28. Amerindian Silence

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Montserrat Ventura i Oller
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

 

The silence of languages

Silence is cultural, just as words are. For many different reasons, our languages contain silences, and we are raised to know how to interpret them. Sometimes they make us unsure, often because of discord on an individual level or as a result of circumstances involving conflict. Respect, fear, ignorance: silence tells us things without words, and often it does so very eloquently.

But in some cultures, it is not so easy to classify silence as one of the functions of speech. There are societies in which silence is not just appreciated but also pervasive in communications, and even in relationships. Ellen Basso1  was a pioneer in highlighting silence as a cultural form of behaviour among the Western Apache, and alongside them, other Amerindian groups. In her classic study, she tries to explain why, in certain circumstances, the Western Apache avoid talking and do