Speech act theory and Georg von der Gabelentz

Sven Staffeldt
University of Würzburg

1. The modernity of the ancestors

Georg von der Gabelentz

Georg von der Gabelentz
(Ezawa & Vogel 2013, 28)

There is a trend in linguistics – or maybe even in general – to reclaim the works of older authors. Older authors are sometimes used as sources of information for finding the origin of certain schools of thinking or the origin of particular assumptions. For example, feminist linguistics sees its origin in repeatedly cited parts of Fritz Mauthner’s (esp. Mauthner: 31923, 56-61) and Otto Jespersen’s (esp. Jespersen: 1925, 220-238) works (cf. Samel: 22000, 27). In phonetics and phonology reference is sometimes made to Sievers (51901) to explain tenseness as a phonetic feature (cf. Chomsky/Halle: 1968, 324 f.).

Sometimes older authors are rediscovered in their own right. The slogan that would sum up such rediscoveries is: “That has been said (or written) before (by the ancestors).” For example, Hermann Paul plays a major role in recent developments in cognitive semantics, as described by Dirk Geeraerts:

Paul’s usage-based model of semantic change fits seamless in any contemporary view on the dialectic relationship between semantics and pragmatics; and the regular patterns of metaphor and metonymy investigated in cognitive semantics may sometimes be found almost literally in the older literature.
(Geeraerts: 2010, 277)

Speech act theory can also be traced back to older authors. A major candidate for being a predecessor is Karl Bühler (Bühler: 1934), who is one of the most important sources of information for pragmatics as a whole. Besides Bühler, there are other potential candidates: Cloeren (1988) identifies 19th century German language critics as the predecessors of speech act theory. According to Burkhardt, legal philosopher Reinach (1921) developed a theory of social acts, anticipating speech act theory:

Zunächst soll jedoch die in ihren Umrissen skizzierte Geschichte der Sprechakttheorie um eine Position ergänzt werden, die wesentliche Aspekte der sprechakttheoretischen Betrachtung bereits vorwegnimmt und bisher fast völlig unbeachtet geblieben ist. Es handelt sich um die ‚Theorie der sozialen Akte‘ des Rechtsphilosophen und Husserl-Schülers Adolf Reinach, die – neben ihrer philologischen Bedeutung – geeignet ist, einige Probleme der Sprechakttheorie in neuem Lichte anzugehen.
(Burkhardt: 1986, 10)

(First of all, the history of speech act theory sketched here should be completed by a position that anticipates major aspects of speech act theory and that has gone more or less unnoticed. It is the ‘theory of social acts’ of Adolf Reinach, legal philosopher and disciple of Husserl, which, alongside its philological importance, can be applied to see some of the problems of speech act theory in a new light.)

In this post, we do not intend to rediscover Georg von Gabelentz as yet another predecessor of the speech act theory of J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see if and to what degree speech act theory is foreshadowed in Gabelentz (2016/1891). The higher the degree of foreshadowing, the less clearly we can speak of a sudden pragmatic shift, coming out of nowhere, radically breaking with long-standing positions. Rather, pragmatic ideas, descriptions and claims had been in the wind for a long time and the pragmatic shift did not come out of nowhere.

2. Resonances of speech act theory in Georg von der Gabelentz

2.1 The conception of language: the purpose of language

Gabelentz – just like Bühler – understands language as functional. Just like Bühler in his ‘organon’ model, Gabelentz sees language primarily as a means of communication. In various places, he undertakes a description of the nature of language that examines functional features. Along with identifying language as “the most direct outpouring of the soul” (umittelbarster Ausfluss der Seele, Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 41) or as “a means of communication, a means of transporting thoughts” (Verständigungsmittel, Mittel des Gedankenverkehr, ibid, 58), he directly and primarily sets it into relation to thought:

Menschliche Sprache ist der gegliederte Ausdruck des Gedankens durch Laute.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 3)

(Human language is the articulated expression of thoughts by means of sounds.)

Sprache ist gegliederter Ausdruck des Gedankens, und Gedanke ist Verbindung von Begriffen.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 85)

(Language is a articulated expression of thoughts, and a thought is the combination of terms.)

