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Review of  Speech Act Theory and Communication

Reviewer: Chiara Meluzzi
Book Title: Speech Act Theory and Communication
Book Author: Phyllis Kaburise
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 22.5035

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AUTHOR: Phyllis Kaburise
TITLE: Speech Act Theory and Communication
SUBTITLE: A Univen Study
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2011

Chiara Meluzzi, University of Pavia-Free University of Bozen, Italy


Phyllis Kaburise analyses the pragmatic competence of second language learners
of English at Univen (University of Venda), in South Africa; the mother tongue
of all the informants is Tshivenda. The author uses a specific functionalist
approach, by evaluating not the grammatical competence of her students but their
strategies in mediating between their linguistic competence and their
communicative needs in everyday communication. In her analysis, Kaburise also
combines a pragmatic approach with Speech Act (SA) analysis, in order to provide
more useful suggestions to the interpretation of the data. The book is organized
in six chapters: chapter 1 is an introduction to the study and to its
theoretical frameworks. In chapter 2, the author analyses the notions of
“meaning” and “communicative competence”, while in chapter 3 she analyses the
units she used to evaluate the communicative competence of Tshivenda speakers
(i.e. event, situation, and act), and she discusses the use of these units in
the main SA theories. Chapter 4 is dedicated to the data analysis of eighteen
selected cases, in order to illustrate the various possible interpretations or
functions of non-native speakers’ utterances. In chapter 5 Kaburise presents the
principal findings of her research, by showing how communicative competence is
“a multi-faceted attribute” (p. 153), and how the context often helps the hearer
in the interpretation of the meaning and the function of utterances even in
case of linguistic or pragmatic blemishes. Finally, chapter 6 presents some
suggestions to improve second language speakers’ communicative competence, and
it also discusses the main variables of this kind of study on language use.

Chapter 1 introduces the typology and the aim of the research: the investigation
of the communicative competence of a group of Tshivendas English second language
speakers at Univen. The author borrows the notion of “communicative competence”
from Gumperz (1982), and she also recognizes that there are “regulated
procedures” (p. 7) behind verbal activities, even if these regulations never
affect the creativity of human language. Indeed, one can always find different
ways to accomplish its main functions, i.e. transmitting speakers’ intentions to
the hearer. After this short theoretical picture, the author reports few
examples of sentences uttered by these non-native speakers of English, e.g. (p. 8):

Student: Please I have come for you for some assistance.
Lecturer: Oh?
Student: Yes, I need some pamphlets on Wuthering Heights.

The problem in the student’s first utterance is the expression “come for you”,
not very useful in seeking someone’s favour. This utterance fails to achieve its
main pragmatic goal, by instead causing confusion in the hearer, as is clear
from the lecturer’s answer; the situation could only be clarified by the
student’s second utterance. This kind of example leads to Kaburise’s main
research question: the correlation of form and function does not always occur
in the utterances of non-native speakers of English, because syntactic, semantic
and, most of all, pragmatic imperfections in one utterance may cause a problem
in the interpretation of the function of the utterance itself. However in the
case of narrow context, these imperfections may not affect the final
comprehension of both meaning and function of utterances. Kaburise’s study is
therefore a pragmatic one, since it deals with “utterance meaning rather than
sentence meaning” (p. 11).

Chapter 2 explains the notions of “meaning” and “communicative competence”,
since Kaburise states that “linguistic meaning is dependent on the level of
interlocutors’ communicative competence” (p. 15). Following previous scholars’
considerations, the author divides the discussion on linguistic meaning into
three sub-topics: syntactic meaning, semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning. The
author also considers the possibility of an “interface” level, especially
between the semantic and the pragmatic dimensions, e.g. Turner (1999), but she
prefers to maintain a division with three branches. Indeed, she states that this
“distinction has enabled analysts to separate strictly linguistic facts about
utterances from those that involve the actions, intentions and inference of
language users” (p. 22), as was previously noted in Bach (1975). Kaburise then
introduces a long discussion of “pragmatic meaning”, by taking into account the
main different theories, from Austin and Searle’s SA analysis to Levinson
(1983), basing this review of the state of the art mainly on Mey (1993).
Kaburise than analyses the concept of “communicative competence”, by referring
in particular to the classic Hymes (1967) and to Richards & Rodgers (1986). The
author then spends some time discussing the two levels (i.e. linguistic and
psycholinguistic), which constitute communicative competence, according to
Canale & Swain (1980). On the linguistic level, communicative competence should
be divided into four interrelated areas of competence (i.e. grammatical,
discourse, socio-linguistic, and strategic competencies), while on the
psycholinguistic level two different dimensions of communicative competence are
recognisable (i.e. knowledge and skills). The author concludes by considering
language as a social-semiotic tool, in Halliday’s (1978) terminology, and by
judging communicative competence as “the ability of social beings to accurately
formulate and interpret their intentions within their social reality” (p. 43).

