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Words aren’t just words, you can do stuff with them

“The power of words is immense. A well-chosen word has often sufficed to stop a flying army, to change defeat into victory and to save an empire.”

- Émile de Giradin (1802-1881), French journalist


“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more”

- Confucius (551 BC-479BC), Chinese philosopher

Actions speak louder than words. Which is just another way of me saying that I’m more interested in what you do than what you say. For the world to work, I want you to deliver on what you say to me, and I’m hoping to deliver to you on my promises to you.


In a functioning society with effective relationships between people, you simply have to rely on what people say. That’s why we get upset if we feel that other people—say, politicians, the boss at work, or your loved ones—don’t deliver on their undertakings. And the problem with the state of the world today is that lying seems to be becoming normal.


There are other aphorisms that are variations on this theme, especially in the English language, so presumably communities of speakers in the English language tradition think this idea of being truthful is important. My word is my bond. Promises are meant to be kept. Just say the word. As good as your word.


But what if the two weren’t separate? What if words were actions, or largely synonymous with them? What if you could actually change things in the direction of those spoken words, just by saying them—almost guaranteed? Just think of the power of this.


To deconstruct it, we’ll need to do a little philosophy.

We don’t generally think about language this way. We can readily accept that speaking is, itself, an action, a verb: to speak. And we can easily also accept that speaking to someone can lead to action. But to have it that words perform an action every time, simply by the very act of stringing them together in a sentence, is a little harder to grasp—or even believe.


Philosopher of language John Langshaw Austin, or JL Austin as he was known to all, was the first to argue this with his development of the theory of speech acts in his best-known work, How to do Things with Words. This book was based on lectures he gave at Oxford and Harvard between 1951 and 1955.


Austin, an Oxford philosopher whose work resonates with me a great deal (I use his ideas subliminally all the time), was a contemporary of other truly great philosophers in the British tradition of language philosophy like Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and GE Moore, all from Cambridge University. Together (with the occasional non-Cambridge analytic philosopher like the German logician Gottlob Frege), they helped tease out deep philosophical questions by analyzing their linguistic underpinnings.

Some more background is in order. Philosophers of language before Austin were interested in truth-value. Truth-value refers to the truth or falsity of a statement, proposition, or assertion. So if I say that 1+1=2, or mountains are higher than the surrounding plains, or chimpanzees are mammals, those propositions have truth-value. In these cases, they are all utterly true. Other claims I might mobilize are utterly false: that black pen you are holding is green, I am an unmarried husband, and George Clooney was once the President of the United States.


Austin reckoned that understanding many utterances in this way, as having truth-value, did not make sense. For example, you can’t gauge the truth or falsity of a promise. Can the words “I promise to be at the café to meet you tomorrow at 9am”, be said to be true or false? They may become true or false, but at the time of saying the words they contain no inherent truth or falsity.


Instead Austin argued that language is used not just to assert certain things, but to actually do things. So when you promise to do something, you are doing something. You are making a promise. You are not asserting a promise.


Austin gave other examples. Saying, “I name this ship the “Queen Elizabeth”” in the right time and place, or “I do” at a wedding ceremony, or “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother in my will”, is not simply uttering words. If said in the right context (if you are asked to launch a naval vessel and crack a bottle of champagne over it while delivering the naming words, or to recite the marriage vow words at a legal ceremony to another unmarried person officiated over by a legally competent celebrant or priest, or you document those bequeathing words and execute the will in front of a lawyer according to relevant legislation), these are expressions which actually perform the action just by saying them.


Once you get the hang of these types of phrases, you begin to observe many more utterances or words in print with a similar force. The familiar ending to a film or book, End or Fin, is an action that marks itself with a word. You get to the end of a book and it says End. And now you know it is the end as well as it indeed being the end.


Austin calls these utterances, which do not have truth-value and which can be understood as integral to an action, performative utterances, or performatives. If this is all a little too technical, stay with me because it will pay dividends.

Initially Austin distinguished performatives from constatives, which describe something as being the case. For example, a statement like “my food is cold” is a constative. (Later, Austin argued that the difference between a constative and a performative is not real, but for the sake of the argument, just ignore this).

It does get a bit more complex, but it’s worth staying for the journey. Austin eventually concluded, perhaps surprisingly, that all utterances are an act. What’s that—everything you say is an act? Performatives simply identify the act explicitly. Examples are of the type discussed—warning someone, authorizing them to act, or giving them notice of something. You might, for example, alert people on a railway platform to “mind the gap”. Or ask people to report to their boss once a week, empowering the boss to give them instructions at that meeting. Or you might advise someone that their relationship with you is coming to an end.


Austin eventually sees that there are three kinds of speech acts: locutionary is the act of saying something; illocutionary is a performative act done in saying something; and perlocutionary is an act done by what was said, by way of response—eliciting an answer, for example.


However, an utterance does not always fit easily into these categories either. For example, by saying my food is cold, I am performing a locutionary act: I’m saying some words. But I could also be performing an illocutionary act—I could be describing the food, or complaining about the chefs or waiters at the restaurant, or giving orders for my food to be heated. If the waiter were to oblige in this case, i.e., respond to my words, the utterance would also become a perlocutionary act.

Ok, so philosophy in the hands of the deep thinks is hard. But here’s the point. What Austin comes to argue is that speech acts are not just saying “I do” or making a promise, but that every time we use words, we are performing an action.


In a real sense, this is true. If our words hang in the air after we say them, and provide force to someone—in plain language, if someone relies on what we say—they will be acting on the potency of our words. And bear in mind, the very reason we use language and chat to folks is to persuade people or at least raise ideas in their mind, to appraise them of our views. We are always trying to get people to take our views on board, or to influence them, or persuade them, or have them accept our perspective, whenever we talk.

It’s true that many of us often think about the power of words. The effects of a poignant speech at a protest or in parliament, or the comforting whispers of a friend when we are in need, or the hurtful snarling of the schoolyard bully, are examples everyone can recognize. So too are just the ordinary seemingly meaningless instances of the language of polite society: “good morning”, “have a nice day”, “enjoy school”, or “all is well?” are designed variously to set the scene, show we care, or express hope that things are okay.


Source: Smithsonian Magazine Archives


We know that some words have a great deal more power than this. Think of the Gettysburg Address, the Ten Commandments, a novel which changes our worldview, or a memorable piece of advertising, like Nike’s Just Do It, Apple’s Think Different and L'Oreal’s Because You're Worth It. Or the small piece of advice a schoolteacher once gave to us that resonates across the decades.


So when we talk about words having power we are generally talking about their power to do something; to make people respond (by encouraging, motivating, outmaneuvering them, or shifting their thinking). Not power in just saying something. Understanding it like this, words and language can and do change lives, perspectives, attitudes and beliefs, and what the people we are communicating with do next by way of response to them. Sometimes, a little, sometimes, a lot.


Novelists and poets, not just marketing gurus and politicians, know this very well. Words are part of their action artillery—and ours. Words truly aren’t just words. Rather than being merely the means by which we might communicate, words generate action. They are Homo sapiens’ signaling technology; our getting-the-things-we-want devices.

The lesson for you? Think about your own communication strategies: written and spoken. See how others speak and write, influence and persuade, especially when they are successful at it. Widen your range of linguistic skills. And never forget you have far more potential power than you think. Just by opening your mouth and verbalizing your thoughts.


Don’t be passive. Get out and do powerful things with your words.


Further reading:


Austin, JL (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Video of interest:


Morgan Freeman: The power of words (1:32) - Amnesty International USA




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