International Journal for Dialogical Science Copyright 2007 by Per Linell
Fall, 2007. Vol. 2, No. 1, 163-168
ON BERTAU'S AND OTHER VOICES
Linköping University, Sweden
ABSTRACT. In this short commentary on Bertau's paper, notions of voice are discussed. In
particular, the following aspects are in focus: materiality, personal identity and perspectivity.
”What would be worst, the discovery of a new nose on you or the discovery of a
new voice from within you?” (Anward, 2002, p. 134)
Most words in natural languages are polysemic; they have meaning potentials
which, in combination with contextual factors, can give rise to many situated meanings.
The term ‘voice’ and its counterparts in other languages are no exceptions. In the
everyday usage of many languages, words for ‘voice’, such as Russian golos, German
Stimme, Swedish röst or Finnish ääni, can mean both ‘the sounds carrying a person's
speech’ and ‘the person´s expression of views and opinions’, also as expressed in
political elections and the like (the verbs golosovat´, stimmen, rösta and äänestää, in the
respective languages, all mean ‘to vote’). There are of course many other subsenses, but
the two of ‘physical sounding of one´s speech’ and ‘opinion/view/perspective’ recur in
many more languages. They are also part of the scholarly analysis of the concepts
associated with the term ‘voice’.
Marie-Cécile Bertau (2007, this issue) discusses many aspects of ‘voice’, mainly
in psychodynamic, psycholinguistic and dialogical perspectives. The introduction takes
its point of departure in ‘dialogical self theory’ and the idea of I-positions, but Bertau
then goes back to the writings of Voloshinov and Bakhtin, and other members or
predecessors of the Bakhtin circle. The main bulk of the text is about the child´s
acquisition of voices, in a psycholinguistic perspective. I shall use this opportunity to
summarise some insights, most of which are expressed by Bertau, but I will do so in my
own words. (Actually, these words are of course not my own at all, as every dialogist
AUTHOR NOTE. Please address correspondence about this article to Per Linell, Department of
Culture and Communication, Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden. Email:
When Bakhtin and particularly Voloshinov developed their “theory of the
utterance,” which revolves very much around the concept of voice, they started out
from formal linguistics of the time, with its abstract conception of language. The
formalists were ”monologists”, who promoted a picture of languages as systems of
abstract, impersonal and immaterial signs, as structures existing over and above
individuals. By contrast, Voloshinov (1929/1986) and Bakhtin argued that languages
live only in and through the mouths of real people, in utterances. Utterances in talk are
always carried by individual voices. Hence, we should think of languaging in terms of
material(ised) (embodied, personalised) words, a view which has later been expressed
by other dialogically minded scholars (Silverman & Torode, 1980). To simplify matters
considerably, I suggest that the concept of voice involves at least three important
dimensions: (a) material or physical embodiment (of utterances), (b) personal signature,
and (c) perspectives on topics and issues. I shall deal with these in this order.
First, the point of embodiment and materiality: Language lives in and through
the languaging of real people, in their interaction with others. The utterances of
language users are always embodied; they consist of ”material” words enacted by
embodied individuals and carried by their voices. When a person ”fills his language
with life” (to use a distinctly Bakhtinian wording), he or she adds prosody (intonation,
accents, rhythm, etc.) and voice quality to it, in producing utterances. These properties
of the voice contribute to sense-making in communication, especially to the emotional
flavours attributed to the utterances in context.
The second point on personal identity is related to this. The physical voice, with
its dialectal features and voice quality, gives off much information about the social and
personal identities of the speakers (Laver, 1980; Scherer & Giles, 1979). These features
index ”the uttering body” (Bertau, this issue, p. 142), the source from which the speech
comes, in terms of the speaker´s gender, age, geographical origin, sociocultural group,
as well as personality, mood, and personal views. While the voice, particularly its
‘voice quality’, is personal, it also to some extent reflects the person´s biography.
