Speech Sounds

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"Speech Sounds"
Speech Sounds.jpg
Author Octavia Butler
Genre(s) Science fiction short story
Publisher Asimov's Science Fiction
Publication date 1983

"Speech Sounds" is a science fiction short story by Octavia Butler. It was most recently published in a collection of short stories titled Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (Night Shade Books, 2008).[1] It was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983. It won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1984.

Plot summary[edit]

In the not-so-distant future, a mysterious pandemic leaves civilization in ruins and severely limits humankind’s ability to communicate. Some are deprived of their ability to read or write, while others lose the ability to speak. They identify themselves by carrying items or symbols that function as names. People communicate among themselves through universally understood sign language and gestures that can often exacerbate misunderstandings and conflicts. Additionally, it seems that as a result of the illness and their handicap, many ordinary people are easily prone to uncontrollable feelings of jealousy, resentment, and rage over their own impairments and the ability of others.

In Los Angeles, a woman named Rye decides to seek out her only remaining relatives, a brother and his family in nearby Pasadena. But when a fight breaks out on a bus, Rye is forced to consider walking the rest of the twenty miles through dangerous territory. It is then she meets Obsidian, a man in a police uniform who stops to restore order and then offers her a ride in his car. Confronted with the hostilities of her fellow passengers or the threat of walking the streets alone, she cautiously accepts the stranger's offer, and together they resume the trip out of the city. Before long, Rye learns that Obsidian can still read a map, and she struggles with an intense feeling of jealousy and an urge to kill him. Instead, she reveals that she is still able to talk, and the two share an intimate moment and have sex. Rye asks Obsidian to return home with her, and he reluctantly agrees.

On the road home, the couple observes a woman being chased by a man wielding a knife. Both feel inclined to intervene in the woman’s defense but are unable to prevent the woman from being fatally stabbed. After wounding the assailant, the man is able to wrestle the gun from Obsidian and shoot him in the head, which instantly kills him. Rye then kills the assailant. After the violence, two children emerge, a boy and a younger girl, apparently the children of the dead woman. Rye drags Obsidian back to the car with the intention of giving him a proper burial—and initially plans to ignore the plight of the children—but shortly afterward, she has a change of heart and returns for the body of the woman and her two children. As she reaches for the woman’s body, the girl speaks in coherent English, shouting “No. Go Away,” and the young boy tells her not to speak. This is the first coherent speech that Rye has heard in many years, and she realizes that her choice to adopt the children is the right one. “I’m Valerie Rye,” she says. “It‘s all right for you to talk to me.” It is the first time she has spoken her own name in a very long time.[2]

Themes and relevancy[edit]


  • Pandemics
The effects of the illness described in "Speech Sounds" are said by Butler to have reached pandemic proportions:
“As it swept over the country, people hardly had time to lay blame on the Soviets (though they were falling silent along with the rest of the world)” (pp. 95–96).
A pandemic is defined as a disease or condition that affects a large portion of a population.[3] Many such plagues have befallen humanity throughout history, although some of the worst have been smallpox, Spanish flu (influenza), the Black Death, malaria, AIDS, cholera, and typhus.[4] "New infectious diseases continue to emerge, yet there is no clear strategy for managing them." According to Harshit Sinha of the Indian Institute of Management, “Such...events...can plunge a community, a nation, or the entire world into a state of chaos." "Intrigues of politics, financial bungling, poor management, ineffective planning, and numerous other shortcomings simultaneously come to the forefront, aggravating already intricate problems."[5] He advocates crises preparedness and emergency management as the keys to preventing the extreme scenario manifested in Butler's story.
In addition to the machinations of the Soviets, Butler offers up several other possible origins of the illness, which include viruses, pollutants, radiation, and even divine retribution. Though sources may merit some of these speculations,[6][7][8][9] the true origin of the illness is never revealed. The characteristics of the malady, however, are described as highly specific. Butler writes that it was
“stroke-swift in the way it cut people down and strokelike in some of its effects...Language was always lost or severely impaired... Often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, [and] death.” (96)
These particular symptoms involving language impairments are seemingly very similar to a condition known as aphasia, which is the loss of [word] expression and comprehension ability associated with destruction of anterior and posterior language areas [of the brain].[10] Aphasia usually occurs suddenly, often as the result of a stroke or head injury, but it may also develop slowly, as in the case of a brain tumor, an infection, or dementia. The disorder impairs the expression and understanding of language as well as reading and writing. Aphasia may co-occur with speech disorders such as dysarthria or apraxia of speech, which also result from brain damage.


"You see what a blessing speech is to me It brings me into closer and tenderer [sic] relationship with those [whom] I love and makes it possible for me to enjoy the sweet companionship of a great many persons from whom I should be entirely cut off if I could not talk." Helen Keller, Philadelphia Pennsylvania July 8, 1896[11]

