Illocutionary Acts in the December 2020 Press Release by the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian University

This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

Salisu Mohammed Raj
Department of English,
Nasarawa State University, Keffi
salisumr@nsuk.edu.ng +2348033494886

Abstract: This paper examines illocutionary acts in a press conference of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria. It explores the illocutionary mappings such as; representatives, commissives, expressive, declaratives and directives to determine how such pragmatic inferences make or mar the success of language use. The study was carried out through the examination of the Text of Press Conference of ASUU on the 23rd of December, 2020 which formed the corpus for the study. The choice of the data selected was informed by the need to capture excerpts of language use by ASUU at the peak of the industrial action it embarked upon in that year which affected staff and students of most Nigerian Universities The results of the findings showed that the speaker made remarkable use of the illocutionary mappings exemplified by ‘expressives’ illocutions more frequently than the others. The use of expressives was more realized in the text to indicate that the speaker used emotional appeal to persuade his members who are his co-equals. 


The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is an umbrella body that covers all academic staff in all of the Federal and State Universities in the Nigeria. Over the years, ASUU, like other trade unions in Nigeria, had had cause to continually fight for the welfare of its members as well as revitalization of education in the country. Formed in 1978, ASUU has a reputation for doggedly engaging the Federal Government  on  several  issues  of  educational  and  socio-economic development of Nigeria since the military regime in the 1980s.This paper is, however, interested in the role language plays in such agitations. Particularly, the study analyzes the language of the ASUU press conference which it held in December, 2020 as a result of an agreement it reached with the Federal Government on their lingering demands. This is because language is the most effective tool for communication. It is through language that humans communicate with each other and share experience or emotional feelings. Language is also used for information through which messages are passed from one individual to another.


Communication is so attached to human interaction that without it, there would be impairment in understanding human nature. Language, as a means of communication, is a vital tool in government activity. Language shapes relationship between the government and the governed and, indeed, her employees. The significance of this paper, therefore, is to determine how the language used by ASUU to drive home their demands from the Federal Government serves its purpose in relation to the context of communication. This is why the paper examined the illocutionary force of the speaker to determine whether or not the speaker achieved his intent. This is aimed at investigating pragmatic factors that either make or mar the appropriateness of language use by ASUU leadership to curry support from its members.


This research, thus, analyzes the concept of illocutionary force and its mappings such as; directives, commissives, expressives, declaratives, representatives. This enabled us to determine how the written text can influence the speakers’ intent and how that will lure the members into accepting his propositions.


Literature Review


Conceptual Review

Concept of Language and Communication


In human society, language is regarded as the major means of interaction and communication because it remains the basic instrument for dissemination of information in any such society. Communication through language is an important means of attaining unity and development. It is believed that, without language, no social organization can function properly. Halliday (140-165), on his part, explains that “language serves different purposes”. He proposes, for example, three broad functions of language; ideational, interpersonal and textual (8). Hymes (107) propose about half a dozen functions


The challenges offered by the different uses to which language can be put in different communicative situations are at the core of this study. This is in an attempt to account for where and how language is being used which will ultimately explicate the situation or context of use and meaning. Different situations will attract different interpretations or reactions from the same utterance. It is imperative, therefore, to identify the situation or context of an utterance before concluding on what the language is used for and the pragmatic role derived from it.


Concept of Pragmatics


Pragmatics, as a discipline, was developed as a reaction against the purely formalist approach to language. The reality that man uses language to execute different activities to communicate is as old as man. The development of Pragmatics can also be linked with the growth of Semiotics which is the study of signs. However, the fundamental scholarly attempt to study language behind its formal abstract entities to include its use, properties and processes can be attributed to the British Philosopher Charles W. Morris (1938) who outlines the science of semiotics as “the relation of signs to interpreters”. His outline distinguishes three branches of enquiry, namely; Syntax, Semantics and Pragmatics. Syntax deals with the relation of signs to one another, Semantics deals with the relation of signs to objects while Pragmatics deals with the relation of signs to interpreters.