For Gabelentz, the characteristic purpose of language is a means of expressing thoughts:

Der Zweck der Sprache ist der Ausdruck des Gedankens. Der Gedanke und seine Theile müssen mit einem ausreichenden Grade von Energie in’s Bewusstsein treten, um zum sprachlichen Ausdruck zu drängen. Energie heißt in diesem Falle soviel als Klarheit. Sich einen Gedanken klar machen heisst ihn zergliedern. Dem Ergebnisse dieser Zergliederung soll der sprachliche Ausdruck entsprechen, mithin muss er selbst gegliedert, d. h. articuliert sein.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 6)[1]

(The purpose of language is the expression of thoughts. The thought and its single parts must become conscious with a sufficient degree of energy to push itself into verbal expression. Energy in this case means clarity. To become clear of a thought means to divide the thought up. The result of dividing up a thought correlates to a verbal expression, that means that a verbal expression itself must be divided up, i.e. articulated.)

The position Gabelentz takes on the relation between language and thought is not uncommon: thinking takes place before speaking, and speaking reflects the result of thinking. But in Gabelentz’ times alternative positions emerged in psychology and linguistics. Freud as well as Saussure offered a different thesis. For Freud, the connection of ‘object representations’ (Objektvorstellungen, Freud 1891, later in Freud 1915: ‘thing representation’, Sachvorstellung) and word representations (Wortvorstellungen) is “the prerequisite to become aware of an idea” (die Bedingung dafür, dass eine Vorstellung bewusst werden kann. Staffeldt: 2004, 35). Saussure also sees the location of thought as an undefined region of vague ideas, as long as it is not ruled by the defined domain of sounds:

Prise en elle-même, la pensée est comme une nébuleuse où rien n’est nécessairement délimité. Il n’y a pas d’idées préétablies, et rien n’est distinct avant l’apparition de la langue.
(Saussure in Wunderli: 2013, 244)

(Taken by itself, thinking is like a cloud of fog, in which nothing is necessarily delimited. There are no pre-established ideas, and nothing is distinct before language appears.)

While the process of articulating a thought that Gabelenz describes requires a process of bringing a thought into consciousness, he still assumes that conscious thinking and language are independent of one other. Even though this is a rather traditional view on the relation of language and thinking, his view on the relation of what he is calling a thought (as a “combination of ideas”, Verbindung von Begriffen; Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 85) and verbal actions is very interesting:

Der regelmäßige Zweck der Rede ist Mittheilung. […] Ein He! oder St! ist ein Befehl, ein Pfui! der völlig zureichende Ausdruck eines sittlichen oder ästhetischen Urtheils.
(Gablentz: 2016/1891, 380)

(The usual purpose of language is communication. […] Hey! or Hush! are orders, Ugh! a completely sufficient expression of a moral or aesthetic judgment.)

Sprache ist Ausdruck des Gedankens. Dieser Ausdruck dient vorwiegend der Mittheilung im weiteren Sinne des Wortes; denn gleich der aussagenden Rede ist auch die fragende, befehlende, bittende eine Gedankenmittheilung.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 476)

(Language is the expression of thoughts. This expression mainly serves communication in the wider sense of the word, because, along with declarative speech, interrogative, imperative, requesting speech is also a communication of thoughts.)

The clear, i.e. articulated, thought is not by any means found only in declarative speech. Orders, questions, requests etc. also serve to communicate thoughts. This fact often serves as the point of departure when explaining the features of speech act theory. It can be shown, for example, that one and the same content can appear in different acts of speech. This is Searle’s approach in showing that the proposition “Sam (=reference) smokes habitually (=predication)” can be the identical content of different speech acts (assertion, question, order etc.). This is precisely the core of the speech act model: a content is uttered with a certain purpose. The utterance itself does not have to include the proposition to be understood as a speech act, as shown by Gabelentz’ examples (e.g. Ugh!, ‘Pfui!’). Using the terminology of speech act theory, one would say: an illocutionary act is executed (pronouncing an aesthetic or moral judgment) by means of a mere utterance (uttering an interjection) without executing a propositional act.

Gabelentz has a similar view on the relation of thinking and language to Searle. Searle sees speech as a derived intentionality. Language acquires meaningfulness by the mind’s ability to represent. Finally, Searle structures speech acts basically in the same way as he structures intentional states. A speech act can be symbolized as F(p)3 (F = agentive function; p = proposition); the same structure can be assumed for intentional states: Z(r)4 (Z = psychological mode, r = representative content). Gabelentz and orthodox speech act theory as proposed by Searle seem to share the same basis, the same conception of language: speech is the expression of thoughts.

