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Caffeinated Codes: The Speech of the Coffee House

Updated on September 6, 2013

In the state of Washington, there is a sub-culture among American popular culture that embraces most of the cities in the state. Being the home state and headquarters of Starbucks, a major coffee retailer, a special type of speech has been invented and used in many coffeehouses in Washington. My research objective is to learn, translate, and explain the dialect of the coffeehouse here in Washington. It is this culture, present since the eighteenth century, which is a mainstay among many Americans. It is also a culture that is making its way across many nations to bring people of different ethnic background together over music, conversation, and coffee.

S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G as a tool.

S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G is a research tool utilized by linguistic anthropologists as well as anthropology students to explore the different ways that a language is used in a community. “Contemporary research into communicative competence often focuses on the details of actual conversations or on issues of how symbolic capital is deployed in discourse in order to analyze how language communicates gender, ethnicity, and power in subtle ways.” (Ottenheimer, 2013, pg. 187) By employing the S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G model I will analyze the setting in which the vernacular takes place, observe the participants and their conversations, determine the ends of the conversations; particularly while ordering coffee, monitor the act sequence between the baristas and customers, examine the key and cadence of the coffeehouse speech, identify the different instrumentalities that are present, discover the different norms associated with the coffeehouse, and classify the genres that are found in the coffeehouse and the conversations that take place within the coffeehouse culture. “Understanding cultural expectations or ideologies about language use is essential for knowing how to use a language.” (Ottenheimer, 2013, pg. 187) With using S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G I will be able to understand the conversations taking place around me as well as their cultural implications upon the coffeehouse culture.

Setting the mood.

SETTING/SITUATION: The setting of the conversation is the most important aspect of the research. “Setting/situation refers to the place in which the conversation is occurring, in its broadest sense, including the overall psychological feeling of the place.” (Ottenheimer, 2013, pg. 164) The setting in which the language of coffee is found varies from coffeehouse to coffeehouse. There are the smaller, more intimate coffeehouses that offer open mic nights as well as a homey atmosphere. Others are higher end and offer more in the way of retail rather than comfort. Here you will find stainless steel and vinyl more than natural wood and cotton blended seating. In the coffeehouse I chose, it was close to my home and styled in the typical Starbucks blend of wooden counters, mixed with dark vinyl seats, ambient lighting, soft music de Jour, and the smell of various beans from all over the world. The atmosphere is one of welcome although the pressure to purchase more than a cup of joe is present with the shelves lined in various merchandise. Although the physical locations of coffeehouses have changed since their inception in eighteenth century England, one thing has remained the same “a place where people gathered together to drink coffee, learn about the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern.” (Cowan, 2005, pg. 79) This is the setting that attracts many to a coffeehouse.

For the taste or the buzz?

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Who drinks and where.

PARTICIPANTS: Depending upon which coffeehouse you visit and in what neighborhood setting, the participants of the coffeehouse culture will vary. In more urban areas, you will see patrons who have an artistic flair with alternatively colored hair, piercings and tattoos. In the suburbs, the coffeehouses are frequented by soccer moms as well as some high and college students who look for a casual place to study and meet with friends. This is all due to the culture if the coffeehouse. “Suddenly, racially and class-diverse baristas were serving cappuccinos and icy sweet drinks to a diverse, and very large, body of customers, many of whom had never had access to, or felt welcome in, the cool coffeehouses of the intellectual and Italian ghettos.”(Fellner, 2008, pg.136) The coffeehouse that I chose to visit was different than other coffeehouses that I have been to. It was smaller and was visited by people from all different classes and stations in life. The one common factor was the larger amount of military personnel that came to the coffeehouse. Although these participants were different the reason why the participants were there was the same, the setting of the coffeehouse. “Take a minute to think about your own Starbucks experience— your desire to stop there for your morning favorites, the always friendly store visit.” (Brennan & Schafer, 2010, pg.55) I arrived at the Starbucks near my home around 11 in the afternoon and stayed through the lunch hour. The participants would arrive in small groups of two or three, or as a single person. Some wore business attire and carried with them their laptops, while some were in street clothing who were also accompanied by their laptops. Women in workout clothing came into the coffeehouse in small groups laughing over what had transpired last night on different relative shows, while a few soldiers arrived at the coffeehouse talking about everything from politics to video games. No matter what they wore or their conversations was about one thing remained the same, as soon as the customer spoke to the barista it was a strange language of sizes, flavors, shots and whips. To someone who is unfamiliar to this language, it can be as intimidating as any other foreign language.

