If something is not emphatic, then it must, you might think, be phatic, or something along those lines, would it not? Phatic, a word whose existence you probably never even suspected until now, is an adjective defined as “of or relating to communication used to perform a social function rather than to convey information or ideas” if that makes you any wiser.
Phatic also means, “denoting or relating to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions”. Utterances such as “Hello, how are you?” and “Nice morning, isn’t it?” are phatic because you really don’t expect an answer or response. Sometimes I wonder whether or not all utterances by politicians are, by definition, phatic: they convey no real information and they do not expect any response, except your vote, of course, when the time comes.
Phatic communication may simply be “small talk” or conversation for its own sake. Some call it “grooming talking”. For example: “You’re welcome” is not intended to convey the message that the person being spoken to is welcome; it is a phatic response to being thanked.
Similarly, the question “How are you?” is usually an automatic component of a social encounter, but there are times when “How are you?” is asked in a sincere, concerned manner that anticipates a detailed response regarding the respondent’s present state.
The following is a specific example of the former: a simple, basic exchange between two acquaintances in a non-formal environment.
Speaker one: “What’s up?” (US English is emphatically phatic. In UK English this means “Is there something wrong?” – not that you particularly care.)
Speaker two: “Hey, how’s it going?”
Speaker one: “All right?” (UK English. In US English this means “Is there something wrong?”)
Speaker two: “You all right?”
Neither speaker expects an actual answer to the question. Much like a shared nod, it is an indication that each has recognized the other’s presence and has therefore sufficiently performed that particular social duty. Of course, if you wish to agree with someone forcibly, you might not give a phatic nod, but instead nod emphatically.
Consider the following exchange and you’ll get what I mean:
– How are you?
– My wife has left me. My house burned down. And my dog ate my cat.
– How lovely!
Phatic, it seems, was coined about 100 years ago in the early 20th century by Polish-born British anthropologist Bronis?aw Malinowski to label a particular quirk of human communication, the tendency to use rote phrases merely to establish a social connection without sharing any actual information, or to get the ball rolling so to speak, or even break the ice, though why anyone would wish to break the ice, especially if they were standing on it rolling a ball, is hard to imagine.
It probably won’t surprise you, then, to learn that phatic derives from the Greek phatos, a form of the verb phanai, meaning “to speak”. Phatos, the past participle of phanai, is related to phasia, as in aphasia “loss of speech” and paraphasia “speaking in jumbled sentences”. With the suffix -n, we see this root again in Greek phone “saying, speech”, found in the English phonetics and telephone, “distant speaking”. Other phanai relatives include apophasis, which is “the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention it”, euphemism, prophet, and the combining suffix –phasia used to denote a speech disorder.
You may also have spotted, as I mentioned earlier, a similarity to emphatic, but that is purely coincidental; emphatic traces back to a different Greek verb that means “to show”. So sadly enough, emphatic and phatic are not in the least related.
Now the big question in this trumped up world is this, “Is a tweet phatic, or something entirely different?” a question that would have been incomprehensible just a few months ago!