Posted by: ellendahat | August 17, 2009

Speech Act -Phatic Utterance

The lecture on speech act verb last Friday was very interesting, especially when the lecturer used “how are you” as an example of a phatic utterance (sorry if I ‘m wrong :). I couldn’t remember what term the lecturer used when explaining this and I borrowed this term after reading page 281-287 of Wardhaugh’s An Introduction to Sociolinguistic) and mentioned about the possible responses that the non-native speakers of English might give to such an utterance. This reminds me of the experience of one Australian adviser who used to work with me in Ende, Flores. She told me her experience during the first weeks of her staying in Ende. Whenever she ran into some ladies or gentlemen from the neighborhood in the streets, those people would ask the same “question” to her: “Hallo Ibu, mau kemana? (Hello Madame, where are you going?”) or, “Dari mana, Ibu Anne? (Where have you been Madame Anne?). She wondered why everybody seemed so curious about where she was going to go or where she had been, until she finally realized that those people did not expect her answer but just wanted to start the conversation with her.

Wardhaugh in An Introduction to Sociolinguistic, wrote about phatic utterance:

“We employ such utterances not for their propositional content but rather for their affective value as indicators that a person is willing to talk to another and that a channel of communication is either being opened or being kept open. Phatic utterances do not really communicate anything; rather, their use allows communication should there be anything of consequences to say (1992:283)

In Indonesia, or especially in the Eastern part of Indonesia the people tend to use the expression such as “Mau ke mana?” (Where are you going?) or “Dari mana?” (Where have you been?)  as a form of simple, basic exchange, shared by people that see each other everyday, especially at first contact.

People who are new to the culture or the local environment might find the expressions strange or odd. In English a question like “Where are you off to?” would be asked by someone whom we know quite well or by friends after asking how we are and usually when finishing the conversation (sorry again if I’m wrong:)) but in Indonesia we use this to start a conversation or as the first contact with someone we know.

If I come to visit a friend whom I frequently or regularly visit or see I would use the expression “sedang apa?” which means asking  what he/she was doing at the moment before I came (just as an opening of a conversation) instead of asking how she/he is. We would only ask how he/she is if we haven’t seen or heard from the person for quit a long time. Similarly, in telephone conversation, we usually open the conversation by asking the the person whom we talk about what he/she is doing at the moment before we called.



  1. Finding out what other cultures do in terms of these questions-about-other at the beginning of conversations is very interesting. Here is an article on what happens in Samoan which seems similar to what you are talking about in Indonesia. By the way, I would disagree with Wardhaugh about calling such utterances ‘phatic’. They are not empty (which is what phatic means). They are doing different sort of work. Our challenge is to find out what sort of work they are doing. Schegloff has also written on how-are-you in English.

    So’o, A; Liddicoat, A. 2000. ‘Telephone openings in Samoan’. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 23 (1): 95–107.

  2. Hi Johanna, Thanks for your comments and especially for the article. I’ve read it and it’s very interesting to see how the Samoans use “what are you doing” token in the similar way the Indonesians use it 🙂
    Some friends that I call usally tease me by replying:”I’m answering your call” or “I’m talking to you on the phone” to my “what are you doing?” question 🙂

    • There’s a discussion of this kind of utterance in French on a recent episode of Lingua Franca ( Look for ‘Indecipherably Rude’ on Saturday 8 August.

      I think in Mandarin it’s
      customary to ask, ‘Have you eaten?’. Any more of these for other languages?

  3. In Indonesia we have this kind of utterance too, but mostly spoken by people to a person who has a very close relationship to them, for example by a wife to a husband when calling him at the office during lunch time or when one of them is away from home, or by parents to children who are away from home, or between siblings,friends or people living in the same house as a form of a greeting when meeting after returning home from daily routines.
    I remember, when I was studying in Yogyakarta, I lived in the same house with some girls from other parts of Indonesia. We always use “have you eaten?” expression whenever we see each other at home. This expression can also create the feeling of closeness and warmth for the person who is addressed as this can create the feeling of intimacy. This is only based on my personal experience and I’m wondering if there is any discussion about this.

  4. Ellen, your case of asking about ‘activity’ rather than a ‘state’ as a part of opening utterance is similar with the case in my place in West Papua. It was funny sometimes when the newcomers wondered about what was going on, and sometimes, some of them feels disturbed by the utterance like this. I reckon because they thought that the person who asked were trying to intervene the addressees. “Where are you going?” or “Where have you been?” is quite similar for me since in my dialect, we are not used to say “how are you?” or open a conversation by saying something about ‘state’. It is also really common to see in my place that the distance of the person who said the utterance of “where are you going?” is not really close to the addressees, it can be from 2 – 5 meters between the speaker and hearer. That is why, sometimes the new people in my place thought that someone (the speaker) shouted to them, but basically that is the way people in my place communicate and try to keep in touch.

    As a matter of asking about ‘state’ like “how are you?” as the opening of conversation does exist but only in particular situation when the intimacy (relationship) is quite close and always in a hearing-distance. I mean, it is quite different comparing to the utterance of ‘activity’.

  5. thanks for beneficial ideas and merely fantastic information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: