Phatic Fiction

Urbanová, Ludmila 2007. Phatic communion and small talk in fictional dialogues. In: Butler, Christopher S.; Raquel Hidalgo Downing and Julia Lavid (eds.), Functional Perspectives on Grammar and Discourse: In Honour of Angela Downing. Studies in Language Companion Series 28. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Copmany, 349-357.

The functioning of the language means used in conversation is determined by "the general principle of maintaining a social equilibrium" (Leech 1980: 94). At the same time, conversational behaviour tends to be ritualistic. Established patterns of phatic behaviour are recurrent, and are in harmony with the existing social norms and social and cultural expectations. Phatic communion and small talk can be characterized as phenomena which are universal, although certain aspects can be identified as culture-specific. (Urbanová 2007: 349)
"In a broad sense greeting and parting behaviour may be termed RITUAL since it follows PATTERNED ROUTINES; it is a system of SIGNS that convey other than overt messages; ... and it has ADAPTIVE VALUE in facilitating social relations" (Firth 1972: 29-30).
Instances of phatic communion will be interpreted with due regard to sociolinguistic criterio of solidarity, status and formality. (Urbanová 2007: 350)
The solidarity aspect is really what could drive sociologists to revisit Durkheim and others with phatic communion in mind.
Malinowski defines phatic communion as "free, aimless, social intercourse" (1999: 302), the function of which is primarily based on the process of establishing and maintaining social contact. Firth (1964) stresses the existence of typical situational contexts within the context of culture which give rise to the language ritual. In the same vein, Sapir develops his idea of speech as an acquired "cultural" function claiming that "Speech is a human activity that varies without assignable limit as we pass from social group to social group, because it is a purely historical heritage of the group, the product of long-continued social usage" (1949[1921]: 4). (Urbanová 2007: 350)
So Urbanová is explicitly oriented towards Raymond Firth's "sign system" view, which is further amplified by Sapir's view of culture.
The notion of communion is connected with the fact that in the particular instance of small talk or chat "[...] bonds of personal union" are created by a mere exchange of words (Malinowski 1999: 304). Thus language used in such speech situations means sharing rather than exchanging ideas, feelings and emotions with the interlocutor(s). Lyons (1981: 143) stresses the function of the social ritual: "This felicitous expression [...] emphasizes the notion of fellowship and participation in common social rituals [...]" (Urbanová 2007: 350).
Sharing of feelings and emotions is exactly why Hymes's interpretation of the phatic function as the "reciprocal expressive function of speech" and connection with Morris's communization (the "making common" of a feeling or emotion) make so much sense to me.
By contrast, Bakhtin (1999: 127) sees striking differences in individual variation even in genres of everyday life, i.e. in the domain of language ritual, which is in harmony with the understanding of language used as an act of individual choice:
A large number of genres that are widespread in everyday life are so standard that the speaker's individual speech is manifested only in its choice of a particular genre, and, perhaps, in its expressive intonation. Such, for example, are the various everyday genres of greetings, farewells, congratulations, all kinds of wishes, information about health, business, and so forth. These genres are so diverse because they differ depending on the situation, social position and personal interrelations of the participants in the communication.
(Urbanová 2007: 350-351)
Of course Bakhtin also touched phatic communion. Of course. This is comfortable because it means that there's a possibility that Lotman continued this line of thought somewhere in his extensive writings. Bakhtin's argument itself seems slightly slanted. I know he had something against individualism ("only error individualizes"), so even here he is reducing the subjective position in phatic communion to a selection between formulaic or ritualistic utterances, with virtually no bearing on the combination, where individuality could manifest itself. His point about situation, position and relationships of course stands.
In my understanding of the notion of phatic communion I do not support Malinowski's claim that "language here is not dependent upon what happens at the moment, it seems even to be deprived of any conetxt of situation. The meaning of any utterance cannot be connected with the speaker's or hearer's behaviour, with the purpose of what they are doing" (1999: 302). In this article I will try to justify the claim that phatic communion cannot be dissociated from the context of situation. My hypothesis is that phatic communion is the product of the conetxtual specifications in the process of communication. (Urbanová 2007: 351)
