Speech Act / Communicative Act:

Components and Functions


Language, when seen as a system of rules (including phonology, morphology, syntax, grammar, semantics,pragmatics), and focusing on rules describing competence rather than performance, limits our ability to look at communication systems more generally and to see important characteristics of speech forms that are used within speech communities and between them.


Basic limitations of theoretical linguistics of the past to the sentence as the largest unit of analysis and to referential meaning as the only relevant sort of meaning, and of analytical interest primarily in terms of "same or different," can be overcome in part by taking a more inclusive view of speech as a form of communication; by starting with an analysis of the "communicative act" (or simply the "speech act") in terms of the components that comprise it and the functions that can be served through it.


Speech Act (or Communicative Act) Components (Hymes and Jakobson)







expressive MESSAGE FORM directive


identificational contact rhetorical







The components and functions above are all within (or "enclosed by") another component, the

SETTING, and an associated function of the communicative act as a whole could be called



Different societies will make differential use of and definitions of these speech act components.

The ethnographer (one who wants to describe a culture) would like to list all the possible

named speech acts, all the possible senders, all the possible receivers, all the kinds of codes,

all the named kinds of message form, all the message channels possible, all the named topics, etc.


Speech Act (or Communicative Act) Functions


a. sender (speaker)

Identificational function of the communicative act is most closely associated

with the sender -- such things as voice set, accent, intonation, etc. tell receiver

about sender's age, sex, etc.; ie. they identify him or her, and they are generally


Expressive -- choice of words, intonation, etc. express emotions and attitudes

toward receiver or other component of speech act.; generally under voluntary control.


b. message channel (could be gestures, whistling, drumming, speech)

Contact -- physical - sound hits ears.

psychological - phatic communion (i.e. social contact)


c. message form

Poetic function. Not limited to poetry, this function is expressed as manipulations

of and restrictions on message form, and these can be of many different sorts. Different amounts and varieties of aesthetic appreciation are derivable from various ways of formulating a message with any given referential content.


d. topic (what the message is about)

Referential function :most directly associated with the topic;

closely tied to the dictionary meanings of messages.

e. code (Signaling units of which a message is composed based on a set of

conventions for communicating meaning).

Metalinguistic function, i.e. information about the code that is conveyed in a

speech act.


f. receiver (hearer, audience)

Directive function - concerns subsequent activity of the receiver as

directed by what the speaker says.

(e.g. "Would you close the door, please?")

Rhetorical function - concerns the receiver's outlook as it is affected by

what is said. (e.g. "What a nice dress.")


g. setting (context)-- (relevant features constituting a specific setting most often

involve place and time, but may also include physical circumstances germane

to the place and time of the speech act)

Setting function of the speech act associated with the setting component is

reflected in messages saying something about the time, place, or persons in

the interaction. Many linguistic forms referring to these things cannot be interpreted without reference to the speech act itself, for their meanings are

not fixed but relative (e.g. 'me', 'you', 'here', 'there', 'now', 'then')

(e.g. "It happened yesterday"; "Oh, there you are"). In some cases, the

primary function of the whole speech act is contextual.


Once we are familiar with the functions of the speech act we can think of them in a

slightly different way by referring to them as meanings that can be associated with

the speech act. So in this sense there are at least 9 general kinds of meanings that can

be associated with the speech act.




Later, Dell Hymes developed another, model based in part on a mnemonic (SPEAKING)

Making the components easier to remember. This model, based on the notion of discourse

seen as a series of speech acts (themselves components of speech events) with in a situational

and cultural context. This model can be used to examine and analyze all kinds of discourse.


Setting and Scene

"Setting refers to the time and place of a speech act and, in general, to the physical

circumstances" (Hymes, p. 55).The living room in the grandparents' home might be a setting

for a family story. Scene is the "psychological setting" or "cultural definition" of a scene,

including characteristics such as range of formality and sense of play or seriousness

(Hymes 55-56). The family story may be told at a reunion celebrating the grandparents'

anniversary. At times, the family would be festive and playful; at other times, serious and




Speaker and audience. Linguists will make distinctions within these categories; for example,

the audience can be distinguished as addressees and other hearers (Hymes 54 & 56). At

the family reunion, an aunt might tell a story to the young female relatives, but males,

although not addressed, might also hear the narrative.



Purposes, goals, and outcomes (Hymes 56-57). The aunt may tell a story about the

grandmother to entertain the audience, teach the young women, and honor the grandmother.


Act Sequence

Form and order of the event. The aunt's story might begin as a response to a toast to the

grandmother. The story's plot and development would have a sequence structured by the

aunt. Possibly there would be a collaborative interruption during the telling. Finally, the

group might applaud the tale and move onto another subject or activity.



Cues that establish the "tone, manner, or spirit" of the speech act (Hymes 57). The aunt

might imitate the grandmother's voice and gestures in a playful way, or she might address

the group in a serious voice emphasizing the sincerity and respect of the praise the story




Forms and styles of speech (Hymes 58-60). The aunt might speak in a casual register with

many dialect features or might use a more formal register and careful grammatical

"standard" forms.



Social rules governing the event and the participants' actions and reaction. In a playful story

by the aunt, the norms might allow many audience interruptions and collaboration, or

possibly those interruptions might be limited to participation by older females. A serious,

formal story by the aunt might call for attention to her and no interruptions as norms.



The kind of speech act or event; the kind of narrative, comment, exclamation, etc. The

aunt might tell a character anecdote about the grandmother for entertainment, but an

exemplum as moral instruction. Different disciplines develop terms for kinds of speech acts,

and speech communities have their own terms for types.


These terms provide a structure facilitating your perception of the elements / components of

the speech act. In some cases you might emphasize only one or two of the letters in the

mnemonic (SPEAKING).


For more information, see:


Hymes, Dell. Foundations of Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach.

Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1974.