Deconstructing "Speech Sounds"

Deconstructing “Speech Sounds”

By Rachel Roberts

Octavia Butler was a 20th-century writer who worked primarily in science fiction and speculative fiction. Her work is known to be both intriguing and challenging for readers from all backgrounds, tackling themes of race, religion, and humanity. Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds” is an example of her speculative fiction, imagining a future in which the majority of humanity has lost the ability to communicate with each other with speech or reading/writing. While a surface reading of this story seems to indicate a message about the importance of communication, exploring how the world as we know it would fall apart without the ability to communicate, a deeper meaning can be uncovered when a deconstructive lens is applied to the story: communication is meaningless unless all parties are willing to listen.

The story starts with the main character, Rye, witnessing a fight while riding a bus. The fight, which Rye speculates started from a misunderstanding, becomes so bad that the bus driver must pull over and try to get the fighting pair off the bus. This sets a binary standard: verbal communication is good, and nonverbal communication is bad, or ineffective. As the two men are sizing each other up, Rye observes, “the fight would begin when someone’s nerve broke or someone’s hand slipped or someone came to the end of his limited ability to communicate.” (Butler Page 1) However it is important to note that this fictional fight, set in a world that has lost verbal communication, is based upon a real fight that Butler observed in our world. As she explains, “One Saturday, as I sat on a crowded, smelly bus, […] I noticed trouble brewing just across from me. One man had decided he didn’t like the way another man was looking at him.” (Butler 13) Even with our modern relative ease to communicate, fights like these occur every day, not because of the inability to communicate but because of a refusal to communicate. Perhaps what Butler is trying to say is not that an unexpected loss of communication would destroy society, but that people’s unwillingness to communicate in many situations is currently destroying society, and Butler is showing the reader the extreme of this issue.

It is important to point out that in “Speech Sounds,” the collapse of society is not entirely due to the sudden loss of verbal language. As it is explained in the story a mysterious illness caused language worldwide to be, “always lost or severely impaired. It was never regained. Often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, death.”  (Butler 5) The intellectual impairment has, in most people, destroyed not only their capacity for language but their ability to use logic, reason, and emotional control. This gives a more comprehensive explanation as to why society has completely fallen apart- while the loss of language would be catastrophic, large organizations like governments and scientific communities may have been able to hold things together by finding new ways of communication, such as a less abstract and more tangible version of sign language, as is even shown in the story. A newer version of sign language or ‘hand gestures’ is used within the story, showing that this method could be effective. As explained, “Loss of verbal language had spawned a whole new set of obscene gestures.” (Butler 4) While this sign language is mostly used sparingly, used within the story only to ask for sex from Rye, it does prove that a widespread adoption of this method may have worked if an infrastructure was around to support it. There also could have been a method of creating an easy way to communicate with pictures, the same way that the bus driver indicates desired trades with magazine pages. This indicates that Butler is less concerned with the loss of the language itself, but the exacerbation of non-communicative behaviors that people already employ, but are able to conceal with the use of centralized language.

The use of nonverbal communication throughout the story is very realistic- traditionally nonverbal language is used to accent verbal communication; as an article by the Marbella International University Centre explains, “we have more faith in non-verbal cues than what is actually said.” (MIUC Eva Berkovic). Suddenly the world the reader sees is forced to interact with what is technically an accessory to verbal communication, and for the most part it comes off as ineffective. The fight that begins the story starts due to an inability to pacify or apologize from either of the combatants, and as the bus driver roughly pulls over even more fights are started when people bump into each other. When the police officer, Obsidian, helps stop the fighting he is forced to use tear gas as he has no other safe way to break up the fight. Nonverbal communication is a much more delicate form of communication, requiring all parties involved to be paying close attention to different cues; this is also evidence that Butler is more concerned with people’s lack of willingness to communicate rather than a sudden inability to communicate. Rye mentions in the story, “she never went unarmed. And in this world where the only likely common language was body language, being armed was often enough.” (Butler Page 3) As is shown, when no one is willing to pay attention, force must be used which leads to chaos.

