I learned something new and interesting today!

I’d sort of forgotten what that felt like. As it turns out, in 1955 a linguist by the name of J.L. Austin came to the conclusion that the vast majority of sentences in the English language refer to something outside of the sentence itself. For instance, “That is a chair.” Probably true, if you’re pointing at a chair, but the sentence itself isn’t performing an action. Even if you say “I am running” while you’re running, the sentence itself isn’t running. I’m explaining this badly, but consider the other kind of sentence–making up probably under 1% of sentences. Example: “I promise to return your DVD.” By saying that sentence, you are making a promise. The sentence itself performs an act. Austin called these very rare sentences performative utterances.

And they’re really interesting sentences, if you think about it. I promise, I bet, I now pronounce you married…

Anyway, flash forward a few decades to Judith Butler, who mulled over Austin’s ideas a bit and realized that these performatives aren’t evenly distributed in the English language. They seem to clump around particular topics–things like gender and sexuality. For instance, there are an awful lot of performatives in your standard marriage ceremony.

Now here’s where things get really interesting. (Bear in mind that I’m referring only to a very brief lecture here–I haven’t read the Butler my professor was referencing, but now I’m pretty excited to do so.) Butler proposed that a sentence like “I am a woman” is less like “That is a chair” and more like “I promise.” That a sentence like “I am a woman” is itself involved in the action of being a woman.

Anyway, I haven’t fully digested this (or, you know, done any reading on it) but this is such a fascinating idea to me. Thoughts?

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One Response to I learned something new and interesting today!

  1. Teague Tubach says:

    You should read Austin’s How To Do Things With Words in its entirety. Its fascinating 🙂

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