Speech Sounds

By Octavia Butler

‘Speech Sounds’ is all about language. It’s a wonderful story for this class because it allows us to peel back layer after layer of the extremely complex question: What is language? It frames this question by asking, What is lost when language is lost?

The story is narrated in the third person from the perspective of Rye, a former writer and history professor. It’s set in Los Angeles, but the institutions that once made L.A. a city have fallen apart. Humanity has been ravaged by an illness of unknown origin that is ‘stroke-swift in the way it cut people down and stroke-like in some of its effects… Language was always lost or severely impaired… Often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, death.’ (p. 8, emphasis added)

Rye has been largely spared by the illness but has lost pretty much everything else—her family, her work, all sense of connection and hope. The entire story takes place within a couple of hours, which (of course) turn out to be critical for her.

‘Speech Sounds’ makes us grapple with how much our sense of what makes us human is tied up with language, and how much ‘dehumanization’ is (and is not) entailed when we lose it. There’s a lot to discuss in this story, and I try to let students talk about what they want, but I make sure we at least touch on three linguistically relevant layers of analysis.

Layer 1. Right from the outset, Butler does something noteworthy: she distinguishes language from speech, just as Saussure distinguished langue from parole. The illness in ‘Speech Sounds’ attacks the brain, not the vocal tract; it’s a kind of aphasia.

Butler adds various details to make this clear:

  • Left-handed people ‘tend to be less impaired’ (p. 5), suggesting that the illness targets the left hemisphere (where language is lateralized for almost all right-handed people but far fewer left-handed people).
  • Sometimes the illness affects reading and writing (alexia) rather than spoken language; this is what happened to Rye. Others have the opposite syndrome, like the ex-cop Obsidian.
  • It’s abundantly clear that people can still vocalize: they’re described throughout the story as whimpering, screaming, squawking, hooting, roaring, grunting, shouting, and sometimes uttering repetitive CV syllables like ‘da, da, da.’ (Note that these are the sounds of chimpanzees and babies, not adult humans. Rye is questioning—or just flatly denying—the humanity of the people around her.)

So, what people have lost is not the motor function of the larynx, but the ‘higher-level’ ability to understand and produce language.

At the same time, though, Butler shows us that people have retained some ‘higher-level’ language-like abilities:

  • They point, nod, and shake their heads ‘no.’
  • The bus driver has ‘pasted old magazine pictures of items he would accept as fare’ on the sides of the bus. (p. 6)
  • People wear or carry ‘name symbols’ (p. 9), objects that stand for what their former name meant, and seem to have developed a ritual for exchanging these symbols in order to introduce themselves.
  • People use manual gestures that are more stylized and arbitrary than pantomime: e.g. one man points at Rye, then at Obsidian, then holds up two fingers, and this sequence is immediately understood to mean ‘Those two people are a team.’ (p. 7)
  • Obsidian retains the use of some non-iconic, conventionalized gestures, e.g. drawing a cross to mean ‘dead’ and using rock-the-baby gestures to mean ‘child.’
  • Obsidian still wears his LAPD uniform and badge! (Paraphrasing one student: wtf?)

All these communicative acts are voluntary, symbolic, and culturally learned (as opposed to more species-uniform communicative acts like frowning and sighing, or less symbolic gestures like pantomime). I would argue that the acts bulleted above are either language proper or language-like, and as such they’re very human.

Layer 2. In imagining this language-targeting neurological illness, Butler taps right into a core question in linguistic theory: Among all of our other cognitive abilities, how specialized is our linguistic knowledge? Sometimes this question is framed around whether language is ‘domain-general’ or ‘domain-specific.’ ‘Speech Sounds’ frames it by asking: What does it mean to distinguish linguistic impairment from intellectual impairment?

For example: The story starts with a skirmish on a bus, which quickly escalates to a brawl. Obsidian arrives on the scene and uses tear gas to clear everyone out of the bus. The bus driver is furious with Obsidian, rather than grateful:

‘[The bus route was] his livelihood… If his bus did not run, he did not eat. On the other hand, if the inside of his bus was torn apart by senseless fighting, he would not eat very well either. He was apparently unable to perceive this. All he could see was that it would be some time before he could use his bus again.’ (p. 6, emphasis added)

It’s unclear in the story if the bus driver’s limited reasoning is due to his linguistic impairment or to more general cognitive impairment. And it’s also unclear in real life, as our Linguistics senior seminar students learn when we read De Waal, Pinker and Tomasello. It’s very hard to tell if our human ability to think through hypotheticals and their consequences depends on language or just coexists with language.

Another example: We humans also like to believe that we’re better able than other species to suppress our emotional (‘animal’) impulses. But the people in ‘Speech Sounds’ are angry, hostile, prone to physical violence. Is this because they’ve lost the ability to ‘use their words’ instead of their fists? Or has the illness damaged the emotional-regulation part of the brain as well as the linguistic part(s) of the brain? Similar questions arise in the study of real-world Broca’s aphasia patients, who often show distress about their condition: are they reacting the way they would have previously reacted to a loss of this magnitude, or are they reacting more strongly because the brain lesion has also affected their emotional regulation? Check out this talk by Blaise Morrison on ‘Psychosocial Aspects of Living with Aphasia,’ from 2/29/2024.

Layer 3 is where we get into the really tough questions, similar to those raised by ‘The Easthound’ and ‘Story of Your Life’: How do we respond when we lose everything that’s most important to us, and what do our responses tell us about our humanity? What’s the connection between our proclivity for meaningful language and our search for a meaningful life?

Here are some of the questions we talked about on Friday, as well as one or two that I thought of afterwards:

  • How much does our identity depend on (i) language and (ii) being able to interact regularly with others?
  • How is Rye’s isolation in ‘Speech Sounds’ different from Serenity’s isolation in ‘Solitude’?
  • Why does Obsidian keep wearing his cop uniform? Do you find this character pathetic, ridiculous, heroic, quixotic/Quixote-like? (Note: This story was published in 1983, eight years before Rodney King’s brutal beating by four LAPD officers was caught on film and nine years before a jury failed to find any of those four cops guilty. Butler may not have written this character in quite the same way now as she did then.)
  • Rye’s physical appearance is never described; Obsidian is described only as having black hair and a black beard. Either character could be any race. Do you think this is a deliberate omission, given that Butler usually explicitly identifies each character’s race in her stories? What might such an omission mean in ‘Speech Sounds’?
  • Rye is at first going to leave three corpses unburied on the street, but then she decides to take two of them home and bury them. How does this reversal fit with her other emotional reversals at the end of the story? In what ways is burying the dead a language-like activity?

A final note: ‘Speech Sounds’ is the first story I read with students when I piloted my sci-fi course in summer 2020. It was tough to read then, and it’s tough to read now.

Butler rewards us, though, with her characteristically stoical, unflinching narration. Sometimes the most reassuring thing you can do when things are really awful is to just tell it like it is—honestly, without sentimentality or brutality—and Butler does this with astonishing, bracing clarity. I wish I knew how to be this kind of honest.

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