Octavia Butler

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In "Speech Sounds," explain how Octavia Butler conveys the importance of language and human speech in maintaining a civil society.

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In Butler's story, a mysterious illness has caused most humans to lose their language skills—most cannot read, or speak. People are reduced to sign language, or carrying objects that represent their names, but for many, the impairment has made them almost subhuman. We can see this in the episode on the bus, where the two men, unable to speak, prod each other through crude sign language into fighting. 

Rye, the protagonist of the story, is different, though. Although she has forgotten how to read or write, she has retained the ability to speak, although this is a secret she must guard carefully, since her relative lack of impairment makes her a target. It is clear from the story, which is told in third person from Rye's point of view, that the inability of people to communicate via speech has torn the social fabric into tatters. Because people are unable to clearly express their emotions (other than the most basic: fear, or rage) even the most basic of human connections become difficult to form.

Rye's brief relationship with Obsidian bears this out. Obsidian cannot speak, but he can read, and his higher level language skills allows him to form a bond with Rye. Because he is able to convince her that he does not want to harm her, Rye begins to trust him in a small way; when they have sex in the back seat of his car, the consensual nature of it is a revelation for Rye, and the relief this small moment of pleasure gives causes an increasing intimacy between the two.

"Civil society" suggests a place where people respect each other's points of view, and calmly and rationally work together to achieve mutually satisfactory solutions to problems. Butler's story shows that the basic requirements for any civil society—the ability to empathize, the ability to recognize in each other the same essential humanity—lies in language, in the ability to communicate our feelings to each other. That is why the discovery of the children who can talk at the end of the story is so important: Rye realizes that if these children can talk, they can be taught, and in that are the seeds of a new civilization.

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The exposition to "Speech Sounds" reveals how Butler conveys the importance of language and human speech in maintaining a civil society.  Valerie's experience on the bus would communicate this.  The bus becomes the first setting where where lack of communication reflects a sense of disorder and lack of control in the society:

Two young men were involved in a disagreement of some kind, or, more likely, a misunderstanding. They stood in the aisle, grunting and gesturing at each other,  each in his own uncertain T stance as the bus lurched over the potholes. The  driver seemed to be putting some effort into keeping them off balance. Still, their gestures stopped just short of contact—mock punches, hand games of intimidation to replace lost curses. People watched the pair, then looked at one another and made small anxious  sounds. Two children whimpered.

The cause of the disagreement is unknown. Butler suggests as much in the "misunderstanding."  The presence of language would have enabled a more knowledgeable distillation of the disagreement. The men "grunting and gesturing" and assuming an "uncertain T stance" confirm how the lack of communication results in an uncivil setting.  At the same time, consider the reactions of those on the bus who are watching.  The eyewitnesses make "small anxious sounds" and children "whimpered."  It becomes evident that in order for a secure and stable society to advance, individuals must possess the ability to speak and communicate clearly.

In contrast to the inarticulate grunts and people who "squawked" in fear, the ending of the story demonstrates how civil society functions on the need to communicate with one another.  Valerie forges connection with individuals not out of savage violence, but through the means of spoken communication.  Solidarity is constructed and community is established because of language, indicating that the maintenance of a civil society is intrinsic to the use of language and human speech.  In acknowledging the two children who can speak, Valerie understands that hope and redemption, the blocks of any civil society, are evident in the power of speech:

Fluent speech! Had the woman died because she could talk and had taught her children to talk?...And the children . . . they must have been born after the silence. Had the disease run its course, then? Or were these children simply immune? Certainly they had had time to fall sick and silent. Rye’s mind leaped ahead. 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.

When Valerie tells the children, "It's all right for you to talk to me," Butler clearly suggests that the advancement of civil society rests with the ability to talk and communicate through spoken language with others.  

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