Performative utterances are a coming and old concept in Linguistics: as the examples below show it is a way to command the world and other people, mostly, to do and be what you want them to do and be. Some are central in social rites like marriage, but for a burial no declaration of the person accompanying the rite has any performative value at all, no matter how strongly he may desire it or order it.

The second value of performative for me is performative or performing arts and there it may give some material existence, often transient, to a text or a score of music or even a work of art but it is pure illusion in many ways, the illusion the violinist is Mozart or the actor is Richard III.

So you can be performative as much as you want in gender it is always a superficial make-believe, a trompe-l’oeil, hence an optical illusion. Even transgender people cannot in any way forget what they were before. a gay man who becomes a woman who remains “gay” but is now quite within the norms as for dating men is never and will never forget she preferred men when she was a man.

Such performativity is absolutely respectable but the people who are going through such changes are not what they look on the final surface but are what they are and have been from the very start, though this being is not one entity but a sequence of entities with a time line.

Examples (mainly of explicit performative utterances)

  • “I now pronounce you man and wife” — used in the course of a marriage ceremony
  • “I order you to go”, “Go — that’s an order”
  • “Yes” — answering the question “Do you promise to do the dishes?”
  • “You are under arrest” — used in putting someone under arrest
  • “I christen you”
  • “I accept your apology”
  • “I sentence you to death”
  • “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” (Islamic: see: Talaq-i-Bid’ah)[2]
  • “I do” — wedding
  • “I swear to do that”, “I promise to be there”
  • “I apologize”
  • “I dedicate this…” (…book to my wife; …next song to the striking Stella Doro workers, etc.)
  • “This meeting is now adjourned”, “The court is now in session”
  • “This church is hereby de-sanctified”
  • “War is declared”
  • “I resign” — employment, or chess
  • “You’re [hereby] fired.”

Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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