Pragmatics is interdisciplinary in origin and nature. This is because a number of traditions have contributed individually and collectively to the formation of the field of pragmatics. Philosophy has also provided some of the most fertile ideas in pragmatics as it produced two of the main theories underlying the present Pragmatics. The first theory is Speech Act Theory, originally formulated by an Oxford language philosopher, Austin (1962) and further developed by Searle (1969). The second theory is the Theory of Cooperative Principle by Grice (1975). Together, they provided the frame of reference to the consolidation of the fields of Pragmatics. The three Philosophers, Austin (1962), Searle (1969) and Grice (1975) were particularly influential in drawing attention to the fact that the occasion of an utterance is important and that its total context must be understood before the meaning and intention of an utterance can be fully grasped.


Pragmatics, as a concept, represents that doctrine which tests truth by its practical consequence. It is perhaps this practical orientation that gave rise to the description of processes and procedures of pragmatics in the light of the practical lessons and consequences that drive from them. In their attempt to define Pragmatics, different scholars throw some light on the nature, principle and scope of Pragmatics. Adegbija (186), for instance, captures clearly the usage, properties and processes of Pragmatics thus:


Pragmatics is the study of the language use in particular communicative context or situation. Of necessity, this would take cognizance of the message being communicated, or the speech act being performed; the participants involved; their intention, knowledge of the world and impacts of these on interaction; what they are taking for granted as part of the context…the deductions they make on the basis of context; what is or what is left unsaid; the impacts of non-verbal aspects of interactions of meaning, etc (Adegbija 198).

Kempson (68) says Pragmatics explains “how it is that speakers of a given language can use the sentences of their language to convey messages which do not bear any necessary relation to the linguistic contents of the sentences used”. Leech and Short (290) in their conception opine that Pragmatics is that which scope is concerned principally with the principles of language use and has little to do with the description of language structure. This suggests that; pragmatic analysis of language can be broadly understood to be the investigation into that aspect of meaning which is derived not from the formal properties of words and structure (syntax), but from the way in which utterances are used and how they relate to the context in which they are uttered. Leech and Short’s operational words are ‘utterance’ and ‘sentence’, implying that their approach to the definition of Pragmatics underscores the study of the linguistic phenomena from the point of view of the usage, properties and processes.


In capturing the concern of Pragmatics with features of language structure, Levinson (9) states that “Pragmatics is the study of those relationships between language and context that are grammaticalised, or encoded in the structure of language”. This could be said that Pragmatics is the study of just those aspects of the relationship between language and context that are relevant to the writing of grammar. The Encyclopedia Dictionary Language and Linguistics sees Pragmatics as “the study of language from the point of view of the users - especially from the choices they encounter in using language in social interactions and the effects their use of language has on the other participants…” (310).


For the purpose of this study, however, the research will adopt two definitions, namely; the definition given by Leech and that given by Levinson. Leech, for instance, concentrates more on the speech situation which resonates with the aim of this research. The speech situation is to enable the speaker use language to achieve a particular impact on the mind of the hearer. That is the reason he posits that Pragmatics is “the study of the meaning in relation to speech situation” (6). This implies that the meaning in which a speaker or writer intends to communicate is guided by the context of utterance. Levinson, on the other hand, defines Pragmatics as a branch of study which is concerned with the “ability of language users to pair sentences with the context in which they would be appropriate” (Levinson 27). Pragmatics, unlike Semantics, describes language from the point of view of the users, especially as regards the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using their language for social interaction and the effects their use of language has on other participants in a speech event.


On the whole, it is pertinent to point out that Pragmatics is an important area of study as it is applicable to daily activities. Its importance lies on the fact that it enhances social interaction through utterances. It covers areas that Semantics overlooked and it is appealing because it concerns the ways people make sense of each other linguistically. It is significant to emphasize, therefore, that Pragmatics emerged as a result of the limitations of structural Semantics to capture satisfactorily the sociological and other non-linguistic dimensions of verbal communication, just as Sociolinguistics, the fore-runner to Pragmatics, evolved as a result of the inadequacies of structural linguistics to explicate the factors of linguistic performance. As the goal of the grammarian is to describe what constitutes grammatical competence, the concern of the pragmatic is to describe, in adequate terms, the components of the language user’s pragmatic competence.


