Phatic Communion

Malinowski, Bronisław Kasper 1923. The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages. In: Ogden, Charles Kay and Ivor Armstrong Richards, The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 293-336.


Phatic Communion

This one A4 of text, from Malinowski's supplement to Ogden & Richards' The Meaning of Meaning (1923), were first re-published under the title "Phatic Communication" by John Laver and Sandy Hutcheson in Communication in face to face interaction: Selected readings (1972, pp. 146-152), and constitute the code-text of phatic studies, in which the term phatic communion is coined and explained in somewhat older layer of English. Consequently, the interpretations of the term "phatic" vary, some preferring Roman Jakobson line of phatic function and others a more broader interpretation, and many often forming further unique caveats in various fields of research, domain of application and layers of abstraction. The old man's sonorous call at the mountain should help explain the avalanche that followed.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The case of language used in free, aimless, social intercourse requires special consideration.
[1.2] When a number of people sit together at a village fire, after all the daily tasks are over, or when they chat, resting from work, or when they accompany some mere manual work by gossip quite unconnected with what they are doing - it is clear that here we have to do with another mode of using language, with another type of speech function.
[1.3] Language here is not dependent upon what happens at that moment, it seems to be even deprived of any context of situation.
[1.4] The meaning of any utterance cannot be connected with the speaker's or hearer's behaviour, with the purpose of what they are doing. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 313)


[2.1] A mere phrase of politeness, in use as much among savage tribes as in a European drawing-room, fulfils a function to which the meaning of its words is almost completely irrelevant.
[2.2] Inquiries about health, comments on weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things - all such are exchanged, not in order to inform, not in this case to connect people in action, certainly not in order to express any thought.
[2.3] It would be even incorrect, I think, to say that such words serve the purpose of establishing a common sentiment, for this is usually absent from such current phrases of intercourse; and where it purports to exist, as in expressions of sympathy, it is avowedly suprious on one side.
[2.4] What is the raison d'être, therefore, of such phrases as 'How do you do?' 'Ah, here you are,' 'Where do you come from?' 'Nice day to-day' - all of which serve in one society or another as formulæ of greeting or approach? (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 313-314)


[3.1] I think that, in discussing the function of Speech in mere sociabilities, we come to one of the bedrock aspects of man's nature in society.
[3.2] There is in all human beings the well-known tendency to congregate, to be together, to enjoy each other's company.
[3.3] Many instincts and innate trends, such as fear or pugnacity, all the types of social sentiments such as ambition, vanity, passion for power and wealth, are dependent upon and associated with the fundamental tendency which makes the mere presence of others a necessity for man. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314)


[4.1] Now speech is the intimate correlate of this tendency, for, to a natural man, another man's silence is not a reassuring factor, but, on the contrary, something alarming and dangerous.
[4.2] The stranger who cannot speak the language is to all savage tribesmen a natural enemy.
[4.3] To the primitive mind, whether among savages or our own uneducated classes, taciturnity means not only unfriendliness but directly a bad character.
[4.4] This no doubt varies greatly with the national character but remains true as a general rule.
[4.5] The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only be the breaking of bread and the communion of food.
[4.6] The modern English expression, 'Nice day to-day' or the Melanesian phrase, "Whence comest thou?' are needed to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314)


[5.1] After the first formula, there comes a flow of language, purposeless expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious.
[5.2] Such gossip, as found in Primitive Societies, differs only a little from our own.
[5.3] Always the same emphasis on affirmation and consent, mixed perhaps with an incidental disagreement which creates the bonds of antipathy.
[5.4] Or personal accounts of the speaker's views and life history, to which the hearer listens under some restraint and with slightly veiled impatience, waiting till his own turn arrives to speak.
[5.5] For in this use of speech the bonds created between hearer and speaker are not quite symmetrical, the man linguistically active receiving the greater share of social pleasure and self-enhancement.
[5.6] But though the hearing given to such utterances is as a rule not as intense as the speaker's own share, it is quite essential for his pleasure, and the reciprocity is established by the change of rôles. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314-315)


[6.1] There can be no doubt that we have here a new type of linguistic use - phatic communion I am tempted to call it, actuated by the demon of terminological invention - a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words.
[6.2] Let us look at it from the special point of view with which we are here concerned; let us ask what light it throws on the function or nature of language.
[6.3] Are words in Phatic Communion used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not!
[6.4] They fulfil a social function and that is their principal aim, but they are neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener.
[6.5] Once again we may say that language does not function here as a means of transmission of thought. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 315)


[7.1] But can we regard it as a mode of action?
[7.2] And in what relation does it stand to our crucial conception of context of situation?
[7.3] It is obvious that the outer situation does not enter directly into the technique of speaking.
[7.4] But what can we consider as situation when a number of people aimlessly gossip together?
[7.5] It consists in just this atmosphere of sociability and in the fact of the personal communion of these people.
[7.6] But this is in fact achieved by speech, and the situation in all such cases is created by the exchange of words, by the specific feelings which form convivial gregariousness, by the give and take of utterances which make up ordinary gossip.
[7.7] The whole situation consists in what happens linguistically.
[7.8] Each utterance is an act serving the direct aim of binding hearer to speaker by a tie of some social sentiment or other.
[7.9] Once more language appears to us in this function not as an instrument of reflection but as a mode of action. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 315)


[8.1] I should like to add at once that though the examples discussed were taken from savage life, we would find among ourselves exact parallels to every type of linguistic use so far discussed.
[8.2] The binding tissue of words which unites the crew of a ship in bad weather, the verbal concomitants of a company of soldiers in action, the technical language running parallel to some practical work or sporting pursuit - all these resemble essentially the primitive uses of speech by man in action and our discussion could have been equally well conducted on a modern example.
[8.3] I have chosen the above from a Savage Community, because I wanted to emphasize that such and no other is the nature of primitive speech. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 315)


[9.1] Again in pure sociabilities and gossip we use language exactly as savages do and our talk becomes the 'phatic communion' analysed above, which serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas.
[9.2] "Throughout the Western world it is agreed that people must meet frequently, and that it is not only agreeable to talk, but that it is a matter of common courtesy to say something even when there is hardly anything to say" (Ogden and Richards, Chapter I) - as the Authors remark.
[9.3] Indeed there need not or perhaps even there must not be anything to communicate.
[9.4] As long as there are words to exchange, phatic communion brings savage and civilized alike into a pleasant atmosphere of polite, social intercourse. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 315-316)


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