2.2 Psychological modality: actions, states, effects

Gabelentz’ psychological modality (in contrast to logical modality) shares some similarities with speech act theory:

Als psychologisch im engeren Sinne möchte ich diejenigen grammatischen Formungsmittel bezeichnen, in denen sich das seelische Verhältniss des Redenden zur Rede oder seine Absicht, auf den Angeredeten einzuwirken, kundgiebt.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 100)

(I will call those grammatical means psychological (in the narrower sense of the word) in which the speaker communicates his or her mental relationship to the things being said or his or her aim to affect the person spoken to.)

… die Lehre von der psychologischen Modalität, das heißt von der Beziehung des Redenden zur Rede, ob er mittheilt, fragt, ausruft, befiehlt oder bittet, ob er mit Entschiedenheit oder mit bescheidener Zurückhaltung, vermuthend, fürchtend, hoffend, zweifelnd spricht.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 108)

(… the model of psychological modality, i.e. of the relationship of the speaker to the things being said, whether he informs, asks, exclaims, orders or pleads, whether he speaks with decidedness or with humble reservation, assumingly, fearfully, with hope or with doubt.)

In short, to put it in simple speech act theoretical terms, Gabelentz’ psychological modality more or less covers the illocution, the intentional state being expressed, and the perlocution of a speech act.[2] Here we have the main parallel between Gabelentz’ conceptions and the basic assumptions of speech act theory. Let’s have a closer look at Gabelentz’ conception of psychological modality.

Gabelentz distinguishes exclamatory forms of speech from – in the broadest sense – communicatory forms of speech. We have already seen that thoughts are the things to be communicated. Gabelentz divides communicatory forms of speech by the kinds of thoughts to be communicated: a judgment or a request.

If a judgment is complete, Gabelentz sees in it a communication in the narrower sense, correlating to the class of assertive speech acts. Here, something is said about the state of the world. The sincerity conditions of assertive speech acts are intentional states of the epistemic kind (a belief, an assumption, a certainty, a supposition etc.). In performing an assertive act, speakers commit themselves to believing, assuming, knowing, supposing etc. that the world is in a certain state.

If a judgment is incomplete, Gabelentz calls it a question. Here, he sees an overlapping region with requests as the thoughts to be communicated: by asking a genuine question, the asker requests an answer from the addressee. In Gabelentz’ view, a question communicates an incomplete judgment as well as a request. In speech act theory, the discussion of questions falls within the same area. Searle sees questions as directive speech acts, communicating the request for the addressee to provide missing knowledge. Gabelentz shares this point of view: “It seems that a question is just a subcategory of commands” (Also könnte es scheinen, als wäre die Frage nur eine Unterart des Befehls. Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 335). To Wunderlich, questions belong to their own class of speech acts, the ‘erotetic’ class (erotetische, cf. Wunderlich: 1976, 77), but its purpose is described in a similar way (cf. Wunderlich: 1976, 82 f.).

If the thought to be communicated is a request that is not related to acquiring knowledge, Gabelentz speaks of the ‘demanding’ (gebietend) form of speech, including orders, pleas, bans etc., comprising the class of directive speech acts. By performing a directive speech act, speakers communicate the request that the listener should do or not do something.

Gabelentz summarises the three types of communicatory forms of speech in the following figure:

Forms of speech

Fig. 1: Summary of the communicatory forms of speech (Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 336)

Furthermore, for Gabelentz speaking also serves the function of expressing oneself:

In solchen Stimmungen befindet sich der Mensch unter dem Einflusse mächtiger Erregungen, die nach Entladung drängen. […] Solche Reden nun nennen wir ausrufende.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 334-335)

(In these moods, human beings are under the influence of powerful agitations pushing to be released. […] We will call this form of speech exclamatory.)

On the one hand, Gabelentz includes in this category expressive speech acts, in which speakers express emotional states:

Im Ausrufe äussert sich eine lebhafte Erregung, entweder nur die Art dieser Erregung oder […].
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 339)

(An exclamation expresses an animated agitation, whether the kind of this agitation or […].)

