understanding speaker’s intention

(in Dutch: taalhandelingen)

History and Orientation

Speech act theory is built on the foundation laid by Wittgenstein and Austin. John Searle is most often associated with the theory. Ludwig Wittgenstein began a line of thought called ‘ordinary language philosophy’. He taught that the meaning of language depends on its actual use. Language, as used in ordinary life, is a language game because it consists of rules. In other words, people follow rules to do things with the language.

Core Assumptions and Statements

According to Searle, to understand language one must understand the speaker’s intention. Since language is intentional behavior, it should be treated like a form of action. Thus Searle refers to statements as speech acts. The speech act is the basic unit of language used to express meaning, an utterance that expresses an intention. Normally, the speech act is a sentence, but it can be a word or phrase as long as it follows the rules necessary to accomplish the intention. When one speaks, one performs an act. Speech is not just used to designate something, it actually does something. Speech act stresses the intent of the act as a whole. According to Searle, understanding the speaker’s intention is essential to capture the meaning. Without the speaker’s intention, it is impossible to understand the words as a speech act. There are four types of speech act: utterance acts, propositional acts (referring is a type of propositional act), illocutionary acts (promises, questions and commands) and perlocutionary acts. A perlocutionary act can be used to elicit some behavioral response from the listener. Searle believes that speakers perform acts by observing two types of rules: constitutive rules or definition rules (create or define new forms of behavior) and regulative or behavior rules (these rules govern types of behavior that already exist).

Conceptual Model

Not applicable.

Favorite Methods

Content and conversation analysis.

Scope and Application

Speech act theory has contributed to the rules perspective in communication because it provides a basis for examining what happens when speakers use different definition and behavior rules. By analyzing the rules used by each speaker, researchers can better understand why conversational misunderstandings have occurred.


To be added.


Key publications

  • Searle, J.R. (1969). Speech Acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: University Press.
  • Mulligan, K. (1987), "Promisings and Other Social Acts: Their Constituents and Structure". In: Mulligan (ed.), Speech Act and Sachverhalt, 29-90.
  • Smith, B. (1988), "Materials Towards a History of Speech Act Theory", in Eschbach, A. (ed.), Karl Bühler's Theory of Language. Amsterdam, 125-52.
  • Crystal, D. (1985). A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. 2nd edition. New York: Basil Blackwell.
  • Dore, J. (1975). Holophrases, speech acts and language universals. Journal of Child Language 2, 21-40,

See also Interpersonal Communication and Relations, Language Theories and Linguistics.