Theory of Speech Acts


Para, in Adamu Usman (37) says that “utterances are only explicable in relation to the activities or ‘language-games’ in which they play a role”. Usman, deriving from this, elaborates that; “By implication, this statement is saying that language is not just making utterances, but carrying the utterances along with action to make the language meaningful” (37). This is the principle underlying the concept of Speech Acts as propounded by John L. Austin, in a series of lectures he delivered entitled ‘How to Do Things with Words’. This was later systematized by John Searle and called “Speech Acts Theory”. Austin, in his paper, notes that “the business of a sentence can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to “state some fact”, which it must do either truly or falsely”. Austin affirms that language users perform all sorts of ‘speech acts’ besides making statements and that there are other ways for them to go wrong or lack felicity, besides not being true. As the foremost proponent of the speech act theory, Austin postulates that engaging in a speech act means performing the complementary acts of locution, illocution and perlocution. A locution is a sentence uttered with a determined sense and reference; an act performed in order to communicate. The study of locutionary act is the domain of descriptive linguistics which comprises phonetics, phonology, syntax and semantics. An illocutionary act, on the other hand, is a non-linguistic act performed through a linguistic or locutionary act, while a perlocution of an utterance deals with the effects of utterances on the hearers/audience.


Empirical Review


There have been numerous studies on Speech Acts as one of the foremost pragmatic theories and its associated forces to apply to the contexts of communication. For instance, there was a study carried out by Ubaidullah Muhammad Bello entitled “A Pragmatic Study of President Muhammadu Buhari’s Democracy Day Speech, 2018” which centered on the analysis of President Muhammadu Buhari’s Democracy Day speech, taking into cognizance a performative speech act as the crux of his study. The finding of the study reveals that speech act brings to the fore meaning in speeches. It reveals that, in the process of saying something that refers to a particular speech act, other speech acts are also performed.


There was another study by Ojeifo S. Aidelunuoghene entitled “History of Prolonged Industrial Conflicts between ASUU & Federal Government: is it an Issue of Rightness?” in a Journal of Education and Practice who examined the history of prolonged industrial conflicts between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government. The study provides a historical and sociological account of the origins, developments, primary causes and effects of industrial conflicts in Nigerian Universities. The findings of the study revealed that poor emolument of Academic Staff coupled with deterioration in teaching and learning facilities contributed to the brain drain from Nigerian universities.


Evuarherhe Veronica Abolo also investigated the influence of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASU)/FG on the Achievement of SDG4 which bothers on education as it relates to tertiary institutions in Nigeria. The findings showed that the FG/ASUU conflicts significantly influence the universities learning environment, the realization of the teachers’ management and the quality of education targets of SDG4 in Nigeria.


Also, Uzoh, Bonaventure Chigozie wrote on “An Assessment for the Impact of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on Human Resources Development in Nigeria Universities in the International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Science. The findings revealed that ASUU as a Union of academics in Nigerian Universities has done so much in ensuring proper human resource development in Nigerian Universities through its numerous and continues engagement with the Federal Government to always do the needful and to ensure that educational development in Nigeria remains on track.


Theoretical Review/Framework


The theoretical framework adopted for this study is the theory of Illocutionary Force “Intent of the Speaker” as propounded by John Austin in 1962 and later standardized by John Searle in 1969. This theory was so selected considering that it communicates the speaker’s intent in relation to the assumptions he shares with his audience.


