Pledging to Harm: A Linguistic Analysis of Violent Intent in Threatening Language

  • Marlon Hurt

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Legal systems around the world assume that violent intent is not only real, but that it is also detectable in threatening language. However, empirical studies examining how, or even whether, violent intent is encoded in language are rare, and tend to explore the issue primarily through psychological theory. This linguistic analysis hypothesizes that authorial intent is indeed detectable in the language of threats, if only obliquely, because the functional aim of a threat issued with true violent intent is different than one issued for other communicative purposes, e.g., to cause fear. A novel combination of frameworks is employed to test this hypothesis on a dataset of six realized and eight non-realized threats. First, Audience Design Theory and Speech Act Theory delimit the investigation to the most common kind of threatening language, called ‘leakage’ in the threat assessment literature and a ‘pledge to harm’ in Speech Act Theory. Next, the Folk Concept of Intentionality and Biological Naturalism theorize which cognitive elements of intent may be expressed by pledges to harm. Finally, Systemic Functional Linguistics, and the discourse semantic method of Appraisal in particular, identify the various attitudinal and interpersonal meanings in the pledge dataset. Non-realized pledges are discovered to contain significantly more violent ideation, creating a prosody
    of heightened menace, while the realized pledges are more concerned with ethical evaluations. Hypothetically, these patterns of stancetaking show that the non-realized and realized texts are engaged in divergent ‘fields of activity’, that of announcing and explaining respectively. Different communicative purposes point to different psychological intentions spurring the production of each pledge type, potential evidence that violent intent is indeed detectable in the language of pledges to harm.
    Date of Award2021
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorTim Grant (Supervisor) & Krzysztof Kredens (Supervisor)


    • Systemic Functional Linguistics
    • Appraisal analysis
    • forensic linguistics
    • leakage
    • intention and intentionality

    Cite this