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Lecture | Sociolinguistics & Discourse Studies Series

Having your cake and eating it: on partial speech acts in US political discourse

Monday 25 September 2023
Sociolinguistics & Discourse Studies Series
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 2
2311 BZ Leiden


When using language, we are not always sure about the commitments we wish to undertake by means of our utterances. Taking inspiration from the analysis of two examples from US political discourse, a semi-threat by White House representative Gene Sperling, and a semi-apology issued by Senator Ted Yoho, I propose that speech acts may be performed only partially, in order to steer things in a certain direction without taking up the full set of commitments (rights & obligations) that would ensue from full performance of the speech act. A speech act, when partially performed, is still felicitous (in the sense that it has changed the world in some way) but it has only some of the real-world consequences of its fully performed counterpart. This is why partial speech acts are different from infelicitous ones. Typically, in partial speech acts, the change in the world that the speaker aims to bring about (viz., the commitments that s/he undertakes vis-à-vis the listener or other overhearers) relates to the (auxiliary) face aspects and not to the (main) illocutionary point of the full speech act. In this way, partial speech acts offer ways to reconcile conflicting public and private commitments. Politicians exploit this possibility to set and re-set power hierarchies (test how much they can ‘get away with’)

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