Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Leaky Registers and Eight-Hundred-Pound Gorillas

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Leaky Registers and Eight-Hundred-Pound Gorillas

Article excerpt


Everywhere, there are topics and words that local conventions brand as "unmentionable" yet people manage to communicate about the unmentionable nevertheless. What are their strategies for doing so, and how well can those strategies work? This paper considers communicative means for mentioning or implicating the unmentionable, without actually breaching the norms that made the material noxious. Also considered are the larger cultural issues and social dramas that may be at stake.

Register shifts and footing shifts are common strategies for containing noxious material in a linguistic cordon sanitaire. So is conspicuous avoidance (of the gorilla in the room). But the public game of containment is only the most overt manifestation of the issues potentially concerned. Much mischief and many unforeseen entailments lurk in the shadows of these communicative efforts. The moral life of language resides in much larger arenas than the existing literature on "verbal taboo" and politeness generally envisions. Words not spoken, discourse contexts and histories, interlocutors' responses, genre conventions, local regimes of language, truth, and knowledge-all these combine with the actual utterances, to multiple, often unforeseeable, effects. [Keywords: verbal taboo, politeness, register, codeswitching, discourse, interaction, regimes of language]

A painted I-won't-say-what, standing there just as the Lord made her, with only a little bit of shift to cover places that I won't mention.

-James R. Parker, New Yorker, June 16, 1945:20; cited in Read 1964:165

How do people talk about the unmentionable-the "I won't say what" things? And if people want to communicate about such things despite their unmentionability-while still observing the norms that render some words or topics noxious-what strategies might be available? How well can those strategies work? Meanwhile, what mischief, and what unforeseen entailments, can lurk in the observance of the conventions of verbal taboo?

It is clear that human communities everywhere have conventions about what may or may not be said, by whom, in what circumstances, and with what degree of praise or opprobrium. To participate in speech at all is to participate in such regimes of value, and indeed those regimes are high on the list of what we study as anthropologists. From among our own ranks as well as from other disciplines, there is a considerable literature on politeness, on taboo language, and on euphemism, including some works that reach for crosscultural and crosslinguistic universals. Thus we can feel confident that the descriptive details of human sexual reproduction and elimination are likely targets of conventional linguistic delicacy (or its aggressive disregard), as are assertions likening particular people to disfavored animals, or statements unfavorable to the ritual self-regard of one's interlocutor. This is not to downplay the cultural and historical specificity that conditions even which animals are disfavored and which body parts most problematic, to say nothing of the larger picture of activities, types of persons, and social settings that govern what is locally mentionable and what is not. That larger picture also governs when and why euphemistic or evasive talk itself may be disvalued. ("Stop beating about the bush!")

Of more concern for my present purposes, however, are the specific communicative means that may be deployed so that the unmentionable is nevertheless referred to somehow, or understood to be the bush about which people are beating. What are some important communicative strategies for doing this, and under what circumstances might a strategy fail? When does dirt stick to the speaker, and how hard? Can these strategies be subverted? Can a speaker make the dirt stick to someone else? Create an odor of toxicity where it might not otherwise have been detected? I shall first consider various kinds of containment efforts, some of them very familiar, with which speakers try to deal with toxicity in their own talk: the strategy is to contain the noxious material in a sort of linguistic insulation- some linguistic cordon sanitaire that insulates a speaker from responsibility for toxic effects. …

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