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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 things, we say that it has, after all, a “meaning”; it “means” these more important things. Accordingly, we say that speech-utterance, trivial and unimportant in itself, is important because it has a meaning: the meaning consists of the important things with which the speech-utterance (B) is connected, namely the practical events (A and C).

No; speech adds meaning to the events. Sometimes it is their most important meaning. Very often it is, by its form and expressiveness, the fulfillment of the preceding practical events and the shaper of the succeeding events. It is itself a practical event.

The speechlessness of mystics seems sometimes to come from a preverbal physical or biological confluence with the environment; they are in a trance, “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,” as Wordsworth says, “with rocks and stones and trees.” But sometimes mystical silence seems to indicate a fullness of meaning beyond the ability or need of saying, as in Wachet Auf Bach sings of the marriage with Jesus, “No ear has ever heard such joy.”

We can give more mundane examples. John Dewey points out that to many people “it is repellent or artificial to speak of any consummatory event.” Such an event is to be enjoyed, or mourned, in itself, though one might speak of its ongoing consequences. We say of a beautiful scene, a sunset, that “it speaks for itself,” meaning that it doesn’t speak and neither need we. When Dewey remarried at seventy, a reporter asked him to pick out a passage about marriage from one of his books. Surprised, the author of so many books on morals, education, and society confessed that he had never written about marriage. It is the testimony of a well-balanced and happy man—especially a pragmatist: when there’s no problem, there’s nothing to say. There are countless novels about courtship or adultery; almost none about happy marriage.

Yet there is a contrary truth that limits this one. It is precisely consummatory experience, whether joy or grief, that we finite creatures often cannot contain. We are made anxious by too much excitement or even feel that we are going mad, and then our human way of coping with our feelings is to say them, for example in poems of praise or lamentation. These too are countless. People return from a trip abroad and are too full of it, so they have to blab about it in order to get back to ordinary life. A man is in love and has to blab about it, to get us involved as accomplices in his way-out condition. Such people are boring or embarrassing, because so much talk doesn’t seem to be called for by any purpose. Another man, a writer, loses his son and writes repetitious poems of his grief; since writing is his way of being in the world, he has no other way of coming back.

A powerful principle of recent higher criticism of the Bible, in both Buber and Barth, is grounded in this human disposition. Events occurred that were stupefying, catastrophically confusing; to preserve their sanity, people confabulated the Bible stories. Something occurred, but not what is written down. “From such texts,” says Buber,

we cannot arrive at “what really happened”…but we can recover much of how people experienced the events. With such texts it is wrong to talk of historization of myth [as the early Higher Criticism did]; rather they are mythization of history.

In my opinion, however, all spoken sentences assert, indicate belief in, the existence of the state of affairs that they say, or they mean to be lies and thereby also tailor the world to the forms and conditions of speech. Of course, an immense amount of palaver is not meant to mean much of anything, for instance the small talk that is used for social cement—I think I remember an actual count that small talk was more than 95 percent of sentences spoken; even so, small talk is not permitted to be nonsense or mere sentence-forms, though it must not be taken too literally. When people seriously join subjects and predicates, they mean to be making propositions, not just propositional skeletons. When people make interjections, of surprise or woe, they are not singing, they mean to be saying how it is with themselves. Poetic fictions are always statements.

In recent linguistic theory, this has tended to be denied by formalist and positivist linguists, who want to discuss only sentence-structures and what they call “language events.” They define language as the simplest constructible or describable framework of language behavior—utterances are utterances, period. They can define how they want; but we must ask what the speakers and hearers of language are doing, because this will influence the forms. I doubt that a correct grammar of a natural language like English can be constructed apart from its being spoken.

I am more convinced by the example given by John Austin. If a man says, “The cat is on the mat but I don’t believe it,” we turn away in disgust because he is insincere, he is trifling with us. The fact that the listener does this, that he will not dignify the noise as language, is certainly crucial in the language event. Immanuel Kant put it strictly: there is a categorical imperative to tell the truth, for if the possibility of not meaning what one says is universalized, there is a self-contradiction in the nature of speech, human speech is impossible.

Thus, if somebody doubts that we mean what we are saying, we often employ the dumb-bunny expedient of just saying it louder, we say it more. Consider an important example in the grammar of English. Chomsky says that “be” never states existence:

In the simplest grammar of English, there is never any reason to incorporate “be” into the class of verbs…rather than be + Predicate.

That is, “be” is merely a peculiar formality of English to link subjects and adjectival predicates. Let us review some cases. “I think therefore I am” is fancy and probably not English. Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be,” “I cannot but remember such things were” are certainly English but they are poetical. “Let there be light! and there was light”—here both parts are good prose, meaningful to most people, but the case is special. “Let the child be” meaning “Leave him alone as he is” is not special. (“Is” from a verb like stare, “stand.”) ” ‘Were there once elk in Ireland?’ he asked unbelievingly.”

In all these uses, however, it could be argued that we have introduced an equivocation; they are not “be” the copula, but an older verb with the same odd conjugation that means “exist.” No; for consider the common sequence, “You’re lazy. I’m not lazy. You are lazy!” Here, under stress of contradiction, the existential force of the copula itself leaps right back to the surface when we say it louder: “Laziness inheres in you by nature (“be” from a verb like $$$)—you’re just like your father.” In the simplest grammar, the existential force was there all along. Analogously, “I did see him,” “I will go, no matter what you say”: emphasized, the auxiliary recovers its lexical meaning. (Incidentally, in such cases is the emphasis a phoneme, a morpheme, lexical, or semantic?)

Because speaking is assertive, it holds the floor, it commands authority, whereas keeping still is retiring and modest, or at least biding its time. Children should be seen and not heard because—we have decided—they don’t know anything to assert. In a parliamentary filibuster, a speaker’s right to continue is respected just because he is speaking; by a legal fiction he is asserting something, even if he is asserting nothing. If he were only making noise or doing tricks, or if he somehow made it clear that he was using language as sentence-forms, would he then be out of order? I don’t think this constitutional nicety has ever been tested by the Court.

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