Esoteric vs. exoteric communication

From Glottopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Esoteric and exoteric communication are two kinds of language use that are sometimes distinguished in anthropological linguistics and in language contact studies, first called by these terms in Thurston (1987) (see also Wray & Grace 2007).

Esoteric communication is inward-facing, which means that it is used within a well-defined group. In this type of communication, comprehension is made easier as hearers are likely to know what the speaker is going to say in the situation. This does not exclude that the language can express novel ideas, but the expression of predictable thoughts is normal. Exoteric communication, on the other hand, is outward-facing. Hence, exoteric communication (in the definition of Wray & Grace 2007) would range from using a lingua franca to employing one’s local dialect to communicate with somebody from outside. Speakers have to be clear, since hearers are unlikely to predict what the speaker will talk about. This is possible in a language with simple, unambiguous elements that can be combined by unambiguous rules.


  • Thurston, W.R., 1987. Processes of change in the languages of north-western New Britain. Pacific Linguistics B99, The Australian National University, Canberra.
  • Wray, Alison & George W. Grace (2007) ‘The consequences of talking to strangers: Evolutionary corollaries of socio-cultural influences on linguistic form.' Lingua 117: 543–578.