A word about… the phatic function of language

(I know, I know, linguistics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But this is not as nerdy as it looks, I promise…)

So, linguists are hardly rock stars (with the exception of possibly Chomsky), and if I’m asked “what’s the point of linguistics anyway?” one more time I think I might burst into tears. (Interestingly, when I say I study translation, people also ask if I do a specific language combination, or all of them. Well of course. If you want to translate a document from Urdu into Finnish, I’m your guy.)

However, I do think linguistics is, well, relevant. Can you go on and live your life without knowing who Saussure is? Sure. Would I survive without a grasp of Jakobson’s functions of language? Yes, just like I could survive without books or tv or cheese. I just don’t want to.

So, the phatic function of language, I was saying. The Collins Dictionary defines ‘phatic’ as (this is like the worst best man’s speech ever):

(of speech, esp of conversational phrases) used to establish social contact and to express sociability rather than specific meaning

Phatic expressions don’t convey meaning. They are empty. Which got me thinking about how we talk so much without really saying anything. Examples of this are everyday phrases like “you’re welcome” after “thank you”, “yours sincerely” at the end of a letter, or small talk. You meet someone you sort of know on the bus or in a lift, you ask “how are you?” or ” you ok?”, but you couldn’t care less about how they’re actually feeling. You just want to go about your day, and so does the other person.

Now, you know that moment at the beginning of a relationship when you spend most of your waking hours thinking about the other person, and fantasising about what will happen when you see them again? And maybe you won’t see them for weeks, so you’re texting things like “how was your day?” or “plans for tonight?”. Well, I see that as a phatic expression as well. Because the function of those texts is to let the other person know that you’re still there and you still miss them, but you wish it were socially acceptable to just call them and tell them that they are the most perfect human being on the planet.

I’m not saying phatic expressions are unnecessary – they exist for a reason. We do need to say “hello?” when we pick up the phone, and goodbye at the end of a meeting. Yet it can be frustrating when someone asks you how you are without actually expecting an answer. You smile, you say you’re ok, but you wish you could scream that actually it’s been a bit of a shit day, you don’t know what to do with your life and your boiler has broken.

Thing is, no matter how many empty remarks about the weather you exchange with strangers, everyone needs someone in their lives who will ask them how they are – and expect an honest, meaningful answer.


  1. January 25, 2014 / 8:34 pm

    Urdu into Finnish, eh? How did you learn Finnish (book, CDs, etc.)/how well do you know it/how long did it take you? ­čś« Likewise with Urdu, because I think both of those languages are incredibly beautiful and would love to learn them.

    • January 27, 2014 / 9:16 am

      Oh no, it was a joke – as in, people sometimes assume that as a translator I know all languages (eg Urdu or Finnish). I do wish I could speak them, you’re right, they are beautiful languages. Sadly most programs in the Uk don’t even offer them.

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