Monday, June 8, 2015

“I Quit!” and Other Performatives

A grammatical term new to me cropped up in Anu Garg’s email “A-Word-A-Day.” It’s performative, and it refers to a self-actualizing statement—that is an utterance that performs an action merely by saying it.

For example, “I quit” constitutes both one’s intent to terminate one’s position—and the actual termination, which is achieved by making the statement. Other examples of performative statements might be “Thank you,” “You’re fired,” “I hate you,” “I vote no,” “I forbid it,” “I bet five dollars,” “I’m talking now,” “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I surrender,” and “The meeting is now adjourned.”

The Oxford Companion to the English Language also cites a hedged performative, which is a statement like “I really must apologize,” in which the speaker merely expresses an obligation to apologize, but implies that acknowledging the obligation is the same as apologizing.

Some utterances may be interpreted either as performative or non-performative, such as when A asks B, a fellow diner at the table, “Can you reach the salt?” B will probably interpret the question as performative, indicating that A wishes to have the salt passed, and will do so. But in a non-performative sense, B might simply ascertain that the salt is indeed within his reach and reply, “Yes, I can,” without passing it.

The etymology of performative is from the French parfournir (par meaning “through” and fournir meaning “furnish”). Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says the word can be traced only to 1955, but Garg, without specifying, maintains citations can be documented as early as 1922.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is mostly non-performative, preferring to rest upon his withered laurels.

            “Can you reach the salt?” I said,
            Just as the meal began.
            My dinner partner chewed some bread
            And answered, “Yes, I can.”

            “Well, can you pass it, then?” I cried,
            While eyeing my ragout.
            My dinner partner then replied,
            “Yes, I can do that, too.”

            “Would you pass the salt?” I barked,
             Intent upon my mission,
            “I would,” he pleasantly remarked,
            “But under what condition?”

            “Just pass the goddam salt!” I screamed,
            “Or I’ll push you in the queso!”
            “Oh, you want the salt?” he beamed,
            “Well, why did you not say so?”

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