speech acts and hocus pocus

In J. L. Austin’s theory a “speech act” is an utterance that achieves some action by virtue of its being spoken, “I thee wed,” “I hereby open the 23rd International …”, etc. but not “The king of France is bald,” “Did you go to the party yesterday?”, etc.

I have recently witnessed an inclination at workshops in religious studies to refer to magic as speech acts. The motivation is to not dismiss magic as hocus pocus, but instead take an emic perspective; the effort fails. To claim that hoc est corpus … constitutes a speech act is to admit that nothing essential happens to the bread and thereby rejects the emic. The more respectful participant observer would admit the magic is magic and admit it works.

Linguists have stretched “speech acts” yet further; to them it is simply a synonym for ”utterance”. Speaker and hearer are dubbed “speech act participants”, which, in the perennial quest to make prose opaque, become SAPs. This choice of terminology is particularly unfortunate because in Austin’s formulation a third person, such as the witness at a wedding, is often a participant in a speech act. If somehow Linguists cannot bear the tired old words “speaker” and “hearer” they could try ”interlocutors”, but please let Austin have speech acts, without attempting to bathe in his reflected glory.

Trapezity: a modest proposal for a new typological category

“that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method” (V. Nabokov, Pnin, p. 3)

A success of the functionalist approach to linguistics is to increasingly uncover grammatical categories. To ‘tense’ and ‘mood’ of the ancients accrued ‘aspect’ (Comrie 1976), ‘evidentiality’ (Aikhenvald 2004), ‘mirativity’ (DeLancey 1997), ‘impulsative’ (Cathcart 2011), ‘state’ (Mettouchi and Frajzyngier 2013), ‘speaker expectation of interlocutor knowledge’ (Hyslop 2014), ‘allocutivity’ (Antonov 2015), and ‘egophoricity’ (Floyed et al. In press) among many others. The observation that history moves ever quicker holds true with regard to the proliferation of typological categories. It is perplexing that so many of these categories went unrecognized for so long and one may eagerly await the further discovery of categories as vast in number as the grains of sand that would fill all space. Continue reading

The limits of curiosity

Talmy Givón in “Beyond structuralism: Should we set a priori limits on our curiosity?” (Studies in Language 37.2, 2013, pp. 413-423), answers the rhetorical question of his subtitle with an emphatic ‘no’. In addition to a proponent, he is an avid practitioner of unrestrained curiosity, a curiosity that leads him to a curious presentation of intellectual history.

The rise of structuralism in the social sciences in the early 20th century, with its two towering figures, F. de Saussure and L. Bloomfield, owes its intellectual roots … to a radical brand of empiricism — Logical Positivism — that rose at the end of the 19th century … In the intellectual climate fostered by Logical Positivism, Saussure (1915) elaborated the three reigning dogmas of structuralism (Givón 2013: 415-417)

The normal practice of historians is to presuppose that causes are antecedent to their effects, this limitation to curiosity it seems is not necessary within Givón’s teleological Weltanschauung. Continue reading