Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres”

Bakhtin, M.M., Michael Holquist, Vern McGee, and Caryl Emerson. “The Problem with Speech Genres.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. (43 pages)

Bakhtin opens by noting that language is intimately connected to all aspects of human activity. He pushes against concepts of language that seek to separate thought and communication (that thought emerges independently of communication) and that language is a product of individual expression (67). His theory of language use, he focuses his attention on the forms and use of language, namely, utterance and speech genres.

Defined, utterance is “the real unit of speech communication” that is defined in two ways:

First, the utterance is bounded within a single response in a dialogue. As Bahktin writes, “its beginning is preceded by the utterances of others, and its end is followed by the responsive utterances of others” (71), “delimited by the change in speaking subjects, which ends by relinquishing the floor to the other, as if with a silent dixi, perceived by the listeners (as a sign) that the speaker has finished” (72).

Second, an utterance requires “finalization” or completeness in order to invite response. Bakhtin notes three aspects that determine the “finalized wholeness”: (1) semantic exhaustiveness of the theme, saying all that needs to be said; (2) speaker’s plan “determines both the choice of the subject itself…as well as boundaries of exhaustiveness” (77); (3) speech genre, defined as a stable form of an utterance that has been socially constructed for a given moment.

Bakhtin focuses much of his attention on speech genres and how they are employed/learning. As he notes, “we speak in diverse genres without suspecting that they exist” (78). In fact, we learn language and meaning through hearing and reproducing speech genres in speech and dialogue with people around us. “To learn to speak means to learn to construct utterances (because we speak in utterances not in individual sentences, and, of course, not in individual words)” (78). In this way, Bakhtin differentiates between language forms like sentences and words and utterance forms like speech genres. Language forms, for example, “are stable and compulsory (normative) for the speaker” (79). Speech genres, on the other hand, are constantly in flux and are contingent upon the “situation, social position, and personal interrelations of the participants in the communication” (79). Put simply, language forms—like sentences and dictionary definitions of words—are highly stable because they are not social constructed: they “belong to no one and are addressed to nobody” (99). Speech genres—and knowledge of them—is often the basis for social interactions; as Bakhtin writes, failure in certain communities is often “not a matter of an impoverished vocabulary or style, taken abstractly: this is entirely a matter of the inability to command the repertoire of genres of social conversation, the lack of sufficient supply of those ideas about the whole of the utterances that help to cast one’s speech quickly and naturally in certain compositional and stylistic forms” (80).

This distinction between mere language and utterance is important for Bakhtin because it allows him to make a couple of comments about how people use language to mediate social interactions. For example, he eschews dictionary definitions of words because a word’s meaning within an utterance is dependent upon the word’s responsiveness to others. “the utterance…invests the word with the expression of the whole” (86). In other words, words have neutral meanings:

“[Words] acquire their expressive coloring only in the utterance, and this coloring is independent of their meaning taken individually and abstractly…When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in t heir neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style” (87). Genres, then, offer a social structure for meaning: as he writes, genres provide “particular contracts between the meanings of words and actual concrete reality under certain typical circumstances” (87).

Bakhtin also notes the tension between the collaborative and individual nature of words: where “the words of language belong to nobody, but still we hear those words only in particular individual utterances…the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature” (88). He points to the three aspects of words given this context: (1) as neutral words that belong to no one; (2) as other’s words that belong to other people’s utterances; (3) as the speaker’s words who deals with it in a particular circumstance.

Finally, Bakhtin notes, “an essential (constitutive) marker of the utterance is its quality of being directed to someone, its addressivity” (95).


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