And though we go
To the end of the road…
My mother has always said I tend to be melodramatic, but I’m allowed right? This is the last post after all…at least for now…maybe.
Alright let’s do this!
Today we’re going to be dissecting Gerry Philipsen’s Speech Codes theory. This particular communication theory deals very specifically with speech acts; Griffin calls it “a historically enacted socially constructed system of terms, meanings, premises, and rules, pertaining to communicative conduct”.
There were four questions that Philipsen sought to answer through his research on the Speech Code Theory:
- Do different communities have different speech codes?
- Do speech codes contain a vocabulary or way of speaking that held meanings for social constructs and worlds).
- How can speech codes be observed and formulated?
- What is the force of the speech code in social life, if any.
How Philipsen Did It…
Philipsen observed a community in Chicago he called Teamsterville for three years and spoke to a whole bunch of people. Then he observed another community he called Nacerima. After comparing and contrasting the two rather interestingly named and distinct speech communities, he came up with 6 propositions.
Here’s the Gist…
Speech codes are distinct.
It’s the “you say TO-MAY-TO, I say TO-MAH-TO” rule basically. It talks about the fact that different communities have different speech codes. Each community has a very specific speech code that is foreign to those outside that community.
Speech codes exhibit the feature of multiplicity.
Within any given culture, there are oodles and oodles of speech codes. People are involved in multiple speech communities simultaneously and so they have more than one speech code. The speech code in an office is different from that in the home for example.
Speech codes have very specific substance.
Philipsen theorised that each speech code comes laden with a specific psychology, sociology and rhetoric. Speech codes “thematise” a person in a particular way, they provide answers about the feasibility and means forming “proper” social relationships, and reveal structures of self, society, and strategic action.
Speech communities assess the meanings of their speech.
It is the speakers of the speech code who are responsible for creating and interpreting the meanings within that speech code. They decide what small talk is, how close is too invasive, and things of that nature.
The terms, premises, and rules of a speech code are inextricably woven into the speech itself.
By observing the native speakers within a particular speech community, it becomes possible to understand and even analyse the content of that speech code.
Speech codes impact life.
When we use shared speech codes it becomes possible to guide metacommunication, or to ‘talk about talk’ as it were.
Seen with the Critical Eye…
This theory was first called the Ethnography of Communication and aimed towards a description of human behaviour but Philipsen changed his tune and took a stab at explanation and prediction instead. Scholars are baffled as to why he would even consider such a thing.
You’re asking why, huh?
First look at his sample size. Two speech communities both within the continental USA. Sounds awfully small and terribly specific. I suppose it’s fair to say that it proves that within one culture – American culture – there’s more than one speech code, but then America isn’t the end all be all, all-encompassing place is it? Scientific theory is all about that universal truth, yeah?
Can you make assumptions about a universal truth based on information from such a small sample size? There are so many distinct cultures in the world and I can bet my hat that there are some that are different than American culture. It’s entirely possibly he hasn’t even come up with the range of speech codes that make up America alone, far less the entire world.
Which brings me to my next point. Is it even fair to treat culture as something that can be predicted or categorised? Culture is such a diverse and dynamic concept and it’s affected by so many things which can change it that it’s very hard to examine it definitively. Maybe it’s just the humanistic theorist in me coming to bear, but looking at culture so statically just doesn’t sit right with me.
The small sample gives way to another issue. Is it that all cultures are either like Teamsterville or like Nacerima? I highly doubt it.
Critical scholars even called Philipsen out for his disregard of power relationships. I say there just needs to be more data to go on. Two comprehensive longitudinal studies in the same country does not a universal theory make, and Philipsen might have stumbled upon something here but I think further research would make it clear that a theory about culture just might not be able to make such specific generalisations.
Signing off until next time,
Cyndi, the Communication Student
Thank you for reading!