August 13th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; functions of silence; Ozark English; part one...

A while back, nancylebov asked me for a discussion of silence as a conversational phenomenon, as well as a discussion of the concept that in at least some languages or dialects silence is punitive, and I agreed; it's an interesting topic. I then went looking for some useful statistics and research, and that's what has delayed this post. I wanted some items that I thought would be easy to find -- they weren't. For example, somewhere in the course of my academic training I was taught that the average Mainstream American English (MAE) tolerance for silence in conversation is seventeen seconds, and I've used that statistic in my teaching ever since; I wanted to locate a source for it. I wanted some statistics on the different rates of and tolerances for silence in conversation for the various genders, generations, social classes, and the like. I wanted a good basic research paper that presented an overview of the topic and surveyed the literature. I have looked endlessly, with every search string I could devise; I have even resorted to looking in my personal library of linguistics books; and I haven't found any of those things. Perhaps I've just looked in the wrong places. I'm sure there is a large body of linguistics literature on silence, and quite a lot on silence in MAE and in various AE dialects; there must be. But I'm hampered by not having access to the online journals in linguistics because non-teaching emeritus faculty aren't included in the subscriptions to those journals at their universities. Drat and blast. [If you have online resources that would be helpful, I'd be grateful for the URLs.]

In the end, I decided to go ahead without the material I needed, starting with my own Ozark English dialect, and here I am.

Every culture has a set of Dreaded Utterances -- things you never want to hear said. In Ozark English, one of the most dreaded in that set goes like this:

"Well...... now you've gone too far."

The stereotype about Ozarkers says that what comes next will be physical violence -- one hillbilly whipping out a knife or a gun or a tree branch and lambasting the other hillbilly. That kind of thing does happen; the Ozarks are no more free of assaults and homicides than any other part of the country. But it's not the only possibility, or even the most likely one. The most likely one is silence -- from that moment on. There may be one more line -- "I'll never speak to you again," set to a particular tune that English punctuation gives me no resources to describe in writing -- or there may not. This is rare, and it's not done lightly, because it's not just a threat; chances are good that the person who says that utterance will in fact never speak to the other one again. In my own family, I know of two examples, both of them men who went to their graves without ever having spoken again to the person (a sibling, both times) who'd gone too far. That is, I suppose, the most extreme version of punitive silence.

Slightly less extreme is the variant in which the person who says the Dreaded Utterance does speak to the other person in public -- in situations where not speaking would cause distress not just to the person who's gone too far but to others present, and would draw unwanted attention -- but never otherwise.

So far, reasonably coherent; but then we hit major fuzziness. There are certainly good silences ... people just being together, relaxed and comfortable, and not talking. We need to exclude those from the discussion, because none of those takes place within a conversation and none of them are punitive. And then maybe we could look at four other kinds of silence that -- in Ozark English -- are almost always punitive:

1. When someone who has been engaged in a dialogue suddenly stops talking and refuses to continue.

2. When someone refuses to begin a dialogue; for example, when someone refuses to answer a question or respond to another person's utterance and offers only silence.

3. When someone joins a group that is already engaged in conversation, and the conversation stops.

4. When a guest arrives somewhere and the people already there make no effort to start a conversation.