Constructing witches and spells: Speech acts and activity types in Early Modern England


Constructing witches and spells: Speech acts and activity types in Early Modern England

By Jonathan Culpeper and Elena Semino

Journal of Historical Pragmatics, Volume 1, Number 1 (2000)

Abstract: In this paper, we highlight the centrality of verbs relating to verbal activities in witchcraft narratives in the Early Modern English period, and focus on speech act verbs used to refer to witches’ curses. In the first part, we refer to various classifications of speech act verbs and to Searle’s felicity conditions for speech acts, in order to describe the different meanings of verbs such as to curse, and to show how their central meaning has shifted over time. In the second part, we show how the speech act verbs form a structured set, which — in appropriate circumstances — could be used as an interpretative frame to create witchcraft events out of relatively trivial arguments within village communities. Here, we refer to Levinson’s notion of activity types as a possible explanatory framework.



Introduction: In this paper we consider speech act verbs in texts relating to the witch-hunt in Early Modern England. In particular, our aims are:

  • to highlight the centrality of verbs referring to verbal activities in narratives of witchcraft in Early Modern English period;
  • to compare the meaning/speech act values of verbs relating to curses in witchcraft texts (notably to curse, to wish… that, to wish harm/evil) with their main meanings/speech act values today;
  • to show how the change in meaning of these verbs can only be adequately accounted for in terms of pragmatics, and particularly in terms of Speech Act Theory and Levinson’s notion of activity type;
  • to highlight some of the consequences that historical analysis has for current framework within pragmatics.

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