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Description of a speech event

Description of a speech event

Default due date: Mar 15, 2024 at 11:59 p.m.

Word count: 1000

As anthropology students, you will not be surprised to learn that one of the main ways that anthropologists examine language and communication is by producing an “ethnography of speaking”1) (Hymes 1974, 455). In this view, it is less important to know what linguistic community a person belongs to, or even what their native language is, than to know what kind of speech community they participate in (Silverstein 1972, 623; 1996; 2015; see also Ahearn 2021, 102–5). Each person—each of us—is a member of one or more speech communities, and we learn to operate in the speech situations of those communities, especially its speech events.

According to Hymes, a speech event is a term for

activities, or aspects of activities, that are directly governed by the rules and norms for the use of speech [for a speech community in a specific speech situation]. (Hymes 1972, 56)

Irvine also offers a useful definition:

[A speech event is an] organized stretch of discourse with some internal structure, performance conventions, and an overarching structure of participation. (Irvine 1996, 141; cited in Noy 2023, 348)

Put otherwise, a speech event is a type of event in which people engage in speech acts, or use speech to take an action. A speech event will be typically be found in a specific speech situation. The classic example of a speech event is a greeting, for instance, between Alice and Bahadur:

  • A: Hey, how are you?
  • B: I’m good, and you?
  • A: I’m good.
  • B: That’s good.

Creative, no. Meaningful, yes. Consider if in this actual instance, in line 3, Alice elongated or raised the pitch on the oo in good. What if she said nothing (cf. “Jimbo” [Cingular Wireless] 2006)?

In this essay, I would like you to be an ethnographer of yourself. Reflect on the speech communities in which you participate, and which have taught you distinct ways of speaking, or distinct ways to use speech to take actions in speech events. In one of your speech communities, what is one of the typical speech events?

  • What is a type of happening that you routinely encounter? (Speech events are types. Serving a birthday cake is a type of event. Blowing out candles on a cake on your own 18th birthday, by contrast, happens once and is unique.)
  • Who are the key participants in the event? (Speech events are social institutions, and most are not solitary.)
  • What actions do people perform in the event? What are the turns that people take?
  • What kinds of roles are people playing when they perform these acts?

Imagine that you are witnessing an actual instance of a typical event and can record a sequence of actions in real time, then replay them in slow motion. Alice and Bahadur’s interaction might take only five seconds. We can understand it as an example of a greeting—a pattern of using speech governed by hidden rules—when we watch it in slow motion and examine each microsecond in detail.

This essay is an exercise in ethnographic description. As such, you need to think deeply about what Malinowski calls the “imponderabilia of everyday life” (Malinowski [1922] 1932, 24). While this paper is descriptive, it can still use argumentation to effectively communicate your thinking. A good paper has one main point—a thesis statement. It supports this single point by describing empirical facts and drawing inferences from these facts that lead to your main point as a conclusion. The rules and norms of a speech event are not usually formalized and explicitly taught. Like a lot of social life, they are implicit and acquired through practice. So to make an argument that a type of event in your everyday life is really a speech event in which people follow implicit rules of their speech community is an argument you can make.

Finally, a few notes:

  • Speech events are sites where we can see examples of many of the key ideas about how people use language that we have encountered in class.
    • A good paper will make that kind of connection and use the concepts we have encountered so far in class readings to develop its ethnographic description.
    • For this paper, confine yourself to what we have discussed in class so far. Do not use outside sources, except perhaps for primary sources for a speech event or communicative practice you want to describe. This is not required for this paper; I will evaluate it primarily on how well you replay a sequence in slow motion to explain its hidden rules.
  • As I suggest above, the term “speech event” can be a little misleading. A lot of communication can take place without oral language, and even in his early writings Hymes was already advocating for “ethnographies of communication” over ethnographies of ways of speaking per se (although see Duranti 1997, 289). So you are not limited to a description of speech events, especially if you consider yourself to belong to communicative community whose communication depends on ways of using other kinds of media.
  • The communicative event is often much broader than we think. Mass media consumption is a kind of communicative event, but the media text (e.g. newspaper article, blog post, TV episode, movie) is not the only relevant part of this event. The audience is a constitutive element of this kind of communicative event, and it arguably does more than watch or listen to a text.

and two requests:

  • A lot of communication is online, and there are indeed many, many online communicative communities, each with their own ways of writing, ways of DMing, ways of memeing, ways of calling, ways of pinging, etc. that they use in many different communicative situations. I would like to request that for this assignment you consider the communicative events in your communities that are not digitally mediated.
  • These instructions have already given you one example of a speech event: a greeting ritual. Push yourself to think of another, similar kind of patterned social action involving language. (Also, you may have already realized that a university essay is also a communicative event. I agree! Perhaps save that insight for later, and choose a topic that is a little less meta?)

