Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3

Speaking the "Unspeakable"

by Deborah Galyan

Samuel Gyasi Obeng is clearly at home in his small, tidy office several floors above the limestone arches of Memorial Hall. Yet the photographs and maps covering its walls evoke another home: his father's house in the village of Asuom, Ghana. "When I was growing up, there were people from all walks of life living with us--friends and relatives from other parts of Ghana, Peace Corps workers from the United States, and acquaintances from Burkina Faso and other countries. It was like a small United Nations," Obeng remembers. It was a propitious childhood for Obeng, assistant professor of linguistics and a faculty member in the African Studies Program at Indiana University Bloomington. He now teaches, among other courses, Sociolinguistics and Languages of the World, a course designed to broaden students' experience of languages and cultures. "I grew up surrounded by people from other places. Ghanaian society is a culture of inclusion. You grow up understanding that people are different."

Samuel Gyasi Obeng, assistant professor of linguistics, Indiana University Bloomington --credit

Nothing illustrates the diversity of Ghanaian society better than its profusion of languages, forty-four in all, many with multiple dialects, spoken by more than seventy five distinct ethnic groups. Akan, English, and Hausa (also spoken in Nigeria) constitute the current lingua francas. Ghana's linguistic heterogeneity is part of the fugue of Africa, where, on a given day, some 1,700 languages are spoken, representing about one third of the world's existing languages. "Languages reflect differences in people and cultures," Obeng observes. "They don't all use the same communication strategies."

Complexity and contradictions abound in Ghanaian culture. Members of the majority ethnic group, the Akan, trace their ancestral lineage through the maternal lines of families, and some are polygamous. Nearly one quarter of Ghanaians practice traditional religions, more than half are Christian, and many are Muslim. It is not unusual, Obeng explains, for people to practice a combination of religions. This daily theater of diversity is played out on a small stage: Ghana, at 92,100 square miles, is slightly smaller than Oregon.

Obeng's linguistic interests are broad. He has studied and written in detail about African languages, including Akan, Gwa Nmle, Bisa, Siwu, Ncham, Oku, and Swahili. But Obeng's primary research interest is sociolinguistics, which explores the relationship of language to society. He specializes in interactional sociolinguistics, a combination of conversation analysis and the ethnography of speaking. Most of his research centers around a subfield devoted to speech act theory. "Defined very simply," he explains, "speech act theory explores speakers' intentions and their impact on hearer--or how we accomplish things with words." His work intersects a major topic in the field of sociolinguistics today--politeness. Sociolinguists are asking: How do different societies perceive politeness? "What is considered polite in one culture might not be considered so in another," Obeng explains. "In some cultures it is considered rude for a person to ask a favor in a direct manner. But often in collective cultures, asking someone to do something for you in a direct manner is part of daily life and is considered quite sensible."

Ghana has been described as a polite society, where, as Obeng describes it, "people detest verbal confrontation" because it threatens social harmony. In such a society, how does one deal with an obnoxious neighbor, a meddling relative, or an incompetent village elder, if it is socially unacceptable to speak candidly? What prevents Ghanaians from quietly seething until they explode in anger? Obeng is an expert in the strategies Ghanaians use to "speak the unspeakable." Much of his research centers around one such strategy called verbal indirectness, a communication strategy people use to avoid trouble when expressing difficult or unpleasant information. "People use verbal indirectness to save face," Obeng explains. "In every society, our faces are vulnerable. The spoken word can make or break you on the spur of the moment. People are extremely careful when they are talking. You can defile your face by using the wrong word."

The concept of "saving face" includes a person's physical well being as well as public self image. Anyone who has ever tried to avoid offending a friend who has asked "Do you like my new haircut/sweater/tattoo?" with the answer "It's interesting. . ." has employed a favorite American form of verbal indirectness known as evasion. Across cultures, verbal indirectness occurs in casual conversation as well as in the formal discourse of politics and law. Akan language speakers typically use verbal indirectness to avoid conflict in situations ranging from advising, requesting money or favors, announcing misfortune, complimenting, criticizing, or denouncing someone's behavior, and in political and judicial discourse.

All speakers have a wealth of indirectness strategies to work with, including circumlocution (skirting the issue); indirectly authored speech forms, such as proverbs, metaphors, riddles, tales, and hyperbole; evasion; innuendo; pseudo-soliloquy (ostensibly talking to oneself); nonverbal strategies (sometimes including special props and costumes); the use of intermediaries; and pronoun mismatches. But the circumstances of application and frequency of use of specific indirectness strategies can vary from culture to culture.