Bertau (this issue pp. 136, 138-139 ) states that the voice carries the subject out
of her- or himself. In slightly different wordings, it provides a ”sound envelope of the
self” (Anward, 2002, drawing upon Anzieu, 1979). A speaker´s utterances are signed
(Morson & Emerson, 1990: 69), and the voice becomes a kind of personal embodied
‘signature’. As Bertau (this issue, p. 138) insists, the social nature of utterances and
voices includes their addressivity. But if one speaks in one´s own voice, it is also a mark
of authenticity. Jan Anward (2002) analyses particular types of predicament, under
which speakers lose their own voices or have to use others´ voices. It is evidently more
of a threat to one´s personal identity and authenticity to lose the voice than the nose.
The embodied voice is a thoroughly dialogical medium. The speaker can hear
his own voice, almost as he hears the voices of others. Voices can be heard when visual
BERTAU’S AND OTHER VOICES
contact is excluded, for examples through closed doors or in the dark. Farr (1990)
argues that vision is primarily a medium for observing others (we are only rarely objects
in our own visual fields), hence in a sense more monological, whereas the vocal-
auditory channel is more dialogical. At the same time, however, this reasoning neglects
the enormously dialogical and interactional functions of mutual gaze, seeing one
another´s faces and eyes, explored in the writings of Lévinas (e.g. 1969).
Thirdly, individuals use their signed utterances (sometimes) to express particular
ideas and views. This brings us to another, somewhat metaphorical but
characteristically Bakhtinian sense of the term ‘voice’, namely, an expressed opinion,
view or perspective, something that the person would typically say and presumably (at
least at some level of intention) stand for.
Ideas, opinions, and perspectives on topics are by and large socially and
interactionally generated and sustained. They live in the ‘circulation of ideas’ in
conversations, the media etc. (François, 1993). Individuals appropriate many of these
ideas and make them their own. They then indulge in voicing, i.e. expressing, these
ideas themselves. One might say that they ”vote” for these ideas, and others that hold
However, there are many opinions and perspectives available in the
sociocultural environment around us. Any single human being will, over time, be
acquainted with many (partially overlapping) sociocultural communities and pick up
many ideas, sometimes partly conflicting perspectives on the same phenomena or
issues. This gives rise to at least two, but related, extensions of the concept of ‘voice’.
One is the idea of a generalised ‘voice´, or generalised perspective on a topic or topical
domain, which is tied to a group of sense-makers, rather than a single individual. Such
voices often meet and dialogue with each others in encounters between people. For
example, we could talk about the ”voice of medicine” as the ways a typical physician
would express him- or herself on medical issues in encounters with patients, and the
”voice of everyday life”, which are ways in which patients approach (what are in some
sense) the same issues, at least as long as they stick to everyday life perspectives
The three aspects of voices: embodiment, signature and perspective, can of
course be talked about in alternative terms. One is emotional tone (intonation) of
utterances, sources of utterances (who said this, who stands for that?) (Bertau talks
about the agentive starting point of a message, this issue, p. 135), and the ideas behind
people´s discourse. Erving Goffman (1981) made an analysis of the notion of ‘speaker’
that largely mirrors this threefold division: the speaker may be an animator (the physical
source or sounding-box), an author (who puts together the words of utterances) and a
principal (the authority whose opinions are expressed or who is ultimately responsible
One other aspect not directly highlighted by Goffman in the above-mentioned
analysis is that one and the same person may appropriate, internalise or express several
different voices, whether these voices are taken from other individuals or they are
generalised voices. Here, of course, ‘voice’ is taken in the abstract sense of ‘perspective
on a topical domain’, but notice that these are still perspectives entertained by or
associated with human beings (individuals or collectivities), the stake-holders (who may
held responsible for them). Moreover, some speakers sometimes even imitate the actual
physical voices of other (real or virtual) individuals. This brings us to the heart of the
notion of ‘polyvocality’ (‘multivoicedness’) in the self´s internal dialogue or
contributions to external dialogue. Consciousness is a dialogical notion and involves the
self´s ability to internalise others´ views on self´s own thoughts, utterances and actions.
That latter is close to the notion of the ‘authoritative/authoritarian’ voice in internal
dialogue (Bakhtin, 1981).