Here it is actually Malinowski's befuddled exposition that is at fault. In his original appendix he rushes through so many things that it's quite difficult to tell when he is discussion phatic communion as such, and when he is treating other linguistic activities, such as speech-in-action. Here, in this quote, for example, he is contrasting phatic communion with speech-in-action. In contrast with the instructions and directions shouted out during canoe navigation in fishing expeditions, speech in phatic communion is not oriented towards action. It is unconnected with the goings-on of the moment because there probably isn't anything going on at the moment. The idealized situation of phatic communion consists of people sitting around campfire and just talking. It seems like it's deprived of any context of situation because they are discussing events very much unconnected with the present situation. This kind of small talk concerns everyday minutiae which themselves don't seem to constitute a coherent context (as opposed to a lecture on a given topic in which case the topic constitutes the context).
Malinowski's term phatic communion is related to the notion of mutual knowledge. The term has been widely used in the pragmatic literature, together with the alternative terms background knowledge or common ground. Blakemore (1992: 8) understands mutual knowledge as tied to assumptions from memory which
[...] include memories of particular occasions and about particular individuals, general cultural assumptions, religious beliefs, knowledge of scientific laws, assumptions about the speaker's emotional state and assumptions about other speaker's perception of your emotional state.
The layer of context which is labelled the context of general experience (Firbas 1992) is particularly dominant in the phatic sphere. Our background knowledge, i.e. the experience of the world around us, enables us to use recurrent patterns of linguistic and non-linguistic behaviour. In agreement with Lyons (1977: 574) the notion of context is a complex phenomenon comprising features, which, in my view, have a direct bearing on the choice of the means of expression used in the phatic communion. The aspects which are considered to be crucial in the employment of phatic devices in the speaker-hearer interaction are the following:
  1. social role and status
  2. knowledge of spatial and temporal location
  3. knowledge of formality level
  4. knowledge of the medium (i.e. the appropriate code or style)
  5. knowledge of the subject matter
  6. knowledge of the appropriate province determining the register.
(Urbanová 2007: 351)
This here is the main reason I chose to read this article. This is directly related to Ruesch's interpretation of communization, which involves elucidation of common experience. Firbas's context of general experience would suit the social level, but common experience itself is more prone to the group level. That is, people who have had common life experiences, such as serving in the army, receiving higher education, etc. have more in common and consequently are more easily fine-tuned so-to-say to each other's communication style.
At this point I would like to question the interpretation of the phatic function as an inherent component of the Politeness Principle introduced by Leech (1983). In Leech's chart featuring Interpersonal Rhetoric (1983: 149) the Phatic Maxim is ranked among the maxims of tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement and sympathy.
In my view, Leech's question mark accompanying the phatic maxim in the chart entails the possibility of a different, more radical evaluation. I would advocate the interpretation in which the phatic maxim is re-evaluated as an independent pragmatic principle.
The Phatic Principle can thus be defined as a principle which enhances social contact, which helps to facilitate the smooth flow of communication and the successful mediation of the message. (Urbanová 2007: 352)
Personally I have very little faith in Griceanisms but gun to my head I can see phatic as a principle rather than function. The bit about facilitating the smooth flow of communication is yet another convergence with Ekman's regulators. Both, on the other hand, can be connected to metacommunication, so it's not that much of a leap.
Moreover, shifts of meaning occur when defamiliarization takes place: "[...] the generic form of greeting can move from the official sphere into the sphere of familiar communication, that is, it can be used with parodic-ironic re-accentuation" (Bakhtin 1999: 127). (Urbanová 2007: 352)
Oh right this is a literary analysis. Keep in mind that "familiar" is here used in two different senses: defamiliarization means "making strange", and "the sphere of familiar communication" means informal interaction.
In informal dialogues instances of small talk are frequently utilized by the author to create an atmosphere of intimacy and closeness. The discourse tactic of teasing produces irony as "an apparently friendly way of being offensive" (Leech 1983: 144). (Urbanová 2007: 355)
Phatic vocatives.


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