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the evaluation of communicative competence, using the
three discrete units recognized by Hymes, “event” (language and text),
“situation” (context) and “act” (function/meaning). The discussion takes into
account the main works of both linguistic and philosophy of language fields of
research, in order to describe what these three units mean in a pragmatic
domain. The “event” refers both to language and to text, which is considered not
as a static phenomenon but as a process: as Halliday & Hasan (1989) point out,
texts are created through an interaction between semantic and contextual
information. The “context” is defined as “a frame or schema through which
utterances are examined and interpreted” (p. 66), with a pragmatic or
sociolinguistic approach, as in Saville-Troike (1982). Finally, in the “act”
analysis Kaburise reviews the main studies in the field of SA Analysis, in
particular Austin (1962), Searle (1969) and Levinson (1983). The last part of
the chapter is then devoted to Grice’s (1975) approach to the macro-category of
“meaning”, and to the notions of “inference” and “implicature”.

In chapter 4 the author presents her data with a qualitative approach. The
analysis consists of 18 spoken examples of Tshivenda students’ utterances; the
same utterances were discussed in written form with the students themselves in
order to understand the speakers’ intentions and hearers’ interpretations of the
same utterance. A first analysis demonstrates the existence of a “tension
between a structural and a pragmatic evaluation of utterances” (p. 108): that
the form of the utterance influences the hearer’s perception of speaker’s
communicative intentions. However the data shows that in 10 of 18 cases
communication was successful, i.e. both speaker and hearer assigns the utterance
to the same speech act category. In the second part of the analysis, Kaburise
analyses all 18 utterances of the sample with great attention to the context of
the utterance and to speakers’ intention. The utterances are divided into three
types, i.e. requests, complaints, and statements, according to the communicative
intention of the speaker. A very interesting example is utterance 5 (pp. 121-3),
in which a student who failed to submit an assignment on the due date said to
the lecturer:

“I am asking to be apologised due to my failure to submit my assignment”

The student is making a request, but his real communicative goal is to
apologise. In classic SA Theory, apologies and requests are two different acts,
since apologies are expressives and refer to the speaker’s psychological state
of mind, while requests are directives and try to push the hearer to do
something; however, both these speech acts imply an effort by the hearer to
avoid a possible face-threating act. In the above case, the student achieves a
positive response from the lecturer, since “the request is implied in the
apology” (p. 122): indeed, the lecturer uses the Gricean notion of implicature
to understand the student’s communicative intention, also because she knew that
the student is a non-native speaker and a learner of the English language. With
these examples, Kaburise demonstrates how linguistic meaning is a process of
negotiation and co-construction between the speaker on one side and the hearer
on the other side.

In chapter 5, then, the author evaluate her findings, by reflecting on the
theoretical notion of “communication” and “meaning”, as previously discussed in
chapters 2 and 3. For Kaburise, the analysis demonstrates how “communicative
competence is a multi-faceted attribute” (p. 153), and that means that it is not
always easy or even possible to assign a univocal communicative intention to a
single utterance. Even with this limitation, Kaburise still considers SA
Analysis as the most appropriate strategy to examine the realisation of speech
acts or functions. In this regard, the author notes the interrelation between
the grammatical and pragmatic dimensions: grammatical mistakes may signal a
non-native speaker of a certain language, and make the hearer more indulgent of
possible pragmatic mistakes. This means that “pragmatic principles are more
normative than prescriptive” (p. 163), and that a violation in the form of the
utterance does not always lead to a failure in communication, i.e. in the
interpretation of both meaning and function of the utterance.

In chapter 6 the author suggests some ways to enhance the communicative
competence of second language speakers, by distinguishing between two types of
failure: a pragmalinguistic failure and a sociopragmatic failure. In the first
case, Kaburise suggests raising “the awareness of the speakers to the possible
misinterpretation of their utterances” (p. 168), while in the second case it is
important to make the learners aware of the pragmatic and discourse norms of the
target language. In the author’s opinion, an SA Theory approach can be useful in
these regards and it can also inform new research on the topic of communicative
competence of non-native speakers.


