Cats and the phatic function of language

Feb 14, 2012 | Fiction/Lit/Movies, Language Semiotics and Rhetoric

In Linguistics and Poetics, Roman Jakobson describes six functions of language. The phatic function of language is language whose function is essentially contact, language for the sake of language, regardless of signification.

Anyone who owns a cat understands the phatic function of language. Like, you know when you can hear your cat on another floor meowing, so because no one else is home and because it’s slightly hilarious to “talk cat” you respond to them by also meowing, and then the cat responds back, and you go back and forth for a bit, and then the cat runs into the room to see you?

That’s always seemed to me that best example of the phatic function of language, since it’s basically the phatic function in its pure form. (Or at least the first bit of the exchange is.) That is, the exchange performs a social task, and in this case that task is the invocation of sociality as such (i.e., it is simply a point of contact with another being, a search for and then the acknowledgment itself that there is at least one other person). In other words, there is no messy semantic meaning getting in the way, as there often is in human phatic exchanges (e.g., “So, the weather is… alright…” – “Yeah, the weather is… good… and…. cloudy…” – “Yeah, clouds… they’re… something”).

Jakobson, in the Lingusitics and Poetics mentions talking birds (i.e., parrots) as using language (like, actual words) in a phatic manner, but I really like this specific domestic cat example, because I don’t think talking birds’ use of language is as purely phatic as Jakobson claims. (Jakobson: “The endeavor to start and sustain communication is typical of talking birds, thus the phatic function of language is the only one they share with human beings.”) My gut feeling also suggests that other animals use sounds (and other signs) more than just phatically. You could even argue that there actually is some semantic meaning with the cat example above, since different meows might indicate emotions and/or the presence of danger or urgency. Further, after the first bit the meow isn’t just saying “hey, is there anyone else here?” so much as it’s saying, “keep meowing so I can find you; I haven’t found you yet, but I’m coming.”

In short: this post is what happens when studying for comps slowly turns you into a crazy cat person.