August 20th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; silence; part four...

The two remaining silence scenarios are:

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.

The grammars of these two scenarios in Mainstream American English are complicated, and they vary widely from one dialect to another. It seems to me that a good way to begin would be for me to tackle them from the viewpoint of the Ozark English speaker, because that's the grammar I know best, and because #3 and #4 are almost identical in the OzE grammar: In both scenarios the newly-arrived person has the role of Guest -- a guest in the conversation in #3, and a guest in the event -- whatever it may be -- in #4.

For my generation and my adult children's generation, the only permissible form of #3 or #4 is the respectful silence. Two examples of respectful silences: the new arrival has just suffered some terrible event known to everyone else present, like the death of a beloved, and no one wants to intrude on that person's grief; the new arrival is someone from outside the community who outranks everyone else present -- in terms of status -- by a vast distance. In those two situations, the option of talking will be yielded to the new arrival. The body language of the respectful silence is openly supportive and nonhostile, and instantly recognizable to every OzE native speaker.

Except for the respectful silence, the rule is simple: The guest -- whether invited or uninvited, liked or disliked -- must be put at ease and made to feel welcome, and the mechanism for accomplishing that is language. If you're an adult Ozarker, that rule is ironclad. When adults don't follow it, they're said to have no manners; when children don't follow it, they're said to be engaged in bullying. Little boys learn it largely by observing men and older boys who do it well, but with little girls it's not left to chance -- it's overtly taught. This is because although it's fine for males to be the ones who put guests at ease and welcome them into conversation -- and many males do that superbly well -- for males, it's optional. But when no man or boy moves to take the Welcoming Host role, some woman or girl must; the skill is therefore not left to chance in females. We are taught three linguistic skills:

a. When the conversation in progress as the guest arrives is appropriate for the guest, how to smoothly bring the guest into the conversation as a participant.

b. When the conversation in progress as the guest arrives isn't appropriate for the guest -- for whatever reason, how to smoothly morph that conversation into one that's more suitable and bring the guest into it as a participant.

c. When no conversation is in progress as the guest arrives, how to start a conversation and bring the guest into it as a participant.

There are science fiction conventions and academic conferences and feminist gatherings that I won't go to simply because silence scenarios #3 and #4 happen to me at those events over and over again, and I just plain can't handle it. I'm intellectually aware that the problem is in the language, not in the people; but I'm a shy person to start with, and perceiving myself as unwelcome a dozen times a day (or evening) wrecks what little social composure I have available. In my grammar, there isn't a single thing available for me to say in either of those scenarios -- not one. Leaving me no communication option except a punitive silence. All this makes it impossible for me to function at the event in a way that's useful to anybody else there -- so I don't go.

In the days when I had no choice -- when I had to go to conventions and cocktail parties and receptions and similar events running on Northern grammar rules because I was a graduate student or a junior faculty member or some such thing -- I was utterly miserable. And one of the hardest things I ever had to do as a linguist was to learn, in working with my Navajo consultants, that it was both mannerly and welcoming for me to arrive as a guest and participate in an ongoing silence that might last an hour or more, or an ongoing conversation in which I was not included -- that might last an hour or more. I did learn, because my consultants were patient with me and willing to teach me, and I was willing to learn, but it was so hard.

I'm going to close this with a digression that's about a different scenario, but that I think fits here:

I said above that my Navajo consultants were willing to teach me their very different grammar with respect to silence. I've only once tried to do that sort of teaching myself, and it didn't go well. I was the invited speaker/facilitator at a feminist conference, and at the end of the day there was a social of some kind that we all had to go to. A group of the women attending stood not more than six inches away from me and carried on a loud and lengthy conversation about getting together the following morning for breakfast. They behaved as if I were deaf or invisible or nonexistent, and I finally summoned up from somewhere enough courage to ask them, straight out, whether they realized how lonely and isolated and unwelcome I was feeling as I listened to them. Their response surprised me; they said "We took it for granted that you wouldn't want to go to breakfast with us." I asked how they could feel confident about that, and they said, "Well, for example, we would have behaved exactly the same way around the woman who's our dean." I suggested to them that they might want to check that out, since it was perfectly possible that their dean felt the same way about their behavior that I did. "She has the option," I told them, "of thanking you for the invitation and making some excuse not to join you, if that's her preference -- but she will have been given the courtesy of a choice." I spoke out that time for two reasons: because I was being paid to be a teacher at that event, and felt obligated to be worthy of my hire; and because of the unfortunate gulf that exists within feminism between (many) feminists and (many) rural Southern women.

Note: I suspect that what I've said above applies to the grammars of all the Southern Mountain English dialects, not just to Ozark English, although there may be differences in the details.