linguistics and lexicography Love English small talk

You’re the one for me, phatic

© PhotoDisc / Getty Images / Lisa Zador What is language for? A common answer is that it allows us to communicate ideas, but this is only part of the story. In her book A Woman Speaks, French author Anaïs Nin says we forget that language uses ‘a million transmissions far more subtle than explicit direct statements’. This poetic description includes what in sociolinguistics is called phatic communion or speech.

Phatic speech, according to Macmillan Dictionary, is used ‘for social reasons, for example in order to be friendly, rather than in order to give information’. A familiar example (and subset) is small talk, where people exchange greetings, good wishes, congratulations, and trivialities about the weather, recent sporting events, the state of the world, and so on.



Everyday greetings, such as How’s it going? and How are you doing?, are more about presenting a friendly attitude to someone than extracting answers from them, just as the replies – Fine, thanks, etc. – are usually stereotyped and automatic rather than necessarily being accurate indications of a person’s state. Though disliked by some people, small talk is a valuable social signalling system, as is phatic communion more generally. If we casually greet a stranger and they pointedly snub us, we become wary.

The phrase phatic communion was coined almost a century ago by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. He described it as ‘a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words’, or more pithily as ‘speech communication used to establish social relationships’. The term was adopted by linguists, who often drop the communion part. Etymologically it derives from Greek phatos, meaning ‘spoken’, from phanai ‘to speak’ – the same root we see in aphasia, a medical disorder that impairs linguistic expression and comprehension.

The country I’m from, Ireland, loves its phatic communion. We talk about the weather a lot, for example – and we get a lot of weather to talk about. Even the rain alone can be what Heinrich Böll in his Irish Journal called ‘absolute, magnificent, and frightening’, and then there is a subtle series all the way down to ‘soft day’ and ‘only spitting’. The sky here is a source of endless, directionless phatic commentary.

Anthony Burgess, in a newly discovered introduction to James Joyce’s Dubliners, refers explicitly to phatic speech and its social importance. He claims that Irish urban speech is ‘probably the most phatic of the English-speaking world’. That would be difficult to prove or disprove, but it would not surprise me. You might disagree, but we’ll not fight over it – ’tis too nice a day for that.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

7 Comments

  • Stan:
    Stan:

    Communion that’s phatic
    Is quite automatic;
    The question, “how are you?”
    Is never socratic

  • Burgess’s comment that “Irish urban speech is ‘probably the most phatic of the English-speaking world’” shows a misunderstanding of Malinowski’s unfortunately-constructed term. *All* spoken language is phatic (φάτικος); it’s the “communion” that is special.

    I remember arguing over the same error with a fellow graduate student who insisted on calling it “phatic communication”, under the doubly mistaken impression that
    1) the unfamiliar adjective carried the burden of the special meaning,
    and that
    2) the noun that looked so familiar at a quick glance didn’t need any closer inspection, as it was applicable to all speech (and indeed to all language: we were studying American Sign Language), and obviously served only the trivial but syntactically necessary role of providing a head for the adjective.

  • Thank you for the useful note, Mark. Given that phatic is often used in this sense without modifying communion, it may be said to have taken on some of that word’s implications. Presumably this is what Burgess and so many others have intended.

  • I enjoyed the Morrissey pun; a very ‘phatic singer’. Compare how his lyrics sound to how they read.

  • seajay: Yes, I’ve noticed that dissonance between tone and content in some of The Smiths’ songs. I’m glad you enjoyed the pun (and I hope there weren’t too many people nonplussed by the reference).

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