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  • The Novellino or "How to Do Things with Words":An Early Italian Reflection on a Specific Western Way of Using Language
  • Franziska F. Meier

John L. Austin's lectures, "How to Do Things with Words," have caused a stir in the scientific community from the 1950s on. His thinking about what can be done with words allowed for new approaches to the use of language, considerably enlarging the then prevailing issues of language as a copy or a representation of things or, generally speaking, the origins of language. Since then, even if Austin's reflections have been re-evaluated, and in some cases corrected, they continue to spur a wide range of scientific and humanistic approaches to language.1 In analytical philosophy, it was John Searle who, on the basis of Austin's lectures, coined the generic term "speech act," which covers all aspects of doing things with words. International scholars of linguistics and literature went on to elaborate and adapt Austin's ideas for their respective fields: in the area of literary criticism it has become common usage to read literary texts as speech acts embedded in a specific and pragmatically aligned cultural context. The distinguished German professor of Romance Philology, Karlheinz Stierle, even went as far as to claim that it is only through application to literary works that [End Page 1] Austin's theory can reach "ihre volle Entfaltung," or it can achieve its full significance (Stierle, Text als Handlung 8). For Stierle, Austin's reasoning suggests a way out of the impasse of literary criticism by separating, if not opposing, its current methods. Considering a writerly text as a speech act, Stierle continues, permits us to conflate the aspects of production and reception of texts because the written is notably based on, and conditioned by, the respective cultural contexts (Stierle, Text als Handlung 9).

In the mid-seventies, when Stierle wanted to show how fertile such a pragmatic textual approach could prove to be, he selected the "einfachen Formen," the simple forms, and in particular, the transition from the exemplum to the novella in the Trecento. In his opinion, the Decameron offers telling insights into the emergence of genuinely literary writings, or, as Stierle puts it: into a "Quellbereich für den Ursprung poetischer Formen" ("Geschichte als Exemplum" 361). Supported by Neuschäfer's study on the novella, Stierle argues that Boccaccio takes up existing narrative patterns, in this instance the exemplum, and renders them more complicated.2 The exemplum, which had been employed as a means of acknowledging a difficult situation, and thus attempting to anticipate its outcome, no longer corresponded to the increasingly complex social and anthropological reality of the fourteenth century. Stierle emphasizes that by driving the exemplum to its extremes, Boccaccio's novellas incite the reader's consciousness of the text's underlying pattern, and hence of the limitations inherent in the usual ways of thinking. The literarity of the texts comes about at the very moment in which the novella starts reflecting upon what it does with words and, therefore, the speech act becomes the subject of telling. Moreover, the Decameron deploys a novel framing device and inserts the hundred single tales within the cornice of the brigata. The frame of the brigata, a group of young women and men who strive for a conciliation of nature and reason, is meant to direct the understanding of the reader, encouraging him to participate in the building of an ideal community. Italian researchers have insisted that the Decameron, and hence the formation of the novella, didn't grow out of nothing—that it was not unprecedented. Therefore, it proves to be much more likely that the formation of the novella and, within it, the emergence of a new perception of literary prose underwent a [End Page 2] slow, sinuous process, which culminated in the Decameron. This essay lays bare further insights into the formation of consciousness of literary prose by studying one of Boccaccio's precursors and by concentrating on the peculiar circumstances in which an awareness of acting with, and by, words could start to bud.

Regarding the phenomenon of "doing things with words," the theory of speech acts is not actually...


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