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.Email this Post