Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” starts with the main character, Rye, on a bus as a fight about to break out between two men. The driver throws the bus around to try to put them off balance, but this only causes more fights, and eventually he brings the bus to stop. Rye and several others get off to wait the situation out. A man in a police uniform pulls up near her and gets her to help more people off the bus after he stops the fighting with gas. The driver and passengers think the new arrival is acting superior by helping them, and because Rye cooperated with him they start disliking her too. Rye is forced to leave with him instead of getting back on the bus. The man, whose name is something like Obsidian, offers to take her to Pasadena. It turns out he can read and write, so Rye lets him know that she can speak and understand words. They have sex. Rye tells him she doesn’t need to go to Pasadena anymore and directs him towards Los Angeles. Before they can reach her house there, a woman runs in front of the car, being chased by a man. Obsidian tries to help her, but the man kills her and then kills Obsidian, so Rye kills him. The woman had two children who can both understand language. Rye empathizes with them and adopts them.
By the time of the story, several years have passed since the disease wiped out language and civilization has fallen as low as it’s going to in the circumstances. Rather than showing the immediate reaction to the disease, it shows the daily life of a relatively unaffected person trying to get by in this world. Taking this approach gives the story an entirely different tone—namely, a sort of resigned acceptance rather than panic and shock. It also allows for some hope. Human society as a whole might be losing hundreds of years of progress, but individual people are still managing to find places for themselves in the world. Plus, of course, there’s the ending. It takes years, but Rye does get to see the disease run its course. Despite how cheerfully Butler offs her characters, one of the core messages of the story still seems to be that time heals all wounds and things do eventually get better.
I tracked mentions of Rye’s relatives and everyone’s anger management issues. Rye’s relatives represent her attachment to the past. Since her family died, she’s refused to establish new relationships. The driving force for the first half of the story is Rye’s decision to join her brother and nephews, even though she hasn’t contacted them in years, they’re all right-handed and therefore more susceptible to the emotional imbalances caused by the diseases, they’re all male and therefore more likely to be aggressive if every male other than is Obsidian is anything to go by, and they might or might not even still be in Pasadena. Obsidian is the one who lets her put them behind her and move forward. When he dies, she still has a new responsibility in taking care of the two kids and rebuilding society starting with them. As for the anger management, that seems to be in place mostly to highlight what the lack of ability to communicate anything complex has done to interpersonal interactions. People aren’t angry so much as at each other as they are frustrated by their own losses.