We have seen in the previous lecture how speech acts differ from one culture to another, both in meaning (what is understood by a given speech act such as “complaining”)
and linguistic realisation (how a given speech act is expressed). We have also pointed out that these differences may result in intercultural misunderstandings and stereotyping. One major area inSpeech Acts which often leads to intercultural misunderstanding and conflict is the difference between directness and indirectness.
Indirect Speech Acts:
The most straightforward way of performing a speech act is by using one of the following options:
a) a performative verb (with or without “hereby”): e.g. I hereby nominate Sarah Kanter for president.
b) a form that is intended to beinterpreted literally and which has a single illocutionary force: e.g. “Where is the railway station?” (asking a question, asking for information)
However, the first form of direct speech acts is only used in very formal contexts (parliament, courts, conference, etc.), and the second option is often avoided for one reason or another. We do not need to use “hereby” and “request/order/apologise,etc.” every time we want to perform a speech act. Similarly, we do not always use interrogative sentences to ask questions or affirmative sentences to assert something or give information.
When the literal meaning of a locution differs from the intended meaning, then we speak of an Indirect Speech Act, a speech act where there is an indirect relationship between the structure and thecommunicative function of an utterance (eg. Using the interrogative “Can you fix this for me?” to make a request, not to ask a question).
In English as well as in other languages, Indirect Speech Acts are often made through stating or questioning a felicity condition. According to Searle (1969), felicity conditions are circumstances which must apply or be fulfilled for the intentions behind messages tobe interpreted appropriately, that is to say in order for speech acts to be successful. In Brown and Levinson’s (1987:132) words, felicity conditions are “…real-world conditions that must be met by aspects of the communicative event in order for a particular speech act to come off as intended”. For our purposes, suffice it to mention two of these conditions: the Sincerity Condition and thePreparatory Condition. The former requires the speaker to be sincere when performing a speech act. For a request to be successful, the speaker must be sincere in intending it as such. If the speaker is just joking, the addressee is not likely to comply. The Preparatory Condition requires that there is a conventionally recognised context in which the speech act can be performed. In the case of a request,the addressee must be able to perform the requested action and this action must not have been performed already. The speech act of requesting a coffee will not be felicitous (successful) if the addressee is known not to know how to make one, or if coffee is known to be unavailable, or if the addressee has just served the speaker a coffee (requesting another coffee is a different thing!).
Gordonand Lakoff (1971) point out that in English we often make indirect speech acts by questioning or asserting a felicity condition. Thus by “questioning” the addressee’s ability to give the speaker a call (can you give me a call later?), we make an indirect alternative for the imperative “give me a call”. Similarly, when we state our wish (sincerity) for the addressee to perform an action (I wouldlike you to remind me tomorrow), we make our request indirect.
However, such indirect speech acts have become so conventionalised in many languages that they can hardly be called “indirect”. It is true that the literal meaning of the locution “can you give me a call later” (question) differs from the intended meaning (request); however, we can hardly say that there is an indirect relationship...