Bakhtin: Speech Genres

Speech genres, separated into primary and secondary divisions, are defined by Bakhtin as “relatively stable types of utterances” (1227). Further, “Each separate utterance is individual [. . .]” (1227). Illuminating the utterance, one must note that the utterance is not only individual in nature, but the utterance does not exist independent of itself. The utterance, then, may begin when the speaker initiates conversation and end when the next speaker begins. In response to previous utterances, the utterance inevitably promotes future utterances in response. To illustrate, Bakhtin describes secondary (complex) speech genres as “highly developed and organized cultural communication (primarily written) that is artistic, scientific, sociopolitical, and so on” (1228). The novel is also noted as an utterance in The Problem of Speech Genres, although secondary (complex) utterances are common indeed. An academic article, for instance, is an utterance. A response to an utterance (or more likely, a series of utterances) before it, the scholarly piece recognizes a problem or gap and in turn contributes a different approach, perspective, or interpretation. Viewed as an utterance in the general academic conversation, one in which the author may choose to linger and listen to other utterances before crafting their own, the process of scholarly writing is thus a Burkean parlor. David Bleich, Margaret K. Willard-Traub, and Carolyn Miller not only offer their own utterances to the ongoing discussion of Bakhtin, but more notably his draft of speech genres and the progression of its applications.

As I read the application articles for this week, I was intrigued by the addition of “materiality” into the conversation of genre. As noted by Bleich, “[. . .] thinking about language as material, as language use, is especially germane for contemporary society” (46). Further demonstrating language and genres as material, Bleich recognizes the fact that those with access to power ostensibly exercise this power through language and genre. Understanding the materiality of language – and providing students with this view – educators may empower all students with the necessary approach to the materiality of language; through this process students may be able to combat imbalanced power structures in society. Willard-Traub, in continuing the concept of the materiality of language, explores an emerging academic genre in reflective texts. Instead of approaching language as a simple and transparent medium, Willard-Traub affirms that reflective texts “conceive of language as a ‘material constituent in’ the social relations that encourage particular understandings of identity within (and across) particular communities, and that bring with them particular (material) consequences for writers and readers” (512).

As a relatively new student to the idea of materiality of language, I found many of the material assertions in regard to language and genre to be rather vague. In an attempt to understand this concept, I compiled a list of ways in which the materiality of language may be manifested. An utterance, for example, may be written down. Through this process, the utterance has now become a material item. Anything written, whether an article, letter, or e-mail, may serve as a manifestation of the materiality of language. But how can one apply a primary (simple) oral utterance as material? Perhaps this utterance is not recorded or written down in any way. One might ask whether the utterance had an audience or goal, and whether the utterance enabled room for a contribution from another participant. Yet the materiality of this utterance may lie in a simple approach: assuming the utterance was audible, it was projected in a medium observable through the senses. For the duration of the utterance itself (and the silence which followed) the oral utterance became part of the material world. Its legacy was continued by the following utterance, one which inevitably elaborated in the preceding utterance in some manner. This process, whether through primary (simple) or secondary (complex) utterances, is bound through the connections to previous utterances in question; speech genres may thus be interpreted as intertwined networks of communicative practices, all the while remaining “relatively stable types” of utterances (Bakhtin 1227).

Being that virtual worlds and computing are of particular interest to me, I hope to apply Bakhtin’s speech genres to the dialogue of massive multi-player online role playing games (MMORPGs). In viewing language as a material medium through which identities are constructed and reconstructed in various communities, one may wish to draw upon Willard-Traub’s approach in “Rhetorics of Gender and Ethnicity in Scholarly Memior: Notes on a Material Genre” when evaluating the identities projected through character selection, weaponry, activity, and interactions through instant messaging during game play. Recognizing an obvious dichotomy would of course be necessary if one were to employ a framework for advocating reflective writing in academia to identity projection in MMORPGs. Cresswell and Hawn interpret an utterance on an online RPG to illuminate the discussion of applying speech genres to a far-reaching contexts. Noting Bakhtin’s discussion of material and form, Cresswell and Hawn state that “Formed material and language systems are inseparable insofar as the form of talk is expressive of the language system and vice versa” (49). Further, these language systems on MMORPGs are certainly understood by the participants in their individual realities; these language systems undoubtedly foster individual utterances during game play, albeit influenced by an ongoing onslaught of tasks (including maneuvers, commands, and movements) during the utterance. These utterances – in a collective sense – may in fact be interpreted as a speech genre.

The 19th century linguistic approaches to genre critiqued by Bakhtin are surely left in the past. And just as Bakhtin has drafted a clear definition of the utterance and the speech genre, the debate continues today. Miller, for example, identifies the limitations of diverse frameworks guiding approach to genre. In essence, she proposes a new approach, one undeniably reliant on the utterances before hers. In any case, the utterance remains a notable contribution to the conversation in the speech genre of academic scholarship. I intend to apply such applications to my own utterance in dealing with MMORPGs with the assumption that one day, another contributor will join in on the Burkean conversation of game studies and offer their own utterance.


Works Cited

Bleich, David. The Materiality of Language: Gender, Politics, and the University. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. Print.

Cresswell, James, & Allison Hawn. “Drawing on Bakhtin and Goffman: Toward an Epistemology that    Makes Lived Experience Visible.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research[Online], 13.1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.

Miller, Carolyn. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 70 (1984): pp. 151-167.

Willard-Taub, Margaret K. “Rhetorics of Gender and Ethnicity in Scholarly Memoir: Notes on a Material Genre.” College English. Special Issue: Materiality, Genre, and Language Use.  65.5 (2003): pp. 511-525.


Discussion Questions


  • In Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot notes “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” To what extent may the utterance of the present alter an utterance of the past? Are our utterances of the present directed by the past? How?


  • Noting that the materiality of language has yet to be explored, Bleich offers an introduction to a work which is centered on the possibilities of examining language and genre as materials. How can our understanding of language and genre as materials benefit the way we teach? How can we foster conversations which address the materialtity of language?


  • To what extent have reflective scholarly writing genres permeated the sphere of your academic readings? Do you trust reflective writing in academia as a legitimate genre? Why or why not?


  • Do you note significant similarities in Miller’s approach to the displayed by Bakhtin in “The Problem of Speech Genres”? Why or why not?