Speech codes are historically situated and socially constructed systems of symbols, meanings, premises, and rules about communicative conduct. The “speech” in “speech codes” is a shorthand term, a figure of speech, standing here for all the possible means of communicative conduct that can be encountered in a given time and place. The “code” in “speech codes” refers to a system of symbols, meanings, premises, and rules pertaining to those means. These senses of “speech” and of “code,” when placed together in the term “speech code,” establish a definition of a speech code as a historically situated and socially constructed system of resources that people use to talk about their own and others’ communicative conduct.
A speech code is a construct that an observer-analyst formulates explicitly in order to interpret and explain communicative conduct in a particular speech community. The observer-analyst notices that participants in the discursive life of a speech community use particular resources – acts, practices, patterns of activity, symbols, meanings, premises, and rules – to enact, name, interpret, and judge communicative conduct. And the analyst uses what was noticed to construct a hypothesis as to the existence and nature of a system of resources that these participants use to do that enactment, naming, interpretation, and evaluation. That hypothesis is the observer-analyst’s formulation of a speech code.
Two examples help to illustrate the concept of speech code as presented here. Gullestad (1992) formulates such a code as part of a larger Norwegian cultural code. Although she does not use the term “speech code,” she does use the word “code” and her work suggests a historically situated and socially constructed code of communicative conduct. She reports, as part of what she designates as a “code” of “social relations,” the use, in contemporary Norway, of the Norwegian words fred (“peace”) and ro (“quiet”), the Norwegian expressions fred for enhver pris (“peace at any price”), and the expressions, in English, of Norwegian notions of “not involving oneself too much” (in others’ lives), “avoiding open personal conflict,” and the importance of giving and understanding “a little hint,” of keeping oneself “whole, balanced, and safe,” and of “good social relations.” As Gullestad describes the code, such communicative practices as “not involving oneself too much” (in others’ lives), “avoiding open personal conflict,” speaking indirectly (with “a little hint”), and paying close attention to the “little hints” that others might give are linked to the achievement and maintenance of “peace,” which she interprets as being “free from disturbances from others.” “Peace,” in turn, is linked to “quiet,” which Gullestad interprets as the achievement of a desired “state of mind characterized by wholeness and control” (of self). A synthesizing premise of the code is that social distance (peace) creates good social relations as well as a desired state of individual well-being (1992, 137–164).
The cultural code that Gullestad reports for Norway can be contrasted to one found in the contemporary US. Several scholars (Katriel & Philipsen 1981; Carbaugh 1988) report the use, in the US, of such terms as “real communication,” “open communication,” “self,” and “healthy relationship” as terms in an American code. As these scholars formulate the code, “open communication” is linked to the achievement of the culturally desired state of a unique “self” and to the achievement of a “healthy relationship” with a friend, relative, or intimate partner. An important premise in this code is that communication (particularly “open communication”) is necessary for the establishment and sustenance of a (“good” or “satisfactory”) relationship (Katriel & Philipsen 1981, 310).
The Norwegian and American codes mentioned briefly here are but two among many that have been discovered and formulated, either implicitly or explicitly, as speech codes. Such formulations have been made for codes discovered in many societies and in many languages, including multiple codes found in the US, and codes found in Israel, Finland, Colombia, and Mexico. A large body of original ethnographic research into speech codes has provided the bulk of the evidence upon which speech codes theory rests (Philipsen 1992, 1997).
There are three broad purposes to speech codes theory. The first is to provide ways to discern and formulate the presence of a speech code in the communicative conduct of a particular time and place – a particular social world, setting, or milieu. The theory is concerned to specify where to look and listen, in communicative conduct, for elements of speech codes, that is, for indigenous symbols, meanings, premises, and rules pertaining to communicative conduct. This is the subject of one of the principal and longstanding propositions that is part of the theory, which states that the elements of a speech code – its symbols, meanings, premises, and rules – are inextricably woven into speaking itself. This provides an answer to the question of where to look and listen for evidence of culture in communicative conduct, that is, to look and listen for it in communicative conduct itself. The present version of the theory points to three broad types of places where such elements can be found: in (1) locally prominent and poignant keywords or cultural terms pertaining to, (2) locally recognizable patterns of, and (3) local and particular genres and forms of communicative conduct, as the particular sites in which speech codes elements might appear.
The second purpose of speech codes theory is to formulate descriptive generalizations derived from the corpus of empirical research into particular speech codes. The most recent version of the theory presents three such descriptive generalizations.
The first of these descriptive generalizations is that everywhere that there is a distinctive cultural code, there is a distinctive speech code. This was illustrated in the brief juxtaposition of (some elements of) Norwegian and American speech codes, with the suggestion that the Norwegian code gives greater endorsement than does the American to communication that is indirect and respectful of personal boundaries, while the American code gives greater endorsement than does the Norwegian to directness of communication and to a more permeable self. Philipsen provides extensive documentation of support for this proposition across a wide range of societies and languages.
The second descriptive generalization is that in the life-world of every individual there are multiple speech codes. For example, although some Norwegians or Americans use the codes reported above, they draw on other codes as well that are used in their social environment. Gullestad (1992) and Philipsen (1992) provide book-length treatments of the societies in which they studied the codes they report, Norwegian and American, and in both cases show evidence of more than one code being used in these societies. The body of evidence on which speech codes theory is built suggests that the presence of multiple speech codes in any given life-world, of an individual or a speech community, is a universal feature of social life.
The third descriptive generalization is that in every speech code, the words, meanings, premises, and rules pertaining to communicative conduct are systematically linked with words, meanings, premises, and rules pertaining to the nature of persons and the nature of social relationships. This was illustrated here, in terms of cultural beliefs, for the Norwegian code in the linkage between (1) indirectness of communication and (2) the preservation of the well-being of a bounded person. And it was illustrated here for the American code in the linkage between (1) openness of communication and (2) the strength of interpersonal relationships. The import of this generalization is that in every speech code the symbols and meanings pertaining to communicative conduct are linked as well to symbols and meanings pertaining to notions of self and/or of interpersonal relations. Carbaugh (1989) and Philipsen (1989a) provide extensive documentation of the wide scope of this generalization across many societies and languages.
Third, speech codes theory posits a way to interpret and explain observed communicative conduct, and involves two propositions. One is that the significance of particular communicative acts is contingent upon the speech codes that people use to interpret them. For example, if someone observed a husband refusing to speak up to his mother in defense of the rights of his wife and himself as a couple, the not speaking up would be heard differently if interpreted in the terms of the Norwegian and of the American codes, as these codes were described above. The other proposition says that people do not necessarily shape their communicative conduct so as to conform to their idea of what is culturally acceptable conduct, that is, codes do not strictly determine conduct. Nonetheless, codes have a shaping power in communicative conduct to the extent that people use codes to support their evaluations – praise, criticism, and their appeals to others pertaining to what is acceptable and desirable communicative conduct. The body of empirical research on which the theory is grounded shows that people do appeal to cultural notions of acceptability of communicative conduct in the process of retrospectively framing and evaluating such conduct as they explain it to others. Furthermore, justifications of communicative conduct that are framed in the terms of a socially legitimated speech code are treated as more persuasive, by those who read or hear them, than those that are not so framed. What the extant studies of the force of speech codes have in common is that they explicit acknowledge the limits of cultural codes to shape conduct, while at the same time showing that such codes nonetheless are deployed strategically in communication about social conduct, and are deployed in ways that have consequences for social interaction.
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