Ends, Acts, and Keys

ENDS: The ends of coffee-speech is actually quite simple compared to the speech itself. It is a way to order coffee just how you like it. “Ends refers to the reasons for which the speech event is taking place, or the goals that people have in speaking in a particular situation.” (Ottenheimer, 2013, pg. 167) With the coffeehouse, the main conversation is with regard to the beverages and foods that are offered. Yet other conversations are just as important. “Coffee signified a break in a busy day, a moment to relax, and, most important, a time to talk: the coffee was poured, and the ideas poured out.” (Fellner, 2008, pg. 5) This is why coffeehouses appeal to many who are looking for an escape from work, school or life. A place where conversations that start out as small talk have the possibility for becoming great ideas or turning strangers into friends.

ACT SEQUENCE: The Act sequence is much like a well-choreographed dance. When a customer approaches the barista there is a variety of options that they can choose from to make sure they have the right beverage for their mood. It can be overwhelming for someone who is not a coffee drinker, much like myself. Even after frequenting Starbucks since the last 1990s, I still become a bit flabbergasted when I look at the menu and decide what I want to drink. The customer walks up to the counter and the barista welcomes them, then asks what they would like. The customer can choose from a variety of sizes; short, tall, grande, or venti; to have a caffeinated, decaffeinated, or half of both; with or without ice; upside down or right side up; wet or dry; with foam, cream or neither. This is the tip of the coffee-speech iceberg. When I approached the counter and the barista asked me what I wanted, I answered with my usual “venti caramel apple cider.” What some do not know is that this is a beverage that is usually seen on the menu during the fall months, yet is offered year round. I also order coffee cake from the food menu that Starbucks offers as well. The barista writes my name on a cup while repeating my order back to me while I pay with my debit card and passes my cup to another barista who makes my drink. The second, sometimes third, barista calls my name after my drink is made and wishes me a good day in the same manner as the first barista. I take my beverage; find a table and sit back to observe the flow and cadence of the coffeehouse.

KEY: The atmosphere of the coffeehouse is one of mellowness, yet both baristas are perky as if the caffeine enters their systems via osmosis. Their conversations are always upbeat and there is a smile on their faces as they speak with the customers and each other. The key is also cheery and casual in that the dialect does not seem to follow Standard English and is a grammatically incorrect version with regard to ordering of drinks. “Many sentences we produce in our everyday communication are far from being grammatically correct. Yet, they are quite understandable and perceived as acceptable by other non-ideal speakers.” (Grein & Weigand, 2007, pg. 227) This communication style would be out of place anywhere but the coffeehouse, yet in some outside circumstances the dialect is recognized and understood. “Language becomes more than just a system of grammar rules and vocabulary; rather, it turns to be a very important cultural practice.” (Grein & Weigand, 2007, pg. 229) This is particularly evident in regard to coffee-speech and the culture that is found in the coffeehouses.

Instrumentalities and Norms

INSTRUMENTALITIES: The two distinct instrumentalities are speaking and writing. The speaking is done between the various participants, be them customers or baristas. The writing is seen in the menu that is written in artistic chalk medium and the repetition of the name and order on the cups. The dialect is the same no matter what form the language is in, English coffee-speech. It is mutually intelligible unless you are unfamiliar with the coffeehouse culture and dialect when ordering a beverage. A new instrumentality has been introduced in the coffeehouse in recent years. With the introduction of social media and Wi-Fi, many coffeehouses are being incorporated into online communities and the social networking culture. “When the new worlds of social media and mobility burst into the market, Starbucks seized this major opportunity to use these new channels for communicating its strategy and culture worldwide.” (Brennan & Schafer, 2010, pg. 74) This has allowed for the coffeehouse culture to expand outside the coffeehouse and to the privacy of homes, creating another way to share the dialect and culture of the coffeehouse to those who wish to study it in their own time prior to visiting a coffeehouse for the first time. “The local coffee shop is the original social network.” (Brennan & Schafer, 2010, pg. 63) It only makes sense that coffeehouses would embrace the social network culture to extend their own.

NORMS: The norms of the coffeehouse vary when it comes to the participants. What one person expects is different than the other, depending upon their comfort level with ordering a beverage. Some participants, or customers, order in rapid fire succession while other order more slowly, taking their time to study the menu. In the time I was at the coffeehouse, I observed that the participants showed no hesitation when laughing or speaking too loud or whether or not their conversation was private or profane. It appeared that the coffeehouse was much like an extension of their own homes or workspaces. This is standard in many Starbucks and other coffeehouses. It is the standard expectation in many Starbucks that you can gather with friends and talk for hours or find a place to write or work without the confines of a library or office. “Committed to establishing a presence wherever its customers congregate—and determined to bring value and relevance to that relationship— Starbucks will continue to develop its competence in these areas.” (Brennan & Schafer, 2010, pg.74) Yet, in different nations, the norm is different with accordance to their customs. Starbucks recognizes this. “Starbucks is a social experience everywhere in the world. The way we engage with customers is very different in different parts of world, but we’re applying this approach globally.” (Brennan & Schafer, 2010, pg.74) This is creating a coffeehouse culture that is evident across the world, no matter what the norms are, the coffeehouse culture is the same; welcoming and warm.

