Speech Sounds

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"Speech Sounds"
Short story by Octavia Butler
Genre(s)Science fiction
PublisherAsimov's Science Fiction
Publication date1983

"Speech Sounds" is a science fiction short story by American writer Octavia E. Butler. It was first published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1983. It won Butler her first Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1984.[1] The story was subsequently collected in Butler's anthology Bloodchild and Other Stories and in the science fiction anthology Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The world has been decimated by a mysterious pandemic: the survivors have reported intellectual deficits and can no longer speak, understand words, or read. Communication is therefore compromised and the attempt to express oneself with gestures or grunts generates misunderstandings and conflicts. People have also become prone to violence triggered by resentment of their own impairments and harbor jealousy toward the very few who are still able to speak and who, therefore, hide this ability.

Valerie Rye lives in Los Angeles; the disease has killed her parents, husband, sister, and children. Wracked by pain and loneliness, she decides to take a bus to Pasadena to join her brother, who is probably still alive. A fight breaks out on board, triggered by two passengers for trivial reasons. The bus stops and Rye is forced to get off as the violence escalates. Obsidian, an armed man in an LAPD uniform who is named for his obsidian medallion, intervenes and restores order, and then invites Rye to get into his car. Rye initially refuses for fear of the weapon and baffled by the uniform, knowing full well that the police have long been disbanded. However, she is reassured by the gestures of Obsidian, who makes her understand that he has no ill intentions, and she accepts his offer. With difficulty, having lost the ability to read and write and, therefore, to interpret the road map, Rye manages to make Obsidian understand that she wants to go towards Pasadena. Rye was a former teacher and loved reading, and feels a violent jealousy toward Obsidian upon realizing that Obsidian still knows how to read, but manages to repress it. Rye in turn reveals to Obsidian that she can speak. The two share an intimate moment and have sex. Rye asks Obsidian to return to Los Angeles with her, and he reluctantly agrees.

Along the way, they see a man brandishing a knife and chasing a woman. Obsidian intervenes, but he is unable to prevent the woman's killing and being attacked in turn. Obsidian shoots the man, who manages to get a hold of the gun and kill Obsidian. Rye belatedly intervenes and kills the man. Two crying children come out of a nearby house, apparently the dead woman's children. Rye intends to ignore the children, but her sense of responsibility takes over. The two children are able to speak, and Rye, now hopeful for the future, welcomes them.[3]



Everyone has to use symbols that represent their name as forms of identification. Rye uses a pin in the shape of a stalk of wheat (the closest thing to "rye") and Obsidian uses a black rock. We learn that "Rye" is actually our protagonist's last name; her first name is Valerie. Rye going by just her last name represents the limitations of communication in society.[4] We also do not know if "Obsidian" is actually his name; Rye assumes it from the black rock token he shows her. The limited nonverbal communication present in society has most people harboring intense feelings of jealousy, rage, and aggression. The fight on the bus was initiated by one wrong look. There is even an hierarchical aspect in the abilities still retained among everyone; left-handed people are seen as more intellectual, and less prone to aggression and irrationality.[4]

The entire story is guided by gestures, from the mock throwing of punches between the men on the bus to Obsidian's gentle touch with Rye in the car. Rye notices Obsidian frequently motioning with his left hand, a sign that he has retained some intellect. The male passengers on the bus, with obvious lesser abilities, do mostly obscene gestures in the first half of the story, a lot of which now represent the new society's versions of curse words.[4]


The decline in intellectual ability has left everyone to fend for themselves in the post-apocalyptic society. Rye carries a gun with her at all times for this reason. Rye has learned to be a quick thinker, knowing exactly what to do when the fight on the bus breaks out, like stopping herself from getting hurt and getting off the bus as soon as she could.[5] Any sense of normalcy and protection has diminished; any sort of transportation can be used as weapons (hence the lack of cars and Rye's surprise when a bus turned up), and organizations such as the LAPD have ceased to exist. When she first encounters Obsidian, an LAPD officer still in uniform, she was wary of his intentions, fearing he might harm her. The children Rye saves at the end of the story have also learned to protect themselves at a young age. When Rye attempts to retrieve the body of the women, the sister of the pair tells her "No! Go away!," and the brother reprimands her for speaking out loud to a stranger; he is aware that if people know they can speak, they can be in serious danger.[6]


  1. ^ "The Hyphenated American". Lesbian News. 35 (7): 11. February 2010.
  2. ^ Butler, Octavia E. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. San Francisco: Nightshade Book, 2008. 245-55. Print.
  3. ^ Butler, Octavia E. "Speech Sounds." Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996. pp. 87–110. Print.
  4. ^ a b c Troy, Maria Holmgren. "Loss of Words: Octavia Butler's 'Speech Sounds'." The Power of Words. Ed. Solveig Granath, June Miliander, and Elizabeth Wennö. Karlstad, Sweden: Karlstads Universitet, 2005. 73-80.
  5. ^ Govan, Sandra Y. "Disparate Spirits Yet Kindred Souls: Octavia E. Butler, 'Speech Sounds,' and Me." Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. Ed. Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct, 2013. 109-127.
  6. ^ Sorlin, Sandrine. "Stylistic Techniques and Ethical Staging in Octavia Butler's 'Speech Sounds'." The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity: New Perspectives on Genre Literature. Ed. Maylis Rospide and Sandrine Sorlin. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2015. 82-94.

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