Special Seminar

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Silence as Language (Michal Ornan-Ephratt, Haifa)

Our presentation focuses on verbal silence as means of expression within verbal interaction. The ‘Homo Sapiens’ is recognised by hes speech. Words are the unmarked verbal signifiers par excellence, yet, in times, the speaker may make use of the absence of those (expected, specific) signifiers to cooperatively (Grice 1989) convey meaning.

The talk will start with a programmatic layout of the different silences. ‘Silence’ does not name a single monolithic notion but stands for an assortment of notions: such as stillness; symptomatic silences and (filled and unfilled) pauses; silencing; empty speech and the unsaid, as well as verbal silence. We then focus on the latter as the deliberate choice of the addresser (speaker/author/copywriter/artist) to express hemself and communicate a message using silence, alongside speech. Such silence, being a non-realised verbal signifier denoting meaning is then the figure and speech—as its forerunner—ground.

The presentation will proceed, arraying the linguistic forms of verbal silence and the function it fulfils, that is verbal interactions in which verbal silence is the salient carrier of each of Jakobson’s (1960) six communicative functions. As humans, our mastery of the various silences as communicative possibilities is innate, directed by communicative competence. This alone justifies the study of silence in its own right. Yet, the study of verbal silence, throws new light on the relations between figure and ground; speech and silence and absence and presence. As we hope to show, the highlight of such an investigation is illuminating the iconic nature and qualities of verbal silence as a signifier making absences present.

Spiritualities of Silence (David Le Breton, Strasbourg)

Speech divides the world and introduces the fracture (and the connection) of meaning. Yet for the believer, particularly in monotheistic religions or in Oriental spiritualities, God cannot be reduced to a limited signification. He escapes speech because he is beyond words, beyond any limits of meaning. Speech is antithetical to divine attributes as these pertain to a set of essentially human features in that they are evidence of a separation. God cannot participate in the split of the individual and no speech can exhaust the human address to him, whether it be to speak to him or to name him. In general, silence is an opening towards interiority and therefore towards intimate forms of spirituality.

About our speakers

Michal Ornan-Ephratt is Full Professor in the Department of Hebrew Language at the University of Haifa, Israel. Her research interests include neologisms, transparency theories and pragmatics, as well as linguistic models in non-linguistic disciplines and the study of silence. She is editor of Silences: Silence in Culture and in Interpersonal Relations (Tel Aviv, 2007) and author of Silence as Language (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

David Le Breton is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Strasbourg. He is member of the European Dynamics (DynamE) unit at the University of Strasbourg and of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF). His research focuses on representations of the human body and the analysis of risk behaviour. He has, furthermore, worked on and written about topics such as pain, silence, and the face. He is author of Du silence: essai (Métailié, 2015) and of Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses (Bloomsbury, 2017).