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Words as Acts (The Cultural Context)

Certain species of language are not mainly intended to convey information (which they may also do concomitantly) but to designate the performance of an act (“I pronounce you man and wife.”). They are called “performatives,” the acts so designated then being termed “illocutionary.” Such cases of words serving as acts are––in the round––called “speech acts.”

Different languages have different norms when it comes to speech acts. An interesting difference culturally is the one associated with the act of thanking one’s interlocutor (or an audience). For instance, judging by close observation of Finnish speakers using fluent English as a lingua franca in America, the act of thanking through speech (oral as well as written) is much less frequent for Finns than for native speakers of American English. The same is true for the act of congratulation. For such speakers, when using English, the words expressing these acts (“Thanks,” “Congratulations”) do not naturally come into speech when embedded in an American cultural context. A kind of mental code-switching is required in order to produce the words in a foreign language that are adequate to the cultural norms of that language, and not all speakers are either able or willing to perform the switch consistently. They may not even realize that they are violating politesse.

This sort of cultural overlay in the case of performatives can even prompt meta-linguistic commentary when multilingual speakers interact. For example, the author remembers at least one occasion when his otherwise completely native Russian was criticized in Russia for being too polite.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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