Verbal indirectness in the form of pronoun substitutions or "mismatches" is common in Ghanaian contexts. Obeng describes how Akan speakers frequently use pronouns to address referents that differ from the person conventionally associated with a given pronoun. The first-person pronoun may be substituted for second- or third-person pronouns, and second- or third-person pronouns are sometimes used to mean first person. The use of pronoun mismatches depends upon variables such as the social positions of the speakers--whether they are social equals or subordinate and superordinate—and on the speakers' motives. For example, if two Akan wives (wife A and wife B), married to the same husband, are experiencing tension in their relationship, wife A might say (in the presence of wife B) "I am a disgrace." What wife A actually means is: "You are a disgrace." This pronoun substitution allows wife A to denounce wife B while ostensibly referring only to herself. In such cases pronoun mismatches save face and prevent open confrontations, which are prohibited. Because speakers of Akan generally share a cultural background, meaning or intent is not ambiguous. "The participants know exactly who is being referred to, yet the speaker can always claim, 'I was not talking to you,'" Obeng says.

"Pronoun mismatches often occur across languages and cultures, whenever people are trying to communicate something that is an 'unspeakable,' something that is, in some way, dangerous," Obeng observes. "You find this in the Judeo-Christian tradition as well. Christ, for example, referred to himself in the third person most of the time as the 'Son of Man.' Here in the U.S., Bob Dole gave us a well-known example during the 1996 presidential campaign, when he repeatedly referred to himself in the third person."

Obeng's research supports an opinion already well established in the realm of folk wisdom: verbal indirectness is a favorite communication strategy of politicians. "Politicians are at an even greater risk than ordinary citizens when they speak. It's not just their faces that they want to protect, but also their careers," he says. "Indirectness strategies can help them achieve a kind of political immunity in potentially threatening situations." Obeng has made interesting cross-cultural observations of the ways politicians adapt indirectness strategies to various political climates and forms of government. Comparing the political discourse of African and Western politicians, Obeng has discovered that indirectness is more pervasive in developing democracies such as those in Africa than in the more developed democracies of the West. He postulates that politicians in developing democracies frequently operate in climates of limited free speech and employ indirectness more often to avoid conflict.

"In Nigeria, for example, a politician can't be very direct in criticizing the government when the consequences may be prison, whereas, here in the U.S., nearly every time I turn on my radio or TV,

I hear the opposition lashing out at President Clinton," Obeng says. "So, the nature and frequency of indirectness depend upon the politics and conventions of the society itself."

Obeng's comparisons of Western and African political discourse indicate that Western politicians employ evasion more than any other form of indirectness, while African politicians employ more metaphors and proverbs. "Ghana is a stratified society," Obeng explains. "It is considered disrespectful to criticize chiefs and elders--all those of higher status—including government officials directly." He argues that metaphors and proverbs are particularly useful in Ghana and in some other African countries because of the "high disclaimer of performance" they attract. The speaker can say the "unspeakable" while maintaining the ability to emphatically deny that he or she has spoken directly to or about a specific person or political entity.

The old woman appears to be talking to her dog, but in this example of verbal indirectness the two people behind the fence are the target of her message. Talking through the dog gives her the communicative license to speak what is otherwise an unspeakable act. --credit

In a paper published in 1997 in the journal Discourse & Society, Obeng describes an interesting case of political indirectness he encountered on November 3, 1992, the day of Ghana's Fourth Republican presidential elections. Obeng recorded two women talking while standing in a line of people waiting to vote. The women were aware of a law that banned campaigning near the polling booth, yet they campaigned informally for their favorite party by employing carefully chosen indirectness strategies. In the following excerpt, one of the women states: "The meat of an elephant is tasty! It takes a long time to be masticated so one can eat a lot of food with just a little lump of it. Chicken is tasty but too soft so one finishes eating it rather quickly."

In this case, the "elephant" she refers to is a metaphorical representation of the party she supports, which she praises indirectly in her statement "the meat of an elephant is tasty." She continues her metaphorical endorsement, claiming that elephant meat "takes a long time to be masticated," which suggests that the party is a resilient and reliable. In her "Chicken is tasty. . ." sentence, she goes on to denounce a rival party metaphorically described as "chicken," that is "tasty but too soft." Here the speaker combines metaphor and innuendo to suggest that, while the rival party might be a good political entity, it is weak and may not endure. Nearly all of the voters who heard their words understood their meaning.

