Speech Act theory explores language used to change reality in various ways. For example, marriage vows create a new relationship, recognized by the state or by religious institutions. With the the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln declared American slaves “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” See if you can think of other examples of speech or language that makes material or social change happen.
The Stanford Encyplopedia of Philosophy offers some context for speech act theories, which originate in the field of Linguistics:
We are attuned in everyday conversation not primarily to the sentences we utter to one another, but to the speech acts that those utterances are used to perform: requests, warnings, invitations, promises, apologies, predictions, and the like. Such acts are staples of communicative life, but only became a topic of sustained investigation, at least in the English-speaking world, in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Since that time “speech act theory” has become influential not only within philosophy, but also in linguistics, psychology, legal theory, artificial intelligence, literary theory, and feminist thought among other scholarly disciplines. Recognition of the significance of speech acts has illuminated the ability of language to do other things than describe reality.
In class, we’ll think about how speech act theory might help us understand slave narratives as a genre and Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in particular.
The Stanford Encyclopedia‘s discussion of speech act theory is pretty long and dense. YouTube to the rescue. Videos by Anna Hockler and Matthew Ross offer some helpful explanations and definitions.