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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


"All right?" - the Phatic function

The phatic function of language is that which keeps the channels of communication open.

Despite it appearing that content is minimal. It is a function "primarily serving to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication" (Jakobson). It is a kind of sociological function as well as a linguistic one.

A cartoon shows two dour Scotsmen engaged in "conversation" in a bar. "Looks like it," muses one, staring out of the window. Several minutes later the other replies, "Could be."
Friendly or unfriendly? To have said less might have been unfriendly. To have said more, essentially meaningless, content would not have been more friendly.

Typical examples are "Nice day" and "Good morning" which are salutations and greetings that have minimal content (it is not necessarily a nice day or a good morning emotionally or meteorologically!). "Take care" as a way of terminating a conversation is also phatic. "You don't say" and "Well I never" are equally phatic, showing surprise more by intonation than verbal content.

For seven years, several times per week, the present author has visited a friendly lady in a local shop to buy a sandwich. There have been occasional meaningful conversations relating to local events and news of traffic jams, but the overwhelming topic has been about the weather. We happily refer to temperature, precipitation, the likelihood of this affecting ourselves and others or influencing road conditions.

We may seem obsessive; neither of us is a student of meteorology - we simply speak of little things we observe and use it as an uncontentious subject to keep the channels of communication open. Are we active and successful communicators or not? In a sense we are. We have a (limited) relationship and know where we stand in relation to each other. We do not argue. We smile and leave on friendly terms. What more do we need? I have love from my wifeand family, meaningful and purposeful conversation from friends and colleagues, occasion to sit pensively alone ... but when I need lunch I prefer to go to Sandra's Sandwich Shop than to the mini supermarket on the other side of the road which, though it has a wider variety of lunch items, does not dispense a friendly, predictable - if in terms of content meaningless - conversation.

And yet we all need to converse. It's part of being human.

I hit her

and then the clincher - just what we can't ourselves do if stuck for conversation ...

I hit her

Look out for handy conversation makers.
The Queen's allegedly is "And what do you do?"
What about, "What exciting things are on your horizon at the moment?"
Well... it's better than "Do you come here often?"

For more detail look at Jakobson's six functions of language and the
whole study of pragmatics.


 See also