Obeng explains that even in a polite society there are times when verbal directness is necessary and public officials should be obliged to listen to direct criticism. Obeng describes an Akan custom in which one day a year is set aside for speaking candidly to the chief of the village. "One can criticize, give advice, even insult him on this particular day of the year," he says. "This custom has now been extended to the modern political system, so that people can speak directly to political leaders as well. This system works very effectively in Ghana. There are very few repercussions, and people are very direct and astute with their criticisms."


Obeng is in the process of compiling his research on verbal indirectness, much of which has been published in leading journals in pragmatics and sociolinguistics, into a book length manuscript. He plans to extend his work on indirectness in political and formal judicial discourse, and is currently delving into a new research interest, onomastics, the study of names.

"Names provide insight into the cosmic interaction between language and culture. Each influences the other," Obeng observes. "You find this process beautifully illustrated in names." African names tend to be more descriptive of the lives and emotional states of the name-givers and name-bearers than Western names, which serve primarily as labels that link a child to his father. African names can reflect the parents' hopes, aspirations, and moods, as well as the geographical environment, day of the week, season, or time of day when a child is born.

African place names are also expressive of their name-giver's culture and history. Obeng cites the case of a town in Ghana named Poverty Is Harassment. "Now, why would anyone name a town that? In this case, the name-giver was very poor and couldn't pay his debts," Obeng explains. "So he left his village and founded a small town and called it Poverty Is Harassment—a great example of how culture influences language. There are many towns with similar names in Ghana. This is an aspect of linguistics that hasn't been explored much."

Obeng shares one final example of a remarkable Akan communication strategy that involves both naming and verbal indirectness: the naming of dogs for the purpose of relaying a message. Like Americans, Ghanaians keep dogs as pets, for security, for hunting, and for the economic benefits derived from breeding and selling puppies. But they also keep and name dogs to create what Obeng calls "a communicative situation in which the 'unspeakable' may be spoken." In such cases, Ghanaians give dogs names that address a problem or issue that cannot be addressed directly by their owners without fear of losing face in the community. "There are probably many dogs named 'Mind Your Own Business' in Ghana," Obeng says, laughing. "People frequently name their dogs to call attention to a social grievance, such as ingratitude or gossip."

In a recent paper, Obeng cites various examples of dogs with Akan names that address troubling personal issues. Many dogs cited had one- or two-word Akan names that translate into English phrases such as: "Whatever you do, people will gossip about you"; "Enough of your harassment!"; "Money matters/Life is hard!"; and the dramatically indignant, "The community must now be satisfied since the 'evil' it wished for me has eventually befallen me." Sometimes the dog itself becomes a significant tool for dealing with face-threatening situations, as with the dog named "Whatever you do, people will gossip about you." Having given his dog this name, the owner was able to show his neighbors that he was aware of and insulted by their gossip. By Akan custom, it is also acceptable to call attention to the dog's name in the presence of the person who is indirectly addressed through the dog. "If an Akan names his dog 'My neighbor is ungrateful,' and he happens to pass by that neighbor's house, he could call the dog's name and shower it with insults," Obeng explains. "Of course, the neighbor knows perfectly well that he is the target of these insults, but he cannot respond, because after all, it is the dog being spoken to, not him."

Obeng's research holds important implications for those working across cultural and ethnic boundaries in diplomacy and international relations. It suggests that, while language and culture are often inextricable, they are not impenetrable barriers to peaceful coexistence.


For example, in terms of ethnic diversity, Ghana bears some resemblance to other African and non-African countries where unresolved ethnic, religious, and political tensions have led to tragedy. Yet Ghanaians have continued to live in relative peace despite forty years of political uncertainty, military dictatorships, and the chronic suppression of free speech. Obeng's research casts light on some reasons why Ghanaians have managed to maintain their culture of tolerance. "Even in places where there are many ethnic groups and languages concentrated in a small area, Ghanaians are generally not hostile to one another. There are even cases of one language-speaking culture expanding into the territory of another language-speaking culture. Yet these groups have found ways of coexisting peacefully together because of certain conventions of culture and language that call for tolerance," Obeng explains. "For example, visitors--all outsiders--are supposed to be welcome. Hospitality is emphasized as a part of the national character. Language plays a part in that. Growing up with so many languages helps to acculturate Ghanaians to the fact that people aren't all the same."

"This is what makes sociolinguistics such an important area of linguistic study," Obeng explains. "Different people, different cultures, different social domains, different communication strategies--once you begin to study other languages, once you begin to understand how different societies use language, then you can begin to understand human communications. The implications are large."

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