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Artículo 02

Volumen 05



“There is a snake on the grass” is a simple sentence.

But it has different illocutionary forces.


Diane Blakemore



By Pablo Jesús Sánchez Sánchez (CCH Naucalpan)

& Elena Morales Ramírez (Coordinación General de Lenguas)



Language is not only used to describe the world, but to perform a number of illocutionary acts.[1] In other words, within the context of an act of communication, an utterance can have several interpretations.[2] Let´s take the sentence between inverted commas appearing on the epigraph of this essay as an example.

“There is a snake on the grass” is a sentence that can certainly be uttered to describe a picture; but it could also be used to warn someone to avoid a venomous snake or, oppositely, to invite a herpetologist to have a look at a bizarre tentacle snake. These three potential “intentions” (among others) embedded in the same utterance is what Searle calls illocutionary force.

These examples of illocutionary force show that words can be given a different meaning from that which they “possess” in the linguistic system. However, variations in interpretation are not limitless or arbitrary. There are some restrictions.  

In Chaucer´s “Franklin´s Tale”, miscommunication turns out to be the rising action that introduces the conflict of the plot line. Such miscommunication derives from one of Dorigen´s replies to Aurelio´s chivalric proposal to become his lover, just after he has declared his secret love for her in a garden in France, while her husband, Arveragus, is in Britain seeking “in armes worshipe and honour — For al his lust_ he sette in swich labour”:



“Aurelie,” quod she, “by hye God above,

Yit wolde I graunte you to been youre love,

Sin_ I you see so pitously complaine.

320         Looke what day that endelong_ Britaine

Ye remeve_ alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon,

That they ne lette_ ship ne boot_ to goon.

I saye, whan ye han maad the coost_ so clene

Of rokkes that there nis no stoon yseene,

325         Thanne wol I love you best of any man—

Have heer my trouthe_—in al that evere I can.

But in sport after that she said, "Aurelius, by the high God in heaven, yet would I consent to be your love, since I see you so piteously lamenting. Whenever that day comes that all along the coast of Brittany you remove all the rocks, stone by stone, so that they no longer obstruct the passage of ship or boat--I say, when you have made the coast so clear of rocks that there is no stone to be seen, then I will love you best of all men. Take here my pledge, in all that I can ever do." 998


This utterance can have the illocutionary force of a refusal, but it can also have the illocutionary force of an acceptance. 

In order to make a “successful” interpretation, Austin suggests a model of analysis at three levels of speech acts: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. The locutionary act has to do with what the speaker wants to mean. The illocutionary act has to do with what the speaker wants to imply. The perlocutionary act has to do with the action that the hearer carries out as a result of the success of the illocutionary act of the speaker. These levels of speech acts are narrowly connected to both the speaker´s and the hearer´s attitude. (Austin, 1975)

Thus, first, what did Dorigen want to mean with this speech act? Perhaps, she wanted to mean that, under any circumstance, she would ever be Aurelio´s lover. This supposition can be supported on her former speech act.



She gan to looke upon Aurelius:

“Is this youre wil?” quod she, “and saye ye hus?

Nevere erst,”_ quod she, “ne wiste I what ye mente.

310         But now, Aurelie, I knowe youre entente,

By thilke_ God that yaf me soule and lif,

Ne shal I nevere been untrewe wif,

In word ne werk, as fer as I have wit.

I wol be his to whom that I am knit:

315         Take this for final answere as of me.”

She looked at Aurelius: "Is this your desire?" she said. "Is this what you wish to say? Never before did I know what was in your mind. But now, Aurelius, I know it. By that God that gave me breath and soul, never in word or deed shall I be an untrue wife. As long as I have any senses, I will be his to whom I am bound. Take this for my final answer." 987


Here, when Dorigen affirms that neither “in word ne werk” she will ever be an “untrewe wif”, she provides linguistic evidence to support that her intention is to communicate openly to Aurelio that she declines his offer.  

Second, what did Dorigen want to imply with her speech act? Up to this point, it is important to have in mind that Dorigen has two “hearers”: Aurelius and the reader.

When Dorigen says to Aurelio that she “wolde graunte to been [his] love” under the condition of removing “endelong Britaine […] alle rokkes, stoon by stoon,” and that he can have her “trouthe” that she will “love [him] best of any man”, the illocutionary force of her speech act can have two possible interpretations.

On the one hand, to Aurelius, Dorigen is giving her word to love him if he can make a miracle happen; so, in other words, she is making a promise.  On this account, it is worth mentioning that the notion of “trouthe” (nobility, fidelity, and truth) plays a substantial part in the tale.  This is why Arveragus, after listening what Dorigen “had sworn”, compels her to stick to her pledge.



“Ye, wif,” quod he, “lat sleepen that_ is stille.