In chapter 1 the author clearly establishes the main topic of the book, the
unity of analysis and the theoretical strategies used in the analysis and in the
interpretation of the data. The discussion of the theoretical dimensions of
“meaning” and “communicative competence” in chapters 2 and 3 is well-structured
in its argumentation and easy to follow in its theoretical statements. However,
one scholar’s work is often quoted several times in different parts of the
chapter, and this does not always help in understanding those scholars’
different theoretical approaches concerning communicative competence. The
examples sometimes are not helpful in clarifying the theories: for example, in
the case of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, Kaburise uses the example
of onomatopoeia to illustrate that “linguistic signs can become motivated, more
apparent, less arbitrary, but rather iconic and indexical” (p. 52). However,
the examples of onomatopoeia are given only for Tshivenda, without clarifying
that onomatopoeia is a common feature in all languages, and, moreover, that this
is a very complex topic for general linguistic theory (see Castagneto 2004 for a
bibliographical review). On the other hand, an important merit of the chapter is
to have well summed up the main works on speech acts; this strategy allows the
author to draw a very detailed but still fresh picture of the state of the art
in SA Analysis, which is very useful.

Chapter 4 offers a well-organised corpus of data, with contextual and pragmatic
remarks that enable the reader to immediately get the point of the whole work.
Kaburise offers very clear explanations of the utterances under analysis, by
showing both the differences in speakers’ and hearers’ interpretations of the
utterances. The study presents various points of interest, in particular
concerning the identification of specific common linguistic practices among
students at Univen: however, more news about this “jargon” would have been
useful and interesting, and perhaps this could be the object of future research.

In chapter 5 Kaburise interprets the previous data, in order to reach
conclusions on the complex discussions of both “meaning” and “function” of the
analysed utterances. By referring back to previous remarks in chapters 2 and 3
and to the data provided in chapter 4, the author successfully links her
findings and her analysis to the previous theoretical frameworks, also adding
something new in the field of the data analysis with an SA approach.

Finally, in chapter 6 the author does not summarize the conclusions of her work,
preferring to offer instead some suggestions for enhancing pragmatic competence
when working with L2 learners.

In conclusion, Kaburise offers a good analysis of her spoken and written data
with an innovative SA analysis approach. The basic theoretical concepts of the
analysis are clearly illustrated, and that provides the reader with a common
background for the interpretation of the findings. The data are very interesting
and well laid out, even if a skilled scholar might have liked a more detailed
analysis of the quoted dialogues between Tshivenda learners and native speakers
of English. For example, a finer classification of the problems in L2 speakers’
communicative competence using SA tools would have been interesting (e.g.
analysing the duration of the silences between turns or the hesitations both in
questions and answers).

The book is useful for young scholars working on the topic of SA analysis,
pragmatics and perhaps even language acquisition. It provides the basic
theoretical concepts of both SA and pragmatic analysis, and it serves as a good
starting point for future research on communicative competence of non-native
speakers of any language.


Bach, Kent. 1975. Performatives are Statements too. Philosophical Studies (28).

Canale, Michael & Swain, Merrill. 1980. Theoretical bases of communicative
approach to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics (1). 1-47.

Castagneto, Marina. 2004. Chiacchierare, bisbigliare, litigare… in turco. Il
complesso intreccio tra attività linguistiche, iconismo, reduplicazione.
Cagliari. Arxiu de Tradicions.

Grice, Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan
(eds.). Syntax and semantics 3: Speech Acts. New York. Academic Press. 41-58.

Gumperz, John J. 1982. Discourse strategies. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Hymes, Dell. 1967. On communicative competence. Philadelphia. University of
Pennsylvania Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Mey, Jacob L. 1993. Pragmatics. Oxford. Basil Blackwell.

Richards, Jack C. & Rodgers, Theodore S. 1986. Approaches and methods in
language teaching. London. Longman.

Saville-Troike, Muriel. 1982. The ethnography of communication. Oxford. Basil
Turner, Ken. 1999. The semantics-pragmatics interface. Oxford. Elsevier.

Chiara Meluzzi is a PhD student at the University of Pavia and the Free University of Bozen (Italy). After a Master Dissertation on female language in Ancient Greek comedy at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Vercelli), for her PhD Dissertation she is now working on the Italian variety spoken in Bozen (South Tyrol) with a sociolinguistic approach. Her primary research interests include sociolinguistics, pragmatics, dialectology, language contact and historical linguistics.

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