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THE CONDITIONS, CONSEQUENCES, AND STRUCTURE OF DIRECT DISCOURSE IN "BEOWULF": A STUDY OF SPEECH ACTS

LESLIE COOPER PERELMAN, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Abstract

Most studies of direct discourse in Old English poetry and especially in Beowulf have ignored the emphasis on speech in Anglo-Saxon society as a form of action similar to yet distinct from other types of human activity. The application of recent sociolinguistic and philosophic insights known collectively as "speech act theory" or "pragmatics" provides an interesting and productive new way of looking at direct discourse in the poem.^ The distribution of speeches in the poem does not appear to be governed by rules analogous to the rules governing turn-taking in "ordinary conversation." Instead, a character's representation in direct discourse appears to be largely dependent on both his social and moral status. In addition, the Beowulf poet, with one exception, appears to avoid speech-within-speech. Possibly as a consequence of this tendency, the various scop songs are always represented in indirect, rather than direct, discourse.^ The classification of portions of speeches as specific types of speech acts provides significant insights into the relationship of direct discourse in the poem to its social context. The beot, for example, is a specific type of commissive, an utterance in which the speaker obligates himself to perform a future act. The beot corresponds in several major respects to the modern notion of a contract. On the other hand, speakers in the poem do not seem to utter requests unless they possess some inherent right to have the listener perform the act requested. Expressives, utterances that have as their primary purpose the expression of the speaker's psychological state, seem to be limited only to the single case of a king thanking God. Speakers apparently indirectly thank individuals by uttering favorable judgements on their prowess or wisdom. In addition, there are several instances in the poem of declarations, utterances that radically alter reality merely by the fact of their being spoken.^ The coherence of speeches, the way that individual speech acts are combined to make meaningful extended discourse, can be viewed as a function of the relevance of succeeding speech acts to their audience. In the first part of the epic, Beowulf's adventures in Denmark, all the speeches can be considered relevant in terms of each speaker's immediate audience. In the second part of the epic, however, the speeches become less concerned with the characters to whom they are apparently directed. The growing irrelevance of the speeches serves possibly to reinforce symbolically the growing elegiac mood that dominates the last part of the poem.^ The application of speech act theory also allows episodes such as Hrothgar's "Sermon" to be perceived more clearly as functions of their immediate social context rather than solely as examples of Christian homiletics. But most significantly, looking at the speeches as discrete actions reveals their importance as a vital part of the narrative movement of the poem. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Medieval

Recommended Citation

LESLIE COOPER PERELMAN, "THE CONDITIONS, CONSEQUENCES, AND STRUCTURE OF DIRECT DISCOURSE IN "BEOWULF": A STUDY OF SPEECH ACTS" (January 1, 1980). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. Paper AAI8101378.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI8101378

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