The difficulties of life without spoken or written language are one of the most obvious themes of the story. Conflicts continually arise among people as a result of limited communication and misunderstandings. For instance, Rye tells us that the fight on the bus was likely the result of a misunderstanding rather than a disagreement. She explains: “The fight would begin when…someone came to the end of his limited ability to communicate.” Although she herself can speak, Rye no longer does so since there are few who are still able to speak or understand, and because of the danger of appearing superior. Butler writes, “Such ‘superiority’ was frequently punished by beatings, even by death” (p. 93). The communication deficiencies, coupled with intellectual impairment brought on by the illness, made many aggressive, that they acted in “anger, frustration, hopelessness, and insane jealousy” (107) toward the less impaired. Rye’s own impairments force her to battle similar reactions of her own. As a former professor and writer, she is painfully aware of her disabilities and has to overcome her own violent urges upon discovering that Obsidian can read and probably write. Butler writes, “She felt sick to her stomach with hatred, frustration, and jealousy. And only a few inches from her hand was a loaded gun” (Butler, 98). Following the death of Obsidian, Rye wonders if the woman’s ability to speak had led to her murder. After hearing the young girl shout in fluent speech in defense of her mother's body, Rye wonders, “Had the woman died because she could talk and had taught her children to talk? Had she been killed by a husbands [sic] festering anger or by a strangers jealous rage?” (Butler, 107).
  • Impairment
“She had heard so little coherent human speech for the past three years, she was no longer certain how well she recognized it, no longer certain of the degree of her own impairment" (p. 94).
"She had lost reading and writing. That was her most serious impairment and her most painful" (p. 98).
"The illness had played with them, taking away, she suspected, what each valued most" (p. 99).
  • Body Language
“The loss of verbal language had spawned a whole new set of obscene gestures” (p. 95).
“In this world where the only common language was body language, being armed was often enough” (p. 93).
"The bearded man stepped back and watched the driver gesture threateningly, watched him shout in wordless anger and use hand gestures to replace lost curses” (p. 93).
"He touched her mouth and made chatter motions with thumb and fingers. Could she speak?" (p. 99).
"He tapped his mouth and shook his head. He did not speak or comprehend spoken language." (p. 99).


"The greatest misery of sickness is solitude." —John Donne[12]
Isolation is another prominent theme of the story and results from the breakdown of communication; death and the threat of illness; unpredictable feelings of frustration, jealousy, resentment and rage; competition for goods and resources; and the necessity of caution and mistrust. Butler writes about Rye, “No one had touched her for three years” (100), and during this time she had been alone: “The illness had stripped her, killing her children one by one, killing her husband, her sister, her parents” (p. 95). Furthermore, “She had left her home, finally, because she had come near to killing herself.” A sense of isolation can often accompany an illness, leaving one feeling depressed, misunderstood, helpless, angry, or ashamed. G. Gabdreeva writes, "The research into psychological defenses confirms the idea that all types of isolation are associated with a specific sense of fear. The data support the view that the main thing that provokes psychological defenses is a difficult situation perceived as inescapable."[13]
“The illness, if it was an illness, had cut even the living off from one another” (p. 95).
"Now she did not have to find out for certain if she was as alone as she feared. Now she was not alone" (p. 103).
"And Rye was alone—with three corpses" (p. 104).
"He had died and left her—like everyone else" (p. 104).
"She had found and lost the man so quickly. It was as though she had been snatched from comfort and security and given a sudden, inexplicable beating" (p. 105).


Rye's finding the healthy children and decision to become their guardian is an indication not only of renewed hope for humanity and hope for Rye as well, but also serves as closure for Octavia Butler in dealing with the terminal illness of a friend. She writes in the afterword to the story, "'Speech Sounds' was conceived in weariness, depression, and sorrow. I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back" (p. 109).

Sources, references, external links[edit]

  1. ^ Butler, Octavia E. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. San Francisco: Nightshade Book, 2008. 245-55. Print.
  2. ^ Butler, Octavia E. "Speech Sounds." Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996. pp. 87–110. Print.
  3. ^ Pandemic definition. Encarta World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © 2009 Microsoft Corporation. http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/features/dictionary/DictionaryResults.aspx?lextype=3&search=pandemic
  4. ^ 7 Worst Killer Plagues in History. oddee.com. Published on 10/15/2007 under Medicine. Accessed 1 Nov 2010. http://www.oddee.com/item_90608.aspx
  5. ^ Sinha, Harshit. "Plague: a Challenge for Urban Crisis Management." Journal of Contingencies & Crisis Management 8.1 (2000): 42. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Nov. 2010.
  6. ^ Naudé, H., and E. Pretorius. "Can herpes simplex virus encephalitis cause aphasia?" Early Child Development & Care 173.6 (2003): 669–679. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.
  7. ^ Revelation chapter 15, verse 1. The Bible. The Official King James Bible Online. kingjamesbibleonline.org. Accessed 2 Nov 2010. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Revelation-15-1/
  8. ^ Mutlu, Gökhan M. et al., “Ambient particulate matter accelerates coagulation via an IL-6–dependent pathwa.y” The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Volume 117, Number 10. October 2007. http://www.jci.org
  9. ^ Brain Lesions: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments. http://www.webmd.com/brain/brain-lesions-causes-symptoms-treatments
  10. ^ "Aphasia." Handbook of Clinical Neurology. Ed. Michael J Aminoff, Francois Boller, and Dick F Swaab. Vol. 93. Amsterdam: Elsevier B.V., 2009. p. 514. Print. "Stroke Part II: Clinical Manefestations and Pathogenesis."
  11. ^ Keller, Helen, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, and John Albert Macy. The Story of My Life. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1903. Google Books. Web. 2 Nov. 2010. <http://books.google.com/books?id=zev1dMhB7C4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+story+of+my+life&source=bl&ots=K oqhOMstlj&sig=BTS2c6qd6QQza5hRd1nYTklYA08&hl=en&ei=vk3hTLzYOIT58Abps8HADw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false>.
  12. ^ Donne John. "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions"
  13. ^ Gabdreeva, G. Sh. "The Psychological Protection of Personality Under Conditions of Stress Caused by Forced Isolation." Journal of Russian & East European Psychology 48.2 (2010): 48–60. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Nov. 2010.