Speech Sounds | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Speech Sounds | Symbols


Language is a basic symbol of society. The "speech sounds" people use to represent abstract ideas are lost in Butler's story. Symbols related to names, race, signs of authority, and children loom large as a result. The imperfection of the improvised symbols leaves humans trapped in frustrating, misleading communication that is short on detail and long on emotional reactions.


Names can carry a great deal of symbolism based on why they are given. Obsidian and Rye each introduce themselves via pieces of jewelry which they carry around for that express purpose. The problem is that symbols without words are often inexact. Obsidian's black, shiny stone could be intended to mean other names than Obsidian as the narration points out. Rye presents her grain-stalk pin in the knowledge that most people will never think of her as Rye, but instead as "grain" or "wheat." The narrator underlines the ambiguity and emphasizes how uncertain the name system is even in the real world.

The cost of "losing your name" in "Speech Sounds" is profound. Because of the disease people lose not only their names but also many of the skills and much of the understanding that allowed a person to be who they had been when their names were still in use. Rye had been a teacher who specialized in English and literature at a level that required that she read and write constantly. She has lost her ability to read and to write. However, she has retained speech. The retention of her abilities and the presence of children she can protect and train give her access to much of her former identity. Her choice to reclaim her true name is more than mere symbol. Because she retains speech skills, she can reclaim at least some portion of her role as a teacher, reclaiming her former self.

Rye experiences a "return" to her own identity and her own self when she shares her full name with the children. It is as though she has changed back to the person she was before the pandemic and has recovered at least some part of what was lost. If she is indeed able to restore language to the children she teaches, then in time they may be able to carry the work further. She could recover lost names for other people and help humanity reclaim a more complete civilization.

The Los Angeles Police Uniform

The narrator makes it clear from the beginning of the story that the Los Angeles Police are no longer an active unit in Rye's world. In spite of this fact, Obsidian still wears the uniform and he still succeeds in generating some of the respect and cooperation the uniform's symbolism calls for. Police uniforms can be polarizing symbols which trigger riot and resistance but they can also promote desired cooperation and control in dangerous circumstances.

The motto of the Los Angeles Police is "To Protect and Serve," a fact the narrator references after Obsidian's death when Rye considers his chosen role as a protector. Rye observes, "Obsidian had been the protector, had chosen that role for who knew what reason." Rye considers her own temptation to commit suicide in connection with Obsidian's choices. He decided to keep going despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation by assigning himself a set of responsibilities. Rye similarly finds hope in the possibility that she can help give language back to humanity. She will protect both the children and the species.

The cost of the disease defines Obsidian and Rye's pain. In a world without language, Obsidian has lost the use of a tool that is especially valuable to a police officer. He no longer has the ability to calm people and reason with them with words alone. However, he continues to try to keep the peace in his community by using the visual symbol of his uniform. His uniform implies authority and the rule of law, something that is greatly needed in both characters' fractured society. The ability to protect opens the door to survival and salvation for both Obsidian and Rye.


The presence of weapons in Butler's dystopia foreshadows the coming violence and indicates the threat of violence. Rye's and Obsidian's handguns confirm the idea that Obsidian is a cop and help reduce the sense that Rye is potential prey. Obsidian carries a weapon openly and uses the sight of it to add intimidation and authority to his presence. Rye conceals her own weapon most of the time and only reveals it when she feels the need to command a bit more respect from those around her and to discourage an attack. A weapon is a symbol of power and control when people can no longer use words to prevent violence.


At the beginning of the story, Rye views children as symbols of all her world has lost. She believes that they are doomed to live like chimpanzees without the power of language like the rest of humanity. However, this symbolism shifts as the story progresses. By the end of the story, the children that she and Obsidian rescue are a symbol of all that the world can regain. They represent her hope of a new life for her and her species.

In most cultures children represent the future. How that future is seen depends on circumstance. In many folk tales children are seen as burdens on the family but also as inescapable karma. If they are treated badly, they will grow up to treat adults badly in return. Some forms of literature present children as amoral monsters outside of the empathy and reason of adulthood. For Rye and her people, children are a sign of the culture's own fall and are doomed to grow up as little more than animals. That perspective only changes when Rye realizes that language may not be lost but is instead hidden away in the children and is waiting to be revived and taught again.

For Rye the children hold a separate element of meaning. She has lost three children to the pandemic. Even if her children had lived, Rye would have had to see them suffer her own fate or even worse when their speech skills were lost. Rye can now look forward to being a mother to the two orphans in the story as well as any other children she finds with speech capacity. The small girl and boy also offer Rye a return to some form of her old profession as a teacher. The small boy and girl have brought her life around from a long, barren period where her own future seemed valueless to a personal rebirth that is coupled with the rebirth of society.

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