The concept of illocutionary force, one of the fundamental aspects of Speech Acts, is a proposition that language is not merely the making of statements, or what he, Austin refers to as ‘constatives’, but by saying something about the world. And when uttering the words, the speaker is concurrently performing the action for the purpose of achieving some aims. Austin calls such illocutions as “the intent of the speaker” where he, the speaker, is seen making the utterances as well as performing the action. Performative utterances, on the other hand, though also made along with actions, they defer from the illocutionary force in the sense that they are made in fixed circumstances and are not governed by the ‘speaker’s intent’, rather, by his role in the society. Austin in Usman (38-43) says the Performative Utterance:


Does things and not merely say things (reporting affairs), and performative sentences achieve conventions linking the words to institutional procedures… (and) the performative utterances are identifiable because they have the form of first person indicative active sentence in the simple present with one delimited set of performative ‘verbs’ as “main verbs” which will collocate with verbs “hereby”, (147).


The Performative Utterances according to him “must be said by appropriate person in appropriate situation” for the speech to carry performative effects. For example;


i.   I pronounce you husband and wife.

ii.  I hereby declare this occasion open.


In sentence (i) above, the performative utterance is that of a minister of God christening a couple. In sentence (ii), it is the voice of a person in authority whose utterance at this moment is considered authoritative to the situation. Thus, both speakers are speaking because of their roles in the society.


It is important to note that Austin did not call the theory “Speech Acts”. It was John Searle in 1969 who systematized, or standardized the theory with some modifications that give the theory some extra-linguistic shape and, thus, gave the theory the name “Speech Acts”. In this regard, instead of Austin’s conventional utterances governed by the performative verbs which have little or nothing to do with the context of utterance, Searle deviated to what he (Searle) calls “essential condition”, that is the speaker’s utterances would only have the understanding of the audience if the utterances fulfill all the conditions that reflect the context, or the assumptions shared between the speaker and his hearers.


Illocutionary Acts are, thus, classified by Searle into the following categories to express the intent of the speaker:


1. REPRESENTATIVES (Assertive): These, according to Searle, are acts containing utterances that indicate the degree of the speaker’s commitment to the truth of his proposition(s). In other words, it is what Lyons calls Epistemic Commitment “which is used to express a proposition and at the same time to express some attitudes towards it… anyone who states certain proposition is (should be) committed to it…” (255).


The Illocutions are indicated by the use of hedges which function to “qualify, strengthen, soften or make propositions politer” in the course of the speaker’s attempt to; request, promise, apologize, pledge, swear, guarantee, etc. An example is:


“To continuously and diligently monitor the implementation of the FGN-ASUU agreement of 22nd December, 2020”.


In the sentence above, the two hedges “continuously” and “diligently” are illocutions that aim to strengthen the commitment of the speaker to the proposition. This thus, implies that the proposition is meant to strengthen the assumptions of the speaker, in this case, the chairman of ASUU holds with his audience/members.


2.         COMMISSIVES: These, like representatives above, are statements which indicate the speaker’s commitment to a certain course of action. But they differ from representatives because they are indicated by verbs to strengthen or weaken the speaker’s commitment to the statement. They include verbs such as; promise, intend, threat, vowing, challenging etc, to proclaim the speaker’s attitudes or commitment towards some state of affairs.




“As the chairman of ASUU, I promise you that we must pursue our goals till we achieve them”.


What this implies is that, by the use of the commissive verb ‘promise’, it creates some feelings of hope in the audience that the speaker is committed to the statement. To ascertain the strength of the speaker’s commitment (illocutions), as contended by Searle, in for instance, commitment for promising, such that if the speaker says; “I promise you that we must pursue our goals. . .” the following ought to take place;


a.      There should be instances that the speaker must carry out the thing promised.


b.      The thing promised must be something that the

receiver (audience) wants to see happen.


Such commitment, therefore, links what would produce the understanding of language as used in the context to fulfill the assumptions shared between the speaker and the audience.


3.                 DIRECTIVES: A directive, according to Searle, is any illocutionary act whereby the speaker tries to get the hearer (audience) into behaving in some required manner. This could be ordering, but sometimes in form of suggesting to, or requesting the recipients to act in a particular way. Examples are;


a.      No ASUU member should register for IPPIS!


b.      Will ASUU members stop subjecting themselves for IPPIS registration?


c.       Please may I request that you should never register for IPPIS?


