Efforts Towards a Means-Ends Model of Language

Jakobson, Roman 1963d. Efforts Towards a Means-Ends Model of Language in Interwar Continental Linguistics. In: Rudy, Stephen (ed.), Selected Writings II: Word and Language. The Hague; Paris: Mouton, 522-526.

Meantime both in the formal and even more in the private discussions at the First Congress of Linguists, there proved to be partisans of similar views and paths among the younger scholars from different countries. Students, pioneering solitarily at their own risk, discovered to their great surprise that they were fighters for a common cause. (Jakobson 1963d: 522)

Phraseological finding. This is also the case in phatic studies where representatives from distinct and disparate fields come to similar conclusions and, working away on their own derivation of phaticity, come to "fight for a similar cause", most frequently attempting to vindicate the concept of phaticity in some form or another.

In 1930, the Circle convoked the International Phonological Conference of Prague, where the basic principles of the new appreach to language and especially to its sound pattern were vividly and intensely discussed. (Jakobson 1963d: 522)

Lexical finding: to convoke is to "call together or summon (an assembly or meeting)." Agreement upon the basic principles of phaticity is what is missing at the moment. I argue that there is no "phatic theory" to speak of because every researcher nearly begins anew with every attempt. At best there are various micro-"schools" of thought, i.e. some common references to some particular representatives, most frequently (it seems) in the realm of phatic technology studies (Wang, Miller, Vetere, et al.). I think we need to convoke a vivid and intense discussion at some point, but presently it would be a great leap forward just to survey the field and the diffusion of the main conceptual domain.

When we look at the interwar period sub specie historiae, we find, however, that what was often taken for Prague's specific contribution to the development of modern linguistics appears to a high degree to have been a common denominator of several convergent currents in the scholarly life of various European countries at that time. (Jakobson 1963d: 522)

What's interesting about phatic studies is that the sub specie historiae in question, i.e. the most formative period, is the post-WWII decade, particularly the mid-1950s (Jakobson and La Barre), but less explicitly the years 1949-50, when Morris and Festinger came up with communization and consummation (in my current working theory these can serve as "explanatory mechanisms", for lack of a better terminology, for the underlying principles in La Barre's phatic communication and Jakobson's phatic function, respectively). More generally, "phatic" is a common denominator for an all too broad of a selection of approaches from all around the world (these days intensified by the internet), giving some credence to the case of illegitimate diffusion, which can only be dampened by the survey.

The title of this paper defines this common drift as aiming towards a means-ends model of language. These efforts proceed from a universally recognized view of language as a tool of communication. Statements about language as a tool, instrument, vehicle, etc., can be found in any textbook, but, strange as it seems, the apparently self-evident inference from this truism was not drawn in the linguistic tradition of the last century. (Jakobson 1963d: 523)

This is exactly the stuff Malinowski went against in his formulation of phatic communion. He disagreed with linguists of his time in other regards as well (such as the speech/language distinction, for example), but here he objects to the tool, instrument, vehicle view by writing that "words in Phatic Communion [are "Certainly not!"] used primarily to convey meaning" (PC 6.3). The "principal aim" of words in Phatic Communion is to "fulfil a social function" (ibid, 6.4). In Phatic Communion, language is not a tool, "an instrument of reflection" (PC 7.9), nor a vehicle ("a means of transmission of thought", PC 6.5). And yet it does achieve something, it does have an aim ("bring[ing people] into a pleasant atmosphere of polite, social intercourse", PC 9.4).

Thus the elemental demand to analyze all the instrumentalities of language from the standpoint of the tasks they perform emerged as a daring innovation. The prolonged neglect of any inquiry into the means-ends relationship in language - a neglect which still survives in some academic biases - finds its historical explanation in the inveterate fear of problems connected with goal-directedness. Therefore questions of genesis outweighed those of orientation, search for prerequisites supplanted the examination of aims. (Jakobson 1963d: 523)

These problems are somewhat apparent even in the aforementioned paradox: phatic communion "does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas" and in the very same breath it "serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship" (PC 9.1). When looking into it with goal-directedness in mind, we'll find, for example, that there may be cases where companionship is a means to an end, where "the speaker pretends to achieve no other aim than displaying a socially appreciated form of interactional behavior, whereas in actual fact his/her behavior serves to reduce the negative face involved in the ultimate request" (Haverkate 1988: 61). This is termed pseudophatic communion since it is not completely pure: "Indeed there need not or perhaps there must not be anything to communicate" (PC 9.3), including something to inquire, request, demand or direct. In phatic communion, companionship (or speaking) is its own - indeed that is what the terminological invention and religious archaism refer to: it is a verbal togetherness (Rank 1984) pure and simple (without any hidden external, extra-linguistic aims). I'll also note that orientation is a synonym for Jakobson's "set" in his definitions of functions, and "the examination of aims" is exactly what it leads to, e.g. James Kinneavy's "The Aims of Discourse" (1971).

