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The term "Performative" was introduced by John Langshaw Austin (1911 - 1960) in his philosophical lectures How to do things with words (1962), which was published two years after his death. In the context of Austin's theory of speech acts "performative" was applied to those utterances which are used to perform an act instead of describing it. Performative utterances thus stand in opposition to constative utterances, which are statements of facts.
John L. Austin and his Theory of Speech Acts
Language is not only used to describe the world. In his William James lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (titled: How to do things with words), Austin criticizes the view that the main purpose of sentences would be to state facts or to describe some state of affairs as either true or false. He argues against
, which retains the view that the only meaningful statements are those that are verifiable (cf. Austin 1976: 2). Instead, Austin claims that such truth-evaluable sentences only constitute one type of utterance, pointing out that there are other types of utterances which are neither true nor false, but nonetheless meaningful. He calls this second type of utterance "performative". Performatives are used to carry out an action. In that they differ from other types of declarative sentences (constatives) which only describe the world (constatives) in systematic ways. On the syntactic level, however, both performatives and constatives take the grammatical form of declarative sentences. Austin revises his theory considerably in the course of his lectures and eventually replaces the dichotomy ‘performative’ vs. ‘constative’ with a more general theory of speech acts which regards every utterance as a type of action. This theory of speech acts is later elaborated by Austin’s student John R. Searle.
Constative utterances describe states of affairs which are either true or false. They are utterances which describe the world and in so doing ascertain or state something. Constatives mostly (though not necessarily) have the form of declarative sentences, they refer to the act of saying something, and, as mentioned above, they are truth-evaluable or at least purport to describe reality (cf. Petrey 1990:4).
- Examples of Constatives
- Snow is white. (true)
- Snow is red. (false)
Performative utterances often take the form of declarative sentences with which the speaker performs the action denoted by some performative verb (e.g. promise, declare etc.). In so doing, the speaker does not describe the world but changes it. Austin claims about performatives that
- “they do not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all, are not ‘true or false’; and the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as ‘just’, saying something” (Austin 1976:5).
- By uttering (i) the speaker actually makes an apology, he does not describe himself apologizing for his behaviour.
- ( i ) I apologize for my behaviour
The type of verbs used to make performative utterances are called performatives or performative verbs. Examples are: promise, name, bet, agree, swear, declare, order, predict, warn, insist, declare or refuse. The propositional content of the utterance functions as a complement of the performative verb. Characteristics of performative verbs are:
- Performative verbs are verbs that describe actions carried out by speakers.
- They are used in 1st person singular, simple present, indicative, active.
- They can be combined with hereby (cf. Bublitz 2009:75f).
Austin (1976:5) provides the following examples of performatives in his work:
- a) “‘I do (sc. Take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)’ – as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony.”
- b) “‘I name this ship the Queen Elisabeth’ – as uttered when smashing the bottle against the stem.”
- c) “‘I give and bequeath my watch to my brother’ – as occurring in a will.”
- d) “‘I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow.’”
Explicit Performatives and Primary Utterances
Due to the fact that the distinction between performatives and constatives is questionable in several ways, Austin further distinguishes between explicit performatives and primary utterances.
- “primary utterance: ‘I shall be there.’
- explicit performative: ‘I promise that I shall be there.’” (Austin 1976:69).
The first example does not make use of a performative verb, whereas the second does. Still, both examples have similar implications, i.e. they both are promises, but only in the second example the promise is made explicit. At this point, Austin recognizes that an utterance can also be performative without including a performative verb. For example, "I salute you" is an act of greeting just as "Salaam."
In his second lecture “Conditions for happy performatives” (1976:12-24), Austin identifies a set of rules which govern the felicitous or ‘successful’ use of performative utterances. These ‘felicity conditions’ apply especially to performatives associated with specific rituals or other types of formal events (cf. Thomas 1997:37). According to Austin (1976: 14f), the following conditions must be met for a performative sentence to be successful:
- A.1 “There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, and further,
- A.2 the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.
- B.1 The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and
- B.2 Completely.
- C.1 Where, as often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings, or for the inauguration of certain consequential conduct on the part of any participant, then a person participating in and so invoking the procedure must in fact have those thoughts of feelings, and the participants must intend so to conduct themselves, and further
- C.2 must actually so conduct themselves subsequently.” (Austin 1976: 14f)
The conditions under A and B are essential to the first group of infelicities which Austin calls “Misfires.” (Austin: 1976: 16) Not observing these rules makes the act invalid, so that it does not take effect. For example, if a husband says to his wife ‘I divorce you’, this is an infelicitous speech act because one cannot get divorced by oneself, so the utterance does not have a conventional effect. Another example occurs if speaker A says: ‘I bet you sixpence’ but speaker B doesn’t say ‘I take you on.’
The conditions listed under C – when violated – make the professed act an abuse of the procedure. Austin states that such performances are not void but “unhappy.” (Austin 1976: 15, 43) For example, when the speaker says "I congratulate you", although the speaker does not have the requisite feelings. (Austin 1976: 41)
Problems with Performatives
Austin modified his theory during his lectures considerably. At the end of his lectures, he replaces his performative/constative distinction with a more general theory of speech acts, stating that "the traditional 'statement' is an abstraction, an ideal" (Austin 1962: 148). Performative verbs as criteria for classifying speech acts are replaced by types of illocutionary force which are associated with an utterance. The notion of ‘performative’, which was based on the performative/constative distinction, has thus been replaced with more general families of related and overlapping speech-acts (Austin 1962: 150). Austin distinguishes five general classes of utterances which are classified according to their illocutionary force:
- Verdictives (used to judge from something, examples: estimate, reckoning, appraisal)
- Exercitives (used to exercise powers, rights or influence. Examples: appointing, voting, ordering)
- Commissives (used to commit yourself to doing sth. example: promising)
- Behabitives (used to express attitudes or social behaviour towards someone. examples: Congratulating, challenging)
- Expositives (make plain how we are using words. Example: 'I illustrate')
- (types 1-5: cf. Austin 1976: 151ff)
Even though the ‘performative-constative’ dichotomy was given up, Austin’s theory has had great influence on modern linguistics, as his writing is accessible and his work represents a consistent line of thoughts, even though it has often been modified (cf. Thomas1997:27).
This article is based on a term paper by Katrin Posselt, Pragmatics Course (Summer 2009) Prof. Volker Gast Department of English and American Studies, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena
- Austin, J.L.(1962) How to Do Things with Words, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- most references on this site have been taken from the following edition: Austin, J.L. (1976) How to do things with words. Oxford et.al.: Oxford University Press. (occasionally page numbers might be different in both editions)
- Bublitz, Wolfram.(2009) Englische Pragmatik – Eine Einführung. Berlin: Erich Schmidt.
- Petrey, Sandy.(1990) Speech Acts and Literary Theory. New York et.al. Routledge.
- Thomas, Jenny.(1997) Meaning in Interaction – An Introduction to Pragmatics, London et.al.:Longman.
- Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet. (1990) Meaning and grammar, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.