Focalization | Occurs when speech plays with the focal point of its address. Focalization is a means of switching between interlocutors, of opening or limiting one’s target, of distributing one’s words among various recipients, or of speaking to multiple parties at once.

All speech is addressed to someone. It is hard to imagine speaking to no one at all: whether it be to oneself, to someone absent, to an abstraction, to an inanimate object or divinity, human speech only takes shape through the movement that leads it to another: it aims; it is a vector. The idea of focalization allows us to examine how a discourse’s aim can suddenly change, become more focused, or on the contrary more open, moving or distributing itself between various interlocutors.

In this excerpt of an Indochine concert, the singer speaks to his public using the pronoun tu [singular, familiar form of “you”], using a paradoxical form of address aimed both at the crowd and each of its members. Most of the time, however, focalization happens when one form of address shifts to another. There are five main categories of focalization.


Often, a speaker addressing themselves to an entire gathering will suddenly focus on one of its members: here, Dominique de Villepin focuses his answer on François Hollande, or here Daniel Cohn-Bendit shouts at his counterpart Martin Schultz. In both cases, each speaker’s address asserts itself as it finds a focal point. Though more ordinary and thus more impassive in tone, the same tightening process can be heard in auctions, where auctioneers move from a form of open, inquiring address to one that is closed, focused on certain individuals, ratifying their offer when they bid.

In another context, Roland Barthes, beginning his lecture at the Collège de France, briefly focuses his discourse onto those of his auditors who are standing up, inviting them to come back another time. During a conference on Proust, François Bon illustrates his point by personally addressing one of his audience members. Likewise, in this excerpt of the film Entre les murs, the teacher first speaks to the entire class, then focuses his words on certain members, targeting his injunctions. A plowman does the same when giving instructions to each of his steers.


The most systematic example of distributed address can be seen in this list of thanks taken from a Jane Birkin concert. Formal situations such as Jacques Chirac’s inaugural speech or this Jacques Vergès plea are also conducive to this kind of serial address, much like messages heard on television, spoken, however, in a much more relaxed way. In this excerpt of a Claudia Tagbo show, the comedian splits her public up by successively addressing herself to White, Arab, Black, and Asian women, and in this A Silver Mt. Zion concert, the singer speaks to his public by distributing its members into socio-professional categories.


Perhaps the most spectacular instances of focalization are those where a speaker shifts their focus between two recipients with very different statuses: like when this man speaks in very contrasting terms to a journalist for France Culture and to his dog; or when this voice suddenly focuses on a plant; when this truck farmer moves from an aside back to the general public; when this singing coach moves between addressing her student and an imaginary public, or even in this famous excerpt of La Femme du boulanger, where the character played by Raimu transposes his speech full of reproaches to his wife into one aimed at the female cat that has just walked into the kitchen.

Sometimes a change in address happens more smoothly, as in this message from the ex-lead singer of Pantera about the death of guitarist Dimebag Darrel: we hear him go from “he” to “you,” transforming an apology to his family into a declaration of love. Many instances of alternating address can be found on radio and television, since speakers often pass from generic forms of address aimed at viewers or listeners to more concrete, focused forms of address, whether it be to a guest, as in this interview with Colette or Ségolène Royal, or to a co-host, as in this amateur radio show where we can hear two budding hosts prepare what they will be saying.


But focalization is even more remarkable when it happens with three, four, even five different forms of address. Spectacular examples of multi-focalization can often be seen on television, as in this Evelyne Thomas show (successive addresses to Thomas, to the viewers, to the show’s guests); this fit of uncontrollable laughter by host Laurie Cholewa (the public, her colleagues, the viewers); this regional counselor (the president, the viewers, the guest, the orchestra); this cooking show about an eel matelote with Maïté (the viewer, Micheline, the eel); this televised appearance by Michel Sardou (you all, you, you, the guy saying “ooh”) or this one by Francis Lalanne (the viewers, the cameraman, the pen-pushers); this episode of Intervilles (the viewers, contestant 1, contestant 2, the crowd, Guy Lux); but also this radio show disrupted by an animal rights activist (Alexis Grüss, the young lady, the security staff, the listeners, Joël).


Other interesting cases of focalization are those where a speaker addresses several categories of interlocutors all at once: in this Fernand Raynaud recording, the comedian’s instructions and corrections, aimed at his guest, are precisely what change the focal point of his address (as in Ashanti, incidentally). In Fernand Raynaud’s cruel utterances, we can hear how he is speaking both to Jacky Bernard and to a future listener (the recording was published as a single that Raynaud gave his friends): its aim is double.
Likewise, in this excerpt of L’Ecole des fans, Jacques Martin technically only addresses the audience (first level of discourse), but his speech contains a hidden address to Jean-Sébastien (second level), even though the host’s sarcasm will always be intended for the audience (third level).
Finally, in this recording of a man speaking to no one in particular on the subway, we can hear different forms of address, whether abstract or concrete, present or absent, which follow and melt into one another to such a point that it becomes unclear, in the end, who exactly is being spoken to.


Pour que Spider y passe

Child playing, recording of Camille Gaudou, 2016.

Ah ils sont là !

Voicemail message, 2017.

Turn off the lights!

Donald Trump, excerpt from a campaign rally, Atlanta, 2016. 


Woman appealing to fellow passengers in the metro, Praha, 2013


Altercation in a family shelter, Holland, 2012

Premier baiser

An account, excerpt of the show Les Pieds sur terre, France Culture, 2008.

Attention d'vant là-bas les gars

Poitou farmer’s call, excerpt of the recording Voix du Monde : une anthologie des expressions orales, 1986.

Si demain

Indochine, excerpt of a concert at the Zénith in Paris, 1986.

Quelle année as-tu lu Proust?

François Bon, excerpt of the conference Ecrivains en bord de mer, 2013.