According to Searle, directive, as the name suggests, is actually an order the speaker gives to the audience. But he makes it indirect when he, the speaker, suspects that the order may not be complied with, thus, turning it to a suggestion or a request. Though an order, it is such indirect because what is ordered, or given directive on is, as Searle names it, “personal need or desire statements” of the speaker. This is therefore why it is an illocutionary force, or “intents of the speaker” since he is using persuasive term(s) to get the audience into behaving in his (the speaker’s) required ways.


Another aspect of ‘directive’ as an illocutionary force is what Searle calls ‘Hints’. This arises, or is common among people with shared rules or experience such that the utterance of hint, though an order, does not imply an authoritative statement. An example is;


“This has to be pursued with all purposefulness if we are to revive the education sector”.


Here, the first part (clause)“This has to be pursued with all purposefulness . . .” seems authoritative. However, the explanation in the second clause makes the statement polite.


4.                  EXPRESSIVES: These are forms of illocutionary acts in which the speaker expresses an attitude about some state of affairs such as: You are preempting your findings by using ASUU related data as illustration in your literature review!


a.      I congratulate you all for winning the war against IPPIS.

b.      I apologize for the arrears of salaries still owed our members by the Federal Government.


c.       I thank you for  your support throughout the



In the example above, the verbs; congratulate, apologize, and thank represent the attitudes the speaker show towards some state of affairs. It is also important to note that, for the illocutionary force to exert the force intended by the speaker, the assumptions or beliefs shared between him, the speaker, and his audience is very crucial, whereby the audience believes that the speaker is capable of what he said. This according to Usman (42), “depends on the ethics of the speaker before the audience . . .” In other words, the speaker must seem to possess the charisma that will convince the audience into believing in his propositions – his intents.


5.                DECLARATIVES: These are illocutionary acts that the utterances effect immediate changes in the institutional state of affairs. Declaration is the speaker’s change to the condition of an object of situation, solely by making an utterance Austin in Moore (2001). These acts include, declaring a war, firing from employment, baptizing, passing sentence, arresting, marrying, etc. For example


a.      You are dead to me.

b.      I hereby sentence you to ten years’ imprisonment

c.       I name this child Emmanuel.


From the above examples it can be seen that declarative acts are typically broadcast within a social group and rely for their success on speaker being sanctioned by the community, institution, committee or even a single person within the group to perform such acts under stipulated conditions, provided the stipulated conditions are met, hearer’s reaction as an individual is irrelevant to effectiveness of the declaration.




There are basically two sources of data for this study. They are the primary data and secondary data. The primary data is a document containing the ASUU press conference presented in December, 2020, based on the Federal government-ASUU agreement. The data was subjected to analysis using the speech act mappings of commisives, directives, expressive, declarative and representatives to determine their illocutionary force as well as discover the relationship between the speaker’s intent and the assumptions he shares with his audience while conveying the FGN-ASUU resolutions on the contentious issues.


Data Presentation and Analysis


Table of Identified Illocutionary Mappings

In analyzing the data samples for this study, the research, extracted all statements that contain the illocutionary force mappings selected for this study which are; commisives, expressives, directives and representatives. They are imbedded in verbs that could readily be termed performative verbs because they perform the illocutionary acts of; command or request, promise, apology, commitment, or conveying some attitudes towards some state of affairs. All of these are investigated in the corpus as follows:



Representatives, also known as Assertives/assertions, are acts containing utterances that indicate the degree of the speaker’s commitment to the truth of his proposition(s). In other words, they proclaim the assertiveness of the speaker’s intent. For instance, he says in the excerpts;


“ . . to continuously and diligently monitor the implementation of the FGN-ASUU agreement of 22nd December, 2020”.


In the sentence above, the two hedges “continuously” and “diligently” are illocutions that aim to strengthen the commitment of the speaker to the proposition. This thus, implies that the proposition is meant to strengthen the assumptions the speaker, in this case, the chairman of ASUU holds with his audience/members. There are other few instances where such illocutionary expression occur in the text. Another example is:


“We condemn, without any reservation, Vice Chancellors who made efforts to undermine and, in some cases, attempted to break ASUU’s strike”.


