Defense against Speech Acts (Pragmatics and Poetry)

Rembrandt van Rijn, Boy with a Dog, Two Men Talking and a Profile Head of a Man,
c. 1657 – c. 1662. Accessed via Rijksmuseum


I like to think of the different linguistic fields as schools of magic.

Syntax is in the realm of alteration, control, order and disorder. Morphology conjures up new entities and, occasionally, produces Frankensteinish words (see what I did there?). Semantics is about creating and destroying meaning: healing, harming, (dis)agreeing. Sociolinguistics is a type of divination magic, revealing plenty about people who cast spells and their communities. Historical linguistics is a sort of science-about-science, concerned with (re)discovering and (re)constructing spells. And Pragmatics – that is pure black magic.

Many schools of linguistics (esp. theoretical ones) cannot deal with problematic data, i.e. sentences or primary texts that disprove their hypotheses. For instance, as a bonafide syntactitian and fluent English speaker, I can confidently claim that all English sentences must have a subject because English is not a pro-drop language (you can’t omit personal pronouns: I/you/he/she/it…). But then we see this:

Got a problem?

-The drunk at the local bar trying to start a fight

Where is the subject in this sentence? Do you got a problem seems to be a more ‘full’ version of this sentence, but the one above certainly isn’t ungrammatical. So we can say, well, maybe you can drop specific elements at the start of questions. But let’s slow down for a moment. Is this really a question?

Think about it. The drunk at the local bar isn’t asking you got a problem? with the intention of giving you some coffetable (barstool?) psychological help. He is trying to start a fight. This might be a question in form, but it is not a question in function. This person is casting black magic at you – this is a threat. But how does this happen? We have to take a step back.

Gricean Maxims and Implicature

On or about writing one’s undergrad thesis, one has to conceptualize that there are many ways of understanding and discussing a problem (the Powers That Be call this a ‘methodology’ and/or ‘theoretical framework’). One of the most popular theoretical frameworks in Pragmatics is namely the Gricean maxims – a collection of four guiding princples about conversaton. Quantity (not too much or too little), quality (be truthful), relevance (be on topic), manner (say it appropriately): that is what all of our exchanges centre around. You can read a little bit more depth here.

Great. Now you can re-read Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway a little easier and figure out why it was so confusing. Maybe J. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness too. But back on topic – what happens when we break these guiding principles?

Davide, a guy with glasses and a plethora of tattoos, is often busy looking at pictures of pussies all day, though he prefers dogs.

Wow. Wasn’t that weird?

Wasn’t it weird how (manner) I referred to ‘cats’? Or why (relation) I brought this up at all? Or how much (quantity) I said about Davide, even though you likely know him? Is it even true (quality), all that I said?

Given that we are both rational and good-intentioned speakers, you would assume I’m trying to communicate something more than the surface level of my words. This is known as IMPLICATURE. The example sentnece above is a bit awkward since I tried to break all the maxims at once, so it’s not clear what I tried to communicate. But it could have implied e.g. Davide should work on this blog more, Davide has too many tattoos. Since it’s breaking the maxim of quality, it could even mean Davide does NOT have too many tattoos. Maybe even Davide’s glasses and tattoos can(not) get him laid (the pictures of ‘cats’) and he doesn’t always take the opportunity (prefers dogs).

But think back to the got-a-problem guy at the bar. He was not being RELEVANT at all! Very few strangers express concern about your mental or physical state out of the blue, especially upon first introduction. His threat was a threat in function, not necessarily a threat in form. But now that we think about it… there’s something more to it.

Speech Acts

Think about how the guy at the bar accomplishes the threat. His utterance is the threat. By saying Got a problem?, he is essentially saying I hereby threaten you. This is what Pragmatics calls a Speech Act – actions which you effectuate with an utternace.

These are often, but not always subject to social contract and custom. If the guy says Have you been having any problems recently? you probably won’t read it as a threat because threats usually don’t sound so concerned. A sentence like that seems to be lacking some of the necessary conditions (a.k.a. ‘felicity conditions’) to be a threat. Put another way, it doesn’t have the V I B E S of a threat. There are plenty examples of speech acts. Proclamations, threats, requests, offers, promises… These have different felicity conditions, they require different things to happen. Some of these require sincerity, some don’t. Some require acceptance on the hearer’s part, others don’t. But as long as you have the right circumstances, you can cast your spell.

If you think about it… don’t Harry Potter spells also rely on speech acts with felicity conditions?

  • Expecto Patronum (‘To expect [the] father’) requires a happy memory to fight off a Dementor
  • Avada kedavra (‘Let the thing be destroyed’), a killing curse requires the target of a living thing
  • Crucio (‘To crucify’), a torture curse, requires the wizard or witch to possess a deep desire to cause the vitcim pain
  • Imperio (‘To rule’), a controlling curse, can be resisted against if the will of the castee is strong enough (i.e. one of the felicity conditions would be no resistance)

These are all speech acts with felicity conditions! Magic is language – and language is magic.

Now go forth, and cast!


Cummins, Chris. 2019. Pragmatics, University of Edinburgh Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrgfc. (See especially chapters 1-3 and chapter 8 for the topics above)

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