It may be wel paraunter_ yit today.

Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay,

For God so wisly_ have mercy upon me,

I hadde wel levere ystiked_ for to be,

805         For verray love which that I to you have,

But if _ ye sholde youre trouthe keepe and save:

Trouthe is the hyeste thing that man may keepe.”

"Yes, wife," he replied; "leave sleeping that which is quiet. It may yet be well today, by chance. You shall keep your pledge, by my faith! For may God so surely have mercy on me, for the true love I have for you I had far rather be stabbed to the heart, than you should not hold your pledge. A promise is the highest thing that a man may keep." [...] 1486


On the other hand, to the reader, Dorigen is discouraging Aurelius by assigning him the twelve labours of Hercules, that is, by assigning him a task impossible to bring to completion.

This implication is based on the context of interpretation. To Aurelius, Dorigen´s assignment is meaningless because he is unaware of Dorigen´s devotion to her husband; he cannot realize that, to her, the rocks along the coast of Britain represent a threat to her husband´s life and that, by asking Aurelius to make them disappear to eliminate the risk of a shipwreck, she is confirming herself in her belief to be faithful; but the reader is.   

Third, what course of action did Dorigen want Aurelius to take with her speech act? In the following quotation there is evidence that she wanted to make him desist from his desire to possess her by appealing to the impossibility of the task, the foolishness of the proposal, and the dissatisfaction inherent to aspire having less from her than her husband.



For wel I woot that it shal nevere bitide.

Lat swiche folies out of youre herte slide!

What daintee_ sholde a man han by his lif

330         For to love another mannes wif,

That hath hir body whan so that him liketh?”

For I well know that shall never happen. Let such follies pass out of your heart. What delight should a man ever have to go about loving the wife of another man, who has her body whenever he wishes?" 1005


However, Dorigen´s perlocutory act fails, for Aurelius decides to look for the services of a magician, who, for a thousand pounds, agrees to make an illusion whereby the rocks disappear and, eventually, claims Dorigen to fulfill her promise.

Finally, what were Dorigen and Aurelius´ attitudes towards the so called act of speech? For her part, Dorigen is seriously committed to the truthfulness of her rejection in one of her speech acts, but is playfully committed in the other. This is explicitly stated by the narrator [the Franklin] in between the two Dorigen´s speech acts aimed at getting rid of Aurelius.



[…] Take this for final answere as of me.”


But after that in play thus saide she:

“Aurelie,” quod she, “by hye God above,

Yit wolde I graunte you to been youre love,

Sin_ I you see so pitously complaine.

[...] Take this for my final answer." 987


But in sport after that she said, "Aurelius, by the high God in heaven, yet would I consent to be your love, since I see you so piteously lamenting.”


In other words, in her serious speech act, Dorigen commits to the truthfulness of her rejection thus making her intention clear to Aurelius, whereas in her humorous speech act Dorigen dissociates from the truthfulness of her rejection to be ironic thus making her intention ambiguous to Aurelius.

In sum, since the illocutionary force of Dorigen´s humorous speech act of refusal to prevent Aurelius from materializing his proposal of adultery can be, and indeed is, interpreted as a promise, the perlocutory act turns out to be unsuccessful from the point of view of Dorigen´s true intention, as can be concluded from the analysis presented in this essay, based on Austin´s three-leveled-model of speech acts.

Paradoxically, it is the failure in such act of communication that introduces the conflict in the plot line of Chaucer´s “Franklin´s Tale” thus becoming a success from the literary point of view because it is this phenomenon of miscommunication that makes Dorigen struggle with society, with other characters such as Aurelius and Arveragus, and even with herself.




Sources Consulted

·         Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

·         Blakemore, D. (1992). Understanding Utterances: An Introduction to Pragmatics. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

·         Chaucer, G. (1400). The Canterbury TalesElectronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

·         Chaucer, G. (2007). The Franklin’s Tale. NeCastro, Gerard, ed. and trans. e-Chaucer:

·         Searle, J. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] An illocutionary act is a technical term introduced by John L. Austin in investigations concerning what he calls 'performative' and 'constative utterances'. According to Austin's original exposition in How to Do Things With Words, an illocutionary act is an act (1) for the performance of which the speaker  must make it clear to some other person that the act is performed, and (2) the performance of which involves the production of what Austin calls 'conventional consequences' as, e.g., rights, commitments, or obligations. For example, in order to successfully perform a promise the speaker must make clear to his/her audience that the promise occurs, and undertake an obligation to do the promised thing: hence promising is an illocutionary act in the present sense. To go deeper into the subject, see Austin, How to do Things with Words.

[2] There is a difference between sentence and utterance. A sentence is a grammatical structure that has not been said. An utterance is a specific emission verbalized in a specific circumstance. To deepen into this distinction see Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language