatening acts,''
and ''illocutionary force.'' Thus, my main suggestion is that these papers should
be placed at the beginning of each section as a means of introducing readers to
some of the technical concepts used by all of the authors in their papers.

A number of questions and problems that all the authors wrestle with are
noteworthy. One has already been mentioned as the leitmotiv of the book, that
is, ''How can we be certain of meaning when there is no one to ask?'' The authors
believe that corpus linguistics will help solve this problem, yet fully
automated, accurate searches are not yet available. This is a crucial problem
because without the guarantee of accuracy, automated corpora with their numerous
examples cannot be trusted, and researchers must manually check the results, a
difficult endeavor with a large body of material.

The papers in this volume demonstrate that researchers are well on their way
towards improving automated searches, yet this brings me to another observation.
Several of the authors note the subjective nature of interpreting meaning in
earlier stages of the language (e.g. Jucker, et al, p. 292). This meaning is
dependent on the context of the retrieved examples. Jucker, et al write:
''Context provides the clues for interpretation as meanings are negotiated. Both
illocutions and perlocutions are important. Computerized searches are capable of
locating illocutions but qualitative assessments are needed in pragmatic
research to reveal local meanings of utterances'' (p. 292). In other words,
determining meaning will always have this subjective element to it, and this
seems to be something the authors struggle with since they are at pains to use
strictly empirical methods.

Yet another interesting question often brought up is the reliability of using
fictional works by earlier authors for speech act retrieval. There is a lively
debate in the field of pragmatics as to whether or not fiction accurately
represents speech; yet the authors in this volume have relied on a great deal of
fiction in their corpora, as transcripts of speech were not recorded. They offer
strong reasons to justify this, but the question nevertheless underlies the works.

An interesting contradiction appears in the introduction. In their discussion of
why they favor empirical, corpus-based methods over the philosophical inquiry of
Austin and Searle, Jucker and Taavitsainen argue that we should not assume that
earlier speakers of English thought the way we do. They assert, ''While we may
reach fairly reliable answers when we ask ourselves what it means to issue a
command or make a promise, we cannot ask such questions about earlier stages of
the language'' (p. 9). Yet the editors also claim that peoples from all ages and
cultures are not that different (they invoke the Uniformitarian principle), and
therefore, we are able to make assumptions about the meanings of the speech acts
used in the history of English. In summary they assert that ''pragmatic meaning
works uniformly over periods and societies'' (p. 4). Such a contradiction is not
necessarily a problem or a flaw of the book. The fact that the authors all
struggle with difficult questions of meaning in the history of the language only
strengthens the papers offered in this collection.

Austin, J. L. 1962. _How to Do Things With Words. The William James Lectures
Delivered at Harvard University in 1955_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bertuccelli Papi, Marcella. 2000. Is a diachronic speech act theory possible?
_Journal of Historical Pragmatics_ 1.1, 57-66.

Manes, Joan, and Nessa Wolfson. 1981. The compliment formula. In: Florian
Coulmas (ed.). _Conversational Routine. Explorations in Standardized
Communication Situations and Pre-patterned Speech_. The Hague: Mouton, 115-132.

Searle, John R. 1969. _Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language._
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dr. Winter is a translator and an adjunct instructor in English and German. Her
research interests lie in the following areas: the history of the English
language, pragmatics, syntax, stylistics, and translation.