We also have polyvocality and heteroglossia in texts and larger discourses, the
latter in a Foucaultian sense. They are often supported by disembodied practices, for
example written texts. While literate societies with their use of written texts have
strongly contributed to the abstract formalist view of language (there is a ‘written
language bias in linguistics’; Linell, 2005), it is important to align with Bertau in
insisting that texts too have dialogical properties like responsivity, addressivity, and
often polyvocality. Indeed, Bakhtin´s theories were developed mainly on the analyses of
literary texts (Dostojevskij, Rabelais, etc.).
Nonetheless, many societies exhibit heteroglossia, the parallel existence of
different social languages voicing different perspectives, in which some are more
monological and may appear to be supported by artificial means (such strong cultural or
social sanctions), others are more ambiguous and dialogical, not imposing only one
perspective on its users. Bertau reminds us of the background of Bakhtinian thinking in
a Russian society with a conservative church (and, one might add, political regime) and
a living everyday communication. This engendered Bakhtin´s and Voloshinov´s
thinking in terms of (more or less) ”dead” and ”living” languages. In later Soviet times,
this was transformed into the clash between the authority, authoritarianism and power
of official discourse (about history and society) and the vernacular ”kitchen talk” among
ordinary people (Wertsch, 2002).
Bertau´s concerns are very much about the ontogenesis of voices in the child´s
development. This is discussed in terms of aspects of indexicality, body, intonation,
imitation and internalisation. Time and space impede me from going into all these
aspects (although I have hinted at some of them above). It could be said, however, that
her account focuses primarily on how infants learn to internalise, appropriate and
integrate others´(caregivers´) voices. It does not seem to go very much into later
development. Here, there remain many interesting issues for dialogists to resolve. How
and when does the child learn to play with other voices, distinct from their own
BERTAU’S AND OTHER VOICES
”authentic” one? What is the relation between using different voices in internal
dialogue, and the ability to enact and externalise voices distinct from one´s own, for
example, in imitation and parody? Is there an intrinsic relation in ontogenesis between
manner of speaking (physical voice) and type of perspective on issues (abstract voice)?
Anward, J. (2002). Other voices, other sources. In P. Linell & K. Aronsson (Eds.),
Jagen och rösterna: Goffman, Viveka och samtalet (pp. 127-148) [Selves and
voices: Goffman, Viveka and dialogue]. Linköping, Sweden: Tema
Anzieu, D. (1979). The sound image of the self. International Review of Psycho-
Analysis, 6, 23-36.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays (M. Holquist, Ed.; C.
Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin: Texas University Press.
Bertau, M.-C. (2007). On the notion of voice: An exploration from a psycholinguistic
perspective with developmental implications. International Journal for
Dialogical Science, 2, 133-161. Available at http://ijds.lemoyne.edu/journal/
Farr, R. (1990). The social psychology of the prefix ‘inter-’: A prologue to the study of
dialogue. In I. Marková & K. Foppa (Eds.), The dynamics of dialogue (pp. 25-
44). New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
François, F. (1993). Pratiques de l´oral. Dialogue, jeu et variations des figures du sens.
Paris: Nathen Pédagogie.
Goffman, E. (1981). `Footing'. In E. Goffman, Forms of talk (pp. 124-159).
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Laver, J. (1980). The phonetic description of voice quality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
Lévinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne
Linell, P. (2005). The written language bias in linguistics: Its nature, origin and
transformations. Oxford: Routledge.
Mishler, E. (1984). The discourse of medicine: Dialectics of medical interviews.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Morson, G., & Emerson, C. (1990). Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a prosaics. Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press.
Scherer, K., & Giles, H. (Eds.). (1979). Social markers in speech. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press.
Silverman, D., & Torode, B. (1980). The material word: Some theories of language and
its limits. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Wertsch, J. (2002). Voices of collective remembering. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
Voloshinov, V. (1986). Marxism and the philosophy of language (L. Matejka & I. R.
Titunik, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Work [”Marksizm
i filosofia jazyka”] originally published in Russian in 1929 and in this English
translation in 1973)