Genres of coffeehouses

GENRES: The genre is a unique one. It does not fall into just any particular one of the categories that are listed by Ottenheimer “lectures, conversations, gossip, performances, sermons, jokes, riddles, lies, proverbs, and so on.” (2013) There are conversations between the participants, as well as gossip, jokes, lies, and other general forms of communication. The one the stands out the most would be the conversation between the customer and the barista. It is also hard to place coffeehouse culture. It is a very social culture and the speech associated with the culture is a varied one of a complex dialect. The coffeehouse culture is one that cannot be replicated by any other types of beverage vendors. The experience is not the same in a diner or drive-thru coffee stand. That is what makes the experience of the coffeehouse so inviting.

The coffeehouse...

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My six sources, including the required text for the course, are varied in their topics; from the invention of coffeehouse culture to the consumerism of Starbucks, yet all provide citations to substantiate my claims. The coffeehouse is an invention that took place in the 1700s in Great Britain, yet has become an American institution. “It should be easy to identify what a coffeehouse was at the dawn of the eighteenth century: a place where people gathered together to drink coffee, learn about the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern.”(Cowan, 2005, pg. 92) This is where the cultural connections come in. The ability to meet with other people who enjoyed drinking coffee, opposed to ale, and sharing news appeals to all from different stations and cultures in life. The reason why I am focusing upon Starbucks in particular is due to the imagery that is associated with the name. “Starbucks, with its coffee-centric culture and relentless visibility, has become a public icon.”(Fellner, 2008, pg 13) Because of their logo and public image, Starbucks is aware that they are the premier coffeehouse and provide a meeting place for those who participate in coffeehouse culture. Due to this strong connection to coffee, Starbucks has become synonymous with coffee and a place to meet friends and make new ones. As Brennan and Schafer state “What is more social than a visit to your local Starbucks?” (2010) My other two sources focus on the aspect of linguists in culture. ” Duranti shows that a number of approaches to culture can be closely related to the concept of language as a means for expressing and creating our experience.” (Grein & Weigand, 2007, pg. 228)

Under the American Anthropologist Association’s Code of Ethics in that I will keep an unbiased view of my case studies and unless given permission keep their identities private. I will keep my observations to myself, with the exception of this paper. I will also maintain the professional standards with regard to research and plagiarism. Through my research I have discovered that the coffeehouse culture is one of unique variables and a dialect that would make many linguistic anthropologists ponder the linguistic inconstancies of the coffeehouse speech with the mixture of Italian, French, and English.

I found through my observations and research that coffeehouse culture is and always will be a large part of American culture and that the sun-culture of the coffeehouse has its own rules with regard to conventional speech and conversations with others. “Culture is a system of practices through which people construct reality, and language plays a very important role in this process.” (Grein & Weigand, 2007, pg. 228) This is especially seen in the Starbucks setting. “Starbucks has created not just a brand but a culture authentic unto itself, which has, in turn, changed the larger culture. This may be the root of its cachet, its ubiquity not just on our street corners but in our popular iconography.” (Fellner, 2008, pg. 136) It is this culture that has been embraced as an American staple spreading throughout the world through stores and social media. “Starbucks has insinuated itself into our shared culture as well as into our wallets and neighborhoods. It’s part of how many of us define our world and ourselves, not to mention our coffee.” (Fellner, 2008, pg. 4) My experience in observing the coffeehouse rather than just being a participant opened my eyes to the culture that is associated with the coffeehouses that I was not aware of prior to my research.

The culture that is found in the coffeehouses has been part of Western culture for over three hundred years and will continue until coffee runs out or is replaced. It is the idioms and expressions found in the coffeehouses that have helped shape not only American culture, but created a new language as well. Where else can you hear “I would like a tall, half-caf, skinny, with a shot of mocha, whipless, with wings and make sure to shock it,” and understand what the person is saying outside the confines of a coffeehouse.


Brennan, B F. & Schafer, L J. (2010) Wiley and SAS Business : Branded! : How Retailers Engage Consumers with Social Media and Mobility. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Wiley

Retrieved from

Cowan, B W. (2005) Social Life of Coffee : The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse.

New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press. Retrieved from

Fellner, K. (2008) Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino.

New Brunswick, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press. Retrieved from

Grein, M(Editor) & Weigand, E (Editor). (2007) Dialogue and Culture.

Amsterdam, NLD: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Retrieved from

Lockwood, D. G. (Editor), Fries, P.H. (Contribution by) & Copeland, J.E. (Contribution by). (2000) Functional Approaches to Language, Culture and Cognition.Philadelphia, PA, USA: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Retrieved from

Ottenheimer, H.J. (2013) The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Wadsworth Cengage Learning: Belmont, CA


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