The study of sound production with reference to its acoustic effects and the analysis of speech sounds with consistent regard for the various tasks they perform in language were among the first achievements in the systematic build-up of the means-ends model of language. (Jakobson 1963d: 524)

Here we see the speech/language distinction (as problematic) in play. Malinowski was looking at the social function of speech. Jakobson was looking at the phatic function of speech sounds in language. Thus, the bifurcation point here leads to a broader consideration of small talk and speech as a mode of (social) action and to a more strict consideration of the parts of speech that carry no information (e.g. phatic interjections, cf. Ameka 1992; or pragmatic markers as phatic devices, cf. Stenström 2014).

It was precisely the reference to the tasks performed by the phonic elements of language which enabled the investigators to replace step by step the grossly material, metrical description of speech sounds by a relational analysis and to dissolve the sound-flow continuum into discrete constituents. (Jakobson 1963d: 524)

Highlight: contoural feature, the discrete constituent of the sound-flow continuum that indicates the ending of a speech utterance and signals the end of the turn, a possible continuation, or an appeal to a specific type of reaction (interrogative and directive utterances). "Metrical description of speech sounds" takes special importance with regard to the spectral analysis of seech contours and the discussion of the ending semi-cadence. That is, this sentence is chalk full of relevant phraseology for discussing the more phonological aspects of the phatic function, which have thus far remained completely unnoticed because no-one really wants to get into the nitty-gritty of Jakobson's linguistics and poetic analyses.

The ever higher focusing upon the tasks fulfilled by sound elements revealed an intimate connection between the differentiation of grammatical constituents and categories and the stratification of the sound pattern used to express them. (Jakobson 1963d: 524)

Here he is describing the relevance of his functional scheme, which is essentially a differentiation of functional categories. Note that his functions are primarily distinguished by grammatical categories (interjections, vocativess, etc.), and the narrowing down of phatic parts of speech to meaningless sounds is a perfectly rational response from the corps linguists who look for phaticity in utterances and vocal expressions which are really nothing more than "pragmatic markers". The sad part is that the grammatical categories and "sound pattern" associated with the phatic function is not obvious, and is not even made explicit in The Sound Shape of Language where its theoretical underpinnings find its most eloquent expression.

The consistent concern with meaning, a true yield of the entire trend, and the systematic analysis of grammatical meanings with a rigorous distinction between general and contextual meanings demanded a similar exploration of lexical meanings, and the imperative need to treat vocabulary as "a complex system of words mutually coordinated and opposed to each other" was comprehensively advocated by Trubetzkoy at the First Congress of Slavists. (Jakobson 1963d: 525)

Here's the problem with the meaninglessness of words in phatic communion, which do not convey "meaning which is symbolically theirs" (PC 6.3). This probably has to do with Ogden and Richards' (1923) curiously strict definition of symbolic meaning and how the referential function "lapses" in greetings. This may be where the likes og Gardiner and Jakobson got the impression that phaticity pertains first and foremost to linguistic formulae, which have this lapse of reference, i.e. have general instead of contextual meaning, or are lexically meaningless (what does "Hello" mean?).

The sense for the multifarious character of language saved the Prague group from an oversimplified, bluntly unitarian view; language was seen as a system of systems and especially Mathesius' papers on intralingual coexistence of distinct phonemic patterns opened new outlooks. The regard for the various "functional dialects", or, in other words, the different styles of language radically altered the view of linguistic change. The two stages of a change in progress were reinterpreted as two simultaneous styles of language; the change was conceived as a fact of linguistic synchrony, and as any fact of synchrony it demanded a means-ends test with respect to the whole system of language. (Jakobson 1963d: 525)

This is one Jakobson's favourite topics (1981m). The scheme of speech functions in "Linguistics and Poetics" (1960d) is a condensed expression of the multifarious character of language. That is to say, the permanent dynamic synchrony of language is manifest in language consisting of distinct sub-codes, i.e. functional dialects. But this does not describe only the different grammatical and phonetic patterns of language characterizing different speech functions but stands equally for phatic speech registers. I recently saw great example of this in Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017), where the girlfriend's father says "Yo, my man." As the daugter put it: "Oh, my god, and then my dad with the "my man" stuff. My man! My man! I don't think he's ever heard that or said it, and now he just... It's all he says." - The dad takes on an uncharacteristic "functional dialect" in the presence of a black man..


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