However the story does offer a view of how nonverbal communication could work with people who are described as ‘less-impaired’. Rye notes that, “Left-handed people tended to be less impaired, more reasonable and comprehending, less driven by frustration, confusion, and anger.” (Butler 2) It is interesting to note that there are existing studies that suggest that left-handed people are better with verbal communication than right-handed people. As explained in an article from Healthline, “The biggest takeaway was that, in left-handed people, the left and right sides of the brain work more effectively with one another. This means that lefties may have inherently better verbal and language skills”(Gray Left-handed gene and verbal skills) . While this connection between left-handedness and an increased capacity for verbal communication is still unproven, it is interesting to keep in mind when analyzing the story.

Both Rye and Obsidian are left-handed which sets them apart from the others and sets up an immediate connection between the two. Their relationship develops quickly by necessity, going from meeting, to becoming intimate, to Rye asking Obsidian to live with her within a couple of hours. The speed with which the relationship progresses is understandable when considering the story’s setting, but it is interesting to view this relationship through another light.

“”Come on Baby. You Know I Love You”: African American Women’s Experiences of Communication with Male Partners and Disclosure in the Context of Unwanted Sex.” is a study conducted by researchers from the University of California that, as described, studies the experiences of African American women’s experiences communicating with their partners before and after experiencing unwanted sex. In the United States African American women experience a higher rate of rape both with strangers and with intimate partners than both white women and Hispanic women. While Rye never experiences rape in the story, it is interesting to examine the differences in communication between Rye and Obsidian and those who participated in the study.

The participant’s partners in “Come on Baby. You Know I Love You” would use a variety of methods to coerce and force sex from their partner, “The strategies men used ranged in severity, from the use of perceived sexual responsibilities (i.e., wifely duty) to verbal cues and more severe physical force.” (Gutzmer, Kyle, et al.). This is juxtaposed by Rye and Obsidian’s gentle requests for sex from one another- Obsidian asks first by rubbing her leg, Rye refuses due to fear of pregnancy, Obsidian produces a condom and they both laugh as they move to the backseat of his Ford. There is never a sense of force throughout this exchange- it is nothing less than consensual. The level of communication after this consensual sex is also very different from the communication reported in the study. As the study explains, after the coerced/ nonconsensual sex, “Communication, or lack thereof, was central to the process of making sense of the unwanted sex. Many women reported that their partners both passively and actively avoided discussing the unwanted sex.” (Gutzmer, Kyle, et al.) This stands in stark contrast to the honest conversation that Rye and Obsidian have about living together- Rye asks him to come home with her and Obsidian makes it clear that he will not stop being an officer if he does. Despite the inability to verbally communicate the relationship in “Speech Sounds” is much healthier and much more consensual due to the willingness of both partners to work at their communication. When Obsidian dies soon after this conversation, it feels like a real loss both to Rye and to the reader, despite how little they really knew each other.

The story ends on a hopeful note though; after witnessing her lover’s death Rye is confronted by two small children who have the ability to talk. This immediately gives Rye hope for the future of mankind. As Rye explains, “What if children of three or fewer years were safe and able to learn language? What if all they needed were teachers? Teachers and protectors.” (Butler 12). This brings Butler’s message full circle- communication can only work when all parties are open to it; it also comes as a call to action- the reader must do what they can to lead by example and teach those who are young to be good listeners as well as good speakers. This is a call to action for all readers to become better communicators, so that the newer generations can have a chance to build a better world.


Works Cited:

Butler, Octavia. Speech Sounds – Future Lives.

Gray, Dan. “Left-Handed Gene and Verbal Skills.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 10 Sept. 2019,

Gutzmer, Kyle, et al. “‘Come on Baby. You Know I Love You’: African American Women’s Experiences of Communication with Male Partners and Disclosure in the Context of Unwanted Sex.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 45, no. 4, 2016, pp. 807–819.,

“The Importance of Non-Verbal Communication: Miuc.” Marbella International University Centre, 17 June 2021,


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Deconstruction Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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