In the excerpt above, the phrase “without any reservation”, is a hedge that strengthens the assertiveness of the speaker’s proposition of ‘condemnation of the perceived activities of some vice chancellors against ASUU’s course.




These are illocutionary verbs that strengthen or weaken the intent of the speaker. They are statements which Searle said indicate promises, or refusal for actions in utterances. The actions are indicated by illocutionary verbs. For instance, when the speaker says;


“What we believe is that if the Federal Government faithfully implements


the resolutions . . . further crises would be avoided”


The illocutionary verbs ‘believe” used in the extract above is a ‘commisive’ verb which shows the speaker’s commitment to the actions represented by the verb. The verb, thus, indicates that the speaker is performing the action of ‘believing’. The use of the word ‘believe’ has weakened the speaker’s certainty that the Federal Government would actually “implement the resolutions ...” reached. Thus, is has weaken the functions of such an illocution as the verb ‘believe’ implies the speaker’s uncertainty of his commitment towards the said course of actions. This is what Searle calls ‘weak commitment’. The following example, however, is a different commitment:

“(We will) ensure no ASUU member suffers any loss of deserved benefits as a result of participation in the strike”.


In this extract however, the verb ‘ensure’ is a ‘commissive’ verb indicating a statement that strengthens the speaker’s commitment to his utterance. This is because the verb ‘ensure’ indicates resoluteness of an action.




These are forms of illocutionary acts in which the speaker expresses an attitude about some state of affairs. Such attitude is indicated by a verb that either strengthens or weakens the truth of his commitment to the course of action so expressed. Expressive illocutions are the most numerous in the data collected. One example of such is;


“(We) accept the agreements reached between ASUU and the Federal Government on the 22nd December, 2020”


In the example above, the verb ‘accept’ represents the attitudes the speaker shows towards the proposition that the issues between the government and ASUU which led to the protracted industrial action have been resolved. From this view point, it could be inferred that the replication of expressive illocutions in the text of the press conference under review shows a seeming understanding between the two parties on the state of affairs. This is vindicated by the use of expressive verbs such as; accept, appreciate, salute and acknowledge in serial numbers 1,4,8,9,10,11 and 12 as presented in the data samples above.


For the illocutionary force of the speaker to bring about the meaning of language in context therefore, the assumptions or beliefs shared between him, the speaker and his audience is very important, whereby the audience believes that the speaker is capable of what he said.




Directives, according to Searle, are acts that show the speaker trying to get the hearer behave in some required ways. They imply either ordering or requesting the audience to act in a way directed by the speaker. In the data presented above, the researcher was able to identify only use of directive as seen in the excerpt below;


“Should Government fail to fulfil its own part of the agreement, ASUU will resume its suspended strike action”. This data sample is inappropriate because it does not fit the definition of directive. You gave above.


Here, the speaker is seen ‘ordering’ the audience (including those without) to prepare to “resume the suspended strike action . . .should Government fail to fulfil its own part of the agreement”. This is the type of directive Searle refers to as ‘hint’ which normally states a condition without which a corresponding action should be taken.




From the foregoing analysis of the data collated for this presentation, the result of the findings showed that the speaker actually did make use of illocutionary acts to pass his message/propositions across to the audience. Here, it could be argued that the use of such illocutions “speaker’s intent” became necessary considering the kind of audience he was dealing with. So, instead of relying on performative verbs which are normally expressed in institutional settings by speakers who proclaim some institutional powers, the speaker here knows he was addressing his fellow intellectuals who are as critical as he was concerning the state of affairs.

Secondly, it was also discovered that the speaker made use of ‘expressives’ more frequently than the other illocutionary mappings. Whether or not this was done unconsciously, it underscores the relevance of such illocutionay force in such contexts of utterance. This also confirms the notion that use of illocutionary acts in ASUU press conferences is a pragmatic factor that will account for the language use of such occasions.


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