On the other hand, he includes other states accompanied by or causing agitation, e.g. a desire or a fact. For Gabelentz, the psychological foundation of releasing agitation is an important reason for the emergence of language itself. Joy, fear, physical or mental pain, fright, surprise: all of them urge us to immediately express our moods (Freude, Angst, körperlicher oder seelischer Schmerz, Schreck, Erstaunen: sie alle drängen unmittelbar zu Stimmungsäußerungen. Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 327).[3]

In summary, the classes of assertive, directive and expressive speech acts can be recognized in Gabelentz‘ works. Furthermore, he already recognizes the problem that speech acts are not always performed in a direct way; that is, the problem of indirect speech acts:

Endlich kleidet die Sprache oft ihre Gedanken in geborgte Gewänder. Die mittheilende Redeform mag jetzt eine Frage enthalten: ‚Ich wüsste gern ob …‘, – jetzt mag sie einen Befehl, eine Bitte, ein Verbot in sich schliessen: ‚Du musst…, Du darfst nicht …, Du würdest mir einen Gefallen thun, wenn Du …‘ usw. Die fragende Form mag ein fertiges Urteil verhüllen. Es ist dies der Fall der rhetorischen Frage, die besagen will: ‚Gieb die Antwort nicht mir, sondern Dir, stelle Dir die Frage, so wirst Du urtheilen wie ich!‘. Oder es mag eine Aufforderung in fragender Form ausgesprochen werden: ‚Wirst du gleich kommen?! Wärest du wohl so freundlich …?‘ Es scheint naturgemäss, dass auch der Ausruf gern die Form einer Frage annehme: ‚Wie schön ist das!‘ […] Endlich kann der Ausruf jetzt eine thatsächliche Mittheilung bezwecken: ‚Ein schönes Bild!‘, – jetzt eine Frage: ‚Wüsste ich doch …!‘ – jetzt wohl auch eine Aufforderung: ‚Wenn du mir doch hülfest!‘
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 335)

(Language often dresses its thoughts in borrowed clothes. The communicatory form of speech may contain a question: ‘I would like to know, if…’, – it may contain an order, a plea, a ban: ‘You must…, You must not…, You would do me a favour if…’ etc. The interrogative form might disguise a rendered judgment. This is the case with rhetoric questions that say: ‘Don’t give the answer to me, but to yourself, if you pose yourself the question, you will judge just like me!’. Or an order might be given in interrogative form: ‘Won’t you come? Would you be so kind…?’ It seems natural that an exclamation also takes the interrogative form: ‘How beautiful is that!’ […] Finally, an exclamation’s purpose can be a communication: ‘A nice picture!’, – or a question: ‘If I only knew…!’ – or an order: ‘If you just helped me!’)

Gabelentz not only outlines the illocutionary side; the perlocutionary side also receives exposition. In Gabelentz, the perlocutionary side also is a part of psychological modality as “the intention to influence the addressee” (Absicht, auf den Angeredeten einzuwirken, Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 100). Gabelentz very clearly sees that the complete description of language must contain the aspect of impact:

Der Redende will einen Gedanken, vielleicht auch eine Stimmung ausdrücken, er will im Hörer jedenfalls Verständniss, vielleicht auch eine gewisse Stimmung oder Willensneigung erregen.
(Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 99)

(The speaker wants to express a thought or maybe a mood. In any case, he wants to arouse the addressee’s understanding, or maybe a certain mood or attitude.)

Understanding can have two meanings: on the one hand – indicated above by ‘in any case’ – quite generally, its meaning could be the illocutionary effect of understanding what the speaker wants from the listener. On the other hand – indicated by contrasting it with ‘mood or attitude’ – its meaning could be a certain cognitive effect related to assertive speech acts. If this is the case, then Gabelentz has covered the three major perlocutionary classes, namely the class of epistemic (understanding),[4] emotional (mood) and motivational perlocution (attitude).[5]

3. Conclusion

Gabelentz has a functional approach to language. For him, language is the means to express thoughts. These thoughts correlate approximately with propositions in speech act theory. They are not only to be assumed in communicatory forms of speech, but also in imperative and exclamatory forms. With these three forms of speech, described by Gabelentz not only in form, but also in content, he approximately captures the three illocutionary classes conceived in Bühler’s organon model and described in speech act theory: assertives, directives and expressives. Gabelentz describes the purpose of the individual forms of speech not only as the expression of thoughts to be determined in detail, but he also points out their effect and thereby also captures the perlocutionary aspect.

