Phatic expressions

“Well”, “there you are then”, “Oh dear!” and “That’s life!” are all examples of phatic expressions, which are used as conversation openers, to establish and maintain contact with people, to show that you’re listening, and/or to give you time to think of something else to say. They don’t usually have much meaning in themselves. Greetings and farewells are also examples of phatic language.

The term phatic was coined by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the early 1900s and comes from the Ancient Greek φατός (fatos) ‘spoken’, from φάναι (fanai) ‘to say’. Other terms for these types of expressions include small talk and grooming talk – one theory is that humans developed phatic language to replace grooming, an activity that takes up quite a lot of time for our ape relatives and ancestors.

If you’re able to use the common phatic expressions in languages you’re learning, you will sound much more fluent. The actual content and usage of phatic expressions various from culture to culture, so just translating such expressions from your mother tongue won’t necessarily work. You need to find out which expressions to use and when to use them.

For those of you learning Chinese, this blog post on phatic communication between Chinese people and Westerners will probably be of interest.

This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

0 Responses to Phatic expressions

  1. Josh SN says:

    I watched an older b&w movie and the two characters spoke:

    A: How do you do?
    B: How do you do?
    A: [continues with normal conversation]

    It seems phatic, since neither question was answered.

  2. Seumas says:

    Apparently, a mark which distinguishes one’s social class (in Britain) is the use of ‘How do you do?’

    An upper class person is far more likely to use the phatic ‘How do you do?’

    Someone who is not upper class would normally respond by answering the question: “I am fine, thanks. How are you?”

    However, another upper class person would always respond by repeating the question: “How do you do?”