Formatting and use of generative AI

My only expectation is that you submit a well-written and neatly formatted document that cites your sources of information and quotations, and lists all of the references for sources you cite.

I don’t have specific requirements for a format or style of references, but you can tell if you have done a good job. When you are done with your final version, imagine that you printed it out and accidentally left it somewhere.2) If someone picked up your paper, would they be able to send it to me, and would I be able to read it and give you a grade for the assignment?

  • Does it have your name student ID number on it?
  • Does it say what it is, an essay for our class?
  • Does it tell someone what class it is for, and who teaches it?
  • Does it say when you wrote it, that is, does it have a date on it?

A good guide can be found here: https://anthro.rschram.org/the_quest/documents_with_style.

If you use ChatGPT or another large language model in your writing process, you are required to document your prompts, the text that was generated, and a description of how you have incorporated this into your final draft, and attach all of this documentation as an appendix to your paper. (Also, FYI, I just asked Bard “what is an example of a speech event” and the answer was mainly speeches—prepared remarks read from a script—so it’s not coming up with anything really exciting. Also, chatting with an AI is not a communicative event because… I said so.)

Citing sources

Academic writing is a genre. It has rules. I follow these rules, and I want you to learn this “way of speaking” too (Hymes 1974, 433; see also Blum 2009, 39–40).

One of the rules we learn to follow in this genre is citing the sources we use for information and ideas. We do this so that other people can read and learn from us.

For this and all of your written work, you should cite a source for every fact and every idea that you learn from someone else. I also strongly suggest that students learn how to use a bibliography manager and make it a daily habit to track what you’ve read with that software tool. For more advice on citing sources, see this page—https://anthro.rschram.org/the_quest/citing_sources—or ask me.


Ahearn, Laura M. 2021. Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444340563.

Blum, Susan D. 2009. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.7591/9780801458408/html.

Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hymes, Dell. 1972. “Models of the interaction of language and social life.” In Directions in sociolinguistics: the ethnography of communication, edited by John J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes, 35–71. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. http://archive.org/details/directionsinsoci0000gump.

———. 1974. “Ways of speaking.” In Explorations in the ethnography of speaking, edited by Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, 433–51. Cambridge University Press.

Irvine, Judith T. 1996. “Shadow Conversations: The Indeterminacy of Participant Roles.” In Natural Histories of Discourse, edited by Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban, 131–59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press Chicago. https://archive.org/details/naturalhistories0000unse_w1b3/page/130/mode/2up.

“Jimbo” [Cingular Wireless]. 2006. BBDO. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0pL_CsK3Dk.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1922) 1932. Argonauts of The Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd. http://archive.org/details/argonautsofthewe032976mbp.

Noy, Chaim. 2023. “‘OK Guys, Thank You for Coming Today’: Indexicality, Utterance Events, and Verbal Rituals in Political Speeches in Sheikh Jarrah.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 27 (4): 345–63. https://doi.org/10.1111/josl.12619.

Silverstein, Michael. 1972. “Chinook Jargon: Language Contact and the Problem of Multi-Level Generative Systems, I.” Language 48 (2): 378–406. https://doi.org/10.2307/412141.

———. 1996. “Encountering Language and Languages of Encounter in North American Ethnohistory.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 6 (2): 126–44. https://doi.org/10.1525/jlin.1996.6.2.126.

———. 2015. “How Language Communities Intersect: Is ‘Superdiversity’ an Incremental or Transformative Condition?” Language & Communication 44 (September): 7–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2014.10.015.

or, an ethnographic description of a community’s “ways of speaking” (Hymes 1974).
Yes, portions of these instructions were written in the early 00s.
3621/2024/description_of_a_speech_event.txt · Last modified: 2024/01/15 23:40 by Ryan Schram (admin)