What is missing in Gabelentz – besides the missing classes of declarative and commissive speech acts – is the relation to rule-based speaking which is essential to speech act theory. Austin’s great merit is to have shown that speech acts can fail, while Searle’s great merit lies in deducing rules for describing speech acts based on their felicity conditions. This cornerstone of orthodox speech act theory has not been set by Gabelentz. But he has already recognized that speaking is doing, that there are speech acts with different purposes, and that language is used to express inner states. Gabelentz made this possible by anticipating Saussure’s discrimination of langue (language) and parole (speech) (vs. langage, the ability to use a language):

Menschliche Sprache ist der gegliederte Ausdruck des Gedankens durch Laute. [Absatz] Es sei hier schon bemerkt, dass diese Definition ein Mehreres in sich fasst. Zunächst gilt die Sprache als Erscheinung, als jeweiliges Ausdrucksmittel für den jeweiligen Gedanken, d. h. als Rede. Zweitens gilt die Sprache als eine einheitliche Gesammtheit solcher Ausdrucksmittel für jeden beliebigen Gedanken. In diesem Sinne reden wir von der Sprache eines Volkes, einer Berufsklasse, eines Schriftstellers u. s. w. Sprache in diesem Sinne ist nicht sowohl die Gesammtheit aller Reden des Volkes, der Classe oder des Einzelnen, – als vielmehr die Gesammtheit derjenigen Fähigkeiten und Neigungen, welche die Form derjenigen sachlichen Vorstellungen, welche den Stoff der Rede bestimmen. Endlich, drittens, nennt man die Sprache, ebenso wie das Recht und die Religion, ein Gemeingut der Menschen. Gemeint ist damit das Sprachvermögen, d. h. die allen Völkern innewohnende Gabe des Gedankenausdruckes durch Sprache. (Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 3)[6]

(Human language is the articulate expression of thoughts by means of sounds. It may already be noted here that this definition comprises different aspects. First, language counts as an occurrence, as a particular means for expressing the respective thought, e.g. as speech. Second, language counts as a consistent whole of means of expression for each and every thought. In this sense, we are dealing with the language of a people, of a profession or of an author etc. Language in this sense is not the totality of utterances of a people, of a class or of an individual, it rather is the totality of those abilities and predispositions which determine the form of images we have of things and which also determine the content of speech. At last, third, just like law and religion, language is a common property of human beings, i.e. the ability to use a language, i.e. the ability to express thoughts by means of language, which is inherent to all people.)

This distinction enables him to understand speaking as doing. Linguistics analyses speech to be able to say something about the structure of an individual language. Later, linguistics will describe the form and subject matter (see the quotation above) of that language. This is the only way to understand language as an expression of thought, with the proviso that thoughts always have something to do with the purposes of the speech. It is these purposes that transform speech into an act.


Original text: Sven Staffeldt, “Die Sprechakttheorie und Georg von der Gabelentz”, Beiträge zur Gabelentz-Forschung, ed. by Kennosuke Ezawa, Franz Hundsnurscher & Annemete von Vogel, 229-238. Tübingen: Narr Verlag. English translation by Claudia Zimmermann.

[1] This is a metonymic contraction, of course. Expressing thoughts is not the purpose of speech, rather speech is the means to fulfil this purpose. But contractions like these are far from uncommon. Nevertheless, Gabelentz’ statement is stressing the tool-like character of speech. It can be concluded that analyses of discrete languages are always cultural analyses: if speech is the most direct outpouring of the soul and its purpose is therefore the expression of thoughts, analysing a discrete language will automatically unsheathe the thought patterns of its speech community.

[2] I dispense with an explanation of the basics of speech act theory, instead I refer to the following introductions: Hindelang: 52010 and Staffeldt: 22009

[3] A theory of the development of language that is similar is that of Rousseau, his so-called interjectional theory. Cf. Rousseau: 21996 [first published 1781].

[4] The following quotation shows that Gabelentz is postulating an epistemic effect, whether “understanding” has the corresponding meaning or not: “I articulate my thought and expect the addressee to think the same: ‘Believe me!’. The corresponding form of speech is the communicatory in the narrower sense: I communicate my thought to you, so that it will henceforth become your thought” (Ich spreche meinen Gedanken aus und verlange dass der Angeredete nun ebenso denke: ‘Glaube mir!’. Die entsprechende Form der Rede ist die mittheilende im engeren Sinne: ich theile dir meinen Gedanken mit, damit er hinfort auch Dein Gedanke werde. Gabelentz: 2016/1891, 334).

[5] For a classification of perlocutions, see Staffeldt: 2007, 97-135, 171 f., Staffeldt: 22009, 146-157, and Staffeldt: 2010.

[6] The fact that Gabelentz anticipates Sausure’s distinction of langue and parole (vs. langage) is stressed by Coseriu (31984, 6–13).


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How to cite this post

Staffeldt, Sven. Speech act theory and Georg von der Gabelentz. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2017/09/06/speech-act-theory-and-georg-von-der-gabelentz

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