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On Jakobsonian Phaticity

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of reading Roman Jakobson's scheme of the linguistic functions of speech. In its linguistic interpretation, the functions pertain to the production of linguistic utterances. This is how linguists most commonly have come to employ the scheme. With regard to the phatic function, speakers produce phatic utterances. The second can loosely be designated as the metalinguistic interpretation, which looks at utterances from the perspective of their reception, and not by their intended addressee, but by the linguistic observer. In either case, the hierarchy of language functions as put forth by Jakobson is a toolkit, but varies in its usage by the speaker and the scientist. Let us not forget at this point that the ideal goal of linguistic analysis in this perspective would be for the linguist to correctly interpret the coding mechanisms of the sender as well as the putative decoding mechanisms of the actual or ideal receiver. From the metalinguistic perspective, utterances carry a dominant phatic function when their observed of hypothesized effect is primarily social.

This distinction has profound implications for the phatic function, which is accordingly interpreted either as the linguistic operation performed by the social sub-codes of any given language, particularly those pertaining to communicative contact and the relationship between the communicants. Viewed from the linguistic perspective of the speaker, his or her utterances and other linguistic units and concurrent semiosic elements carry a phatic intent, which focuses the researcher's gaze on the most obviously social uses of language, such as greetings, salutations, openings, continuers, pauses, breakdowns, backchannels, interjections, etc. (The list of phatic elements in speech, language, and behaviour is virtually endless.) From the metalinguistic perspective of the observer, on the other hand, the function is not pre-given as a code selection but deduced from the syntactic material. Instead of prefabricated possibilities, the linguistic researcher deals with diagnosis of possible prefabrications.

In everyday use, the social use of language appears as an interpretive transformation. The phatic use of language does not pertain to stereotyped social rituals and routine elements only. It can also transform the function of other types of utterances and implicitly makes a comment about the particular utterance and its stereotyped use. In socio-systemic communication theory, this is known as meta-communication (Ruesch & Bateson 1951). This aspect in Jakobson's linguistic theory is often neglected by those employing it willy-nilly and intend to categorize parts of speech according to his functions without considering the operational transformations utterances frequently undergo.

Moreover, the phatic function does not pertain to phraseological, lexical, or even morphemic or phonologoligal units, but also to paralinguistic aspects of the composition of the message, such as its length, structure, manner of presentation, its internal and external borders with extra-semiotic reality and other linguistic texts. Phaticity interpenetrates every level of the hierarchy of linguistic structure, and its continuity can be observed from the minimal contoural features that let us know that a sentence has finished to the social and philosophical contours of a discourse.

This approximately is what I mean by an extended Jakobsonian interpretation of the phatic function of language. I hope to elaborate inter-functional transformations (other types of utterances becoming phatic, phatic utterances becoming something else) and inter-level associations (the semantic relations between smaller parts of speech with larger, semantic blocks on the level of culture).

There is also a very notable confusion with regard to the operations of the phatic functions (establishing, prolonging, and discontinuing communication), and what the contact factor in the formulation of the function does. If interpreted in the sense of the over-all effects achieved by social techniques sensu Jurgen Ruesch (i.e. approach, preservation, and detachment), further sub-functions could probably be elaborated. But notice that the ideal effect achieved by Brinoslaw Malinowski's phatic communion is a polite social intercourse or atmosphere for a pleasante context of situation; and Jakobson's emphasis on the working of the mechanical channel between the communicants (i.e. the literal telephone connection) reduces its primary aim to fundamental functionality, e.g. the fact of communication.

In this light, a poem, for example, does not work when it doesn't equal the social appeal of face-to-face interaction or telephone conversation. This is the first time I've thought of it, but it does seem that the Aristotelian quality of "grabbing attention" and "delighting" that makes a poem "work" for Jakobson is the quality he is circumscribing in the phatic function, i.e. simply whether it communicates or not, with the code-oriented addendum that it is the language of the poem, an aesthetic object in a verbal medium, that makes a poem either work or not work.

This theme also appears in the content of the poems Jakobson analysed, particularly in the emphasis on impossible or fantasy communication. The elements of a poetic work that refer to memories of past relationships, for example, highlight the staple poetic leitmotifs of love and death with reference to people with whom no further communication is possible. In a honorific poem about his superior's return the Japanese officer acts out a fantasy of communication.


  1. The comparison of linguistic and metalinguistic "positions" is, for me, a useful clarifications.

    One term that's used a lot in this post but not defined is "social". I can accept that it may refer to an "everyday concept of sociality" and also to specific aspects thereof ("the social techniques"). If a definition is needed, I don't know that we need to jump straight to Mead's abstract idea of sociality as ≈ "the conditions of emergence".

    Still, clarifications of the concept all of these levels (everyday, technical, and theoretical) could be useful.

    For instance, I wonder: is "sociality" something that is EQUALLY present in micro-scale interactions (for instance a transaction with a shop-keeper or bar-tender, or a conversation with a house-mate, neighbour, or spouse) and macro-scale interactions (for instance, the maintenance of a community over several decades or generations)? At the macro scale, most specific *linguistic* acts would disappear: we might remember a few foundational speeches, decisions, ceremonies, or insults. At the micro scale, patterns would tend to be less obvious; e.g., if a given exchange is ritualized, we will need enough context to know that it is a ritual. But it is probably not enough for it just to be repeated frequently: the ritual probably fulfils some tangible, productive, function.

    Perhaps meta-communication is the "link" between phaticity and sociality.


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