Not em­phatic

Mus­ings are thoughts, the thought­ful kind. For the purpose of these ar­ti­cles, a-mus­ings are thoughts that might amuse, en­ter­tain and even en­lighten.

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

If some­thing is not em­phatic, then it must, you might think, be phatic, or some­thing along those lines, would it not? Phatic, a word whose ex­is­tence you prob­a­bly never even sus­pected un­til now, is an ad­jec­tive de­fined as “of or re­lat­ing to com­mu­ni­ca­tion used to per­form a so­cial func­tion rather than to con­vey in­for­ma­tion or ideas” if that makes you any wiser.

Phatic also means, “de­not­ing or re­lat­ing to lan­guage used for gen­eral pur­poses of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, rather than to con­vey in­for­ma­tion or ask ques­tions”. Ut­ter­ances such as “Hello, how are you?” and “Nice morn­ing, isn't it?” are phatic be­cause you re­ally don't ex­pect an an­swer or re­sponse. Some­times I won­der whether or not all ut­ter­ances by politi­cians are, by def­i­ni­tion, phatic: they con­vey no real in­for­ma­tion and they do not ex­pect any re­sponse, ex­cept your vote, of course, when the time comes.

Phatic com­mu­ni­ca­tion may sim­ply be "small talk" or con­ver­sa­tion for its own sake. Some call it "groom­ing talk­ing". For ex­am­ple: "You're wel­come" is not in­tended to con­vey the mes­sage that the per­son be­ing spo­ken to is wel­come; it is a phatic re­sponse to be­ing thanked.

Sim­i­larly, the ques­tion "How are you?" is usu­ally an au­to­matic com­po­nent of a so­cial en­counter, but there are times when "How

are you?" is asked in a sin­cere, con­cerned man­ner that an­tic­i­pates a de­tailed re­sponse re­gard­ing the re­spon­dent's present state.

The fol­low­ing is a spe­cific ex­am­ple of the former: a sim­ple, ba­sic ex­change be­tween two ac­quain­tances in a non-for­mal en­vi­ron­ment.

Speaker one: "What's up?" (US English is em­phat­i­cally phatic. In UK English this means "Is there some­thing wrong?" – not that you par­tic­u­larly care.)

Speaker two: "Hey, how's it go­ing?" Con­versely:

Speaker one: "All right?" (UK English. In US English this means "Is there some­thing wrong?") Speaker two: "You all right?" Nei­ther speaker ex­pects an ac­tual an­swer to the ques­tion. Much like a shared nod, it is an in­di­ca­tion that each has rec­og­nized the other's pres­ence and has there­fore suf­fi­ciently per­formed that par­tic­u­lar so­cial duty. Of course, if you wish to agree with some­one forcibly, you might not give a phatic nod, but in­stead nod em­phat­i­cally.

Con­sider the fol­low­ing ex­change and you'll get what I mean: - How are you? - My wife has left me. My house burned down. And my dog ate my cat. - How lovely! Phatic, it seems, was coined about 100 years ago in the early 20th cen­tury by Pol­ish-born Bri­tish an­thro­pol­o­gist Bro­nisław Mali­nowski to la­bel a par­tic­u­lar quirk of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the ten­dency to use rote phrases merely to es­tab­lish a so­cial con­nec­tion without shar­ing any ac­tual in­for­ma­tion, or to get the ball rolling so to speak, or even break the ice, though why any­one would wish to break the ice, es­pe­cially if they were stand­ing on it rolling a ball, is hard to imag­ine.

It prob­a­bly won't sur­prise you, then, to learn that phatic de­rives from the Greek

phatos, a form of the verb phanai, mean­ing "to speak". Phatos, the past par­tici­ple of

phanai, is re­lated to pha­sia, as in apha­sia "loss of speech" and para­pha­sia "speak­ing in jum­bled sen­tences". With the suf­fix -n, we see this root again in Greek phone "say­ing, speech", found in the English pho­net­ics and

telephone, "dis­tant speak­ing". Other phanai rel­a­tives in­clude apopha­sis, which is "the rais­ing of an is­sue by claim­ing not to men­tion it", eu­phemism, prophet, and the com­bin­ing suf­fix - pha­sia used to denote a speech dis­or­der.

You may also have spot­ted, as I men­tioned ear­lier, a sim­i­lar­ity to em­phatic, but that is purely co­in­ci­den­tal; em­phatic traces back to a dif­fer­ent Greek verb that means "to show". So sadly enough, em­phatic and phatic are not in the least re­lated.

Now the big ques­tion in this trumped up world is this, “Is a tweet phatic, or some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent?” a ques­tion that would have been in­com­pre­hen­si­ble just a few months ago!

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