Speech Codes Theory

The speech codes theory was developed through the ethnographic research of Gerry Philipsen. He lived among members of a communities named “Teamsterville” and “Nacirema” where he observed that there was a system of socially constructed symbols, meanings, premises and rules with regards to how person in those communities related to each other.

According to the speech codes theory persons of varying cultures, communities and social classes will have distinctive speech codes. The speech codes of those who live in gated communities will be different from those of a working class neighbourhood in Bridgetown. In addition to that multiple speech codes may exist in a community. So even in the same culture of shared ideals there will be different speech codes. The way in which one relates to others at home, school or work may differ.

Philipsen also proposes that speech codes involve culturally distinct psychology, sociology and rhetoric and will also disclose structures of self, society and strategic action. He asserts that it is those who make up the culture that assign meaning to the speech code. For instance the word “n*****”. It was considered a derogatory term to refer to Blacks but through Rap music the word takes on a more “positive” meaning . In essence they have taken away its negative connotation and now for some  it refers to someone they consider a brother.Through his analysis of the communication habits within the communities he studied Philipsen concluded that their speech codes are intricately woven into speaking. The meaning that one would get from conversation “on the block” will not be the same if you were to speak to one of the participants alone.

Speech codes theory makes the astounding claim that the artful use of a speech code is sufficient condition for predicting, explaining and controlling the form of discourse about the intelligibility and morality of communication conduct. Understanding the speech codes of a community or a culture may help us to adapt to the way they communicate or avoid making faux pas. However, Philipsen is basically saying that we can use speech codes to make generalisations about communication within cultures and communities. However, the trouble with this is that it can lead to stereotyping.


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