Beyond illocution and perlocution. Accommodation, etiolation, and self-expression in covert speech actions

           Maciej Witek has received a Bekker grant from the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (decision No. BPN/BEK/2022/1/00199/DEC/1) for the research project “Beyond illocution and perlocution. Accommodation, etiolation, and self-expression in covert speech actions”, which will be carried out at the Faculty of Philosophy in the University of Cambridge in the 2023-2024 academic year (10 months).  

            The general objective of the project is to elaborate on the notions of accommodation, linguistic etiolation, and expressive communication within an Austin-inspired score-keeping model of speech act dynamics (Sbisà 1999, 2002, 2019; Langton 2015, 2018; Witek 2013, 2015, 2021a) and use the resulting framework to account for the nature, functioning, and variety of covert speech actions (henceforth CSAs). The phrase ‘covert speech actions’ is used to cover a wide range of linguistic acts whose common feature is that they would cease to be effective if made explicit. Examples of CSAs are implicit bribes, sexual come-ons and veiled threats (Pinker et al. 2008), ostensible invitations (Isaacs and Clark 1990), cases of teasing, ridiculing (Clark 1996) and ironizing (Witek 2022), insinuations (Bell 1997; Fraser 2001; Camp 2018) and political dog-whistles (Saul 2018), back-door (Langton 2015, 2018) or covert acts of norm-enactment (McGowan 2004, 2018, 2019), and some forms of silencing understood as depriving others of the ability to perform certain speech acts (Langton 1993; Caponetto 2021; McDonald 2021).

            So far, CSAs have not been fully understood and conceptualised (Saul 2018: 361), in part due to their peculiar conversational behaviour that is difficult to describe and explain within the existing conceptual framework. On the one hand, they are essentially covert: making them explicit diminishes their effectiveness. In this respect, they differ from conversational implicatures, informative presuppositions, and other forms of indirect speech which have been extensively studied in pragmatics and philosophy of language. Implicated contents, presupposed propositions, and indirect illocutionary forces survive as common ground components even if communicated directly and thereby made the topics of conversation (Sadock 1987; cf. Levinson 1983: 120; Włodarczyk 2019; Kasjanowicz 2021; strictly speaking, reinforcing presuppositions produces a sense of anomalous redundancy, but does not threaten their status as common ground components). The characteristic effects of CSAs, by contrast, seem to be off-record and even if they are mutually recognized by the interacting agents, they vanish as soon as they are made the topic of conversation. On the other hand, CSAs are of special social importance in that they modify the network of interpersonal relations between participants in social life. At least some of them take effect by modifying the domain of commitments and entitlements of the participants in conversation and possibly other social agents. For instance, covert conversational exercitives (McGowan 2004, 2018, 2019) and back-door speech acts (Langton 2015, 2018) enact new norms and permissibility facts. Likewise, a veiled threat construed as an indirect act of intimidation for extortion purposes brings about a change in the normative situation of both the speaker and the hearer: the former is entitled to expect the hearer to perform a certain action, whereas the latter is committed to fulfil this expectation or at least has a desire-independent reason (Searle 2001) for doing so. In general, despite the fact that their effects are not on-record, CSAs play an important, though not fully recognized, role in creating and changing the social world.

            The traditional approach to speech acts (Austin 1975; Searle 1969, 1979; Bach and Harnish 1979; Sbisà 1984, 1999, 2007, 2009, 2019, Alston 2000) focuses on what John L. Austin (1975: 122) called ‘serious uses of language’, i.e., utterances that serve to perform illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. Viewed from the Austinian perspective, illocutionary acts — e.g., statements, warnings, orders, promises, apologies, etc. — affect the state of conversation by modifying the network of normative relations between the communicating agents (Sbisà 2007, 2013, 2019; Heal 2013); their hallmark is that they can be made explicit by performative formulas (Austin 1975: 103; cf. Strawson 1964: 450) or, in other words, that they “are acts of the sort that can be performed by saying that one is doing so.” (Green 2009: 147) Perlocutionary acts, by contrast, “produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons” (Austin 1975: 101). A central assumption behind the proposed project is that CSAs can hardly be described as illocutionary or perlocutionary acts: unlike illocutions, they cannot be made explicit by performative formulas or other linguistic means; unlike perlocutions, in turn, they take effect by modifying the structure of social reality. To account for CSAs, then, we have either to redefine the notions of illocution and perlocution or, alternatively, to extend the Austinian framework with conceptual tools adapted to describe and explain the mechanisms of covert speech. In this project I adopt the latter approach and aim at developing an expanded Austinian model of speech act dynamics which will enable us to define the notion of CSAs, describe their variety, and account for their peculiar discursive behaviour.

            The project focuses on the following four research tasks: (i) elaborating on the idea of ambivalent effects of conversational moves within the Austinian score-keeping model of discursive practice (Lewis 1979; Sbisà 1999, 2002, 2019; Langton 2015, 2018; Witek 2013, 2015, 2021a) and using the resulting category to define the notion of CSAs; (ii) using the Austinian score-keeping model to define the notion of accommodation-based CSAs (McGowan 2004, 2018, 2019; Langton 2015, 2018; McDonald 2021) and account for their underlying mechanisms and characteristic effects; (iii) elaborating on the idea of etiolated speech actions (Austin 1975: 22 and 92; Sbisà 2013: 29-30; Friggieri 2014; Witek 2022) and using the Austinian model to account for etiolation-based CSAs; (iv) using the signalling model of expressive communication (Green 2007, 2009, 2019; cf. Witek 2021b) to account for the communicative function of CSAs as well as for the social importance of their effects.