On Not Speaking

It makes a difference whether people don’t speak or speak. I don’t agree with the remark of Sapir,

If one says, “Lend me a dollar,” I may hand it over without a word or I may give it with an accompanying “Here it is.” Each of these responses is structurally equivalent if one thinks of the larger behavior pattern.

On the contrary, the immediate difference might be trivial, but the larger behavior is likely to be different. In Sapir’s case, not speaking might indicate either utter simplicity of friendship, as if there were only one will between the two persons; or it might be a morose resentment at being tapped and not accepting the other as exactly a person; but speaking would recognize him as a person.

Consider the difference between the fellow who snaps his fingers at his companion and leaves, expecting the other to follow like a dog, and the one who says, “Let’s go,” however curtly. When spoken to, one is included at least as a human being. Yet a person might get up and leave without a word or with a glance (but not snapping his fingers), and his friend follow him because they are totally in accord. This is like the silent agreement that is reached in a primitive tribal council that baffles the anthropologist because he did not hear any vote or decision.

Speaking is a commitment not only to a human relationship with the one spoken to, but also, we shall see, to the existence of the thing spoken about. A common ploy of resentment is to refuse to speak, to force the other to the humiliation of admitting that he needs the relationship by speaking first. A jealous man may maintain silence about the question of fact that he suspects, because he will not admit the possible existence of the fact or he will not admit that he cares about it. A solitary man—every man in his solitude—has no one to speak to. Yet very close friends often do not speak, because they do not have to.

Thus, there is a silence that is preverbal, not yet interpersonal or even personal. There is speaking, which recognizes persons. And there is a silence beyond speech, an accord closer than verbal communication and where the situation is unproblematic. In one of the scriptural lives of Buddha there is a remarkable sentence, at the conversion of Anathapindika, “The Lord consented by becoming silent.” I take it that this means that the silence of the Lord creates accord, is accord; and from the human point of view, if the Lord consents, what further is to be said?

More generally, I am unhappy with the fundamental linguistic formula of Bloomfield. He divides an incident of utterance into three parts: A. Practical events preceding the act of speech. B. Speech. C. Practical events following the act of speech. And he says,

When anything apparently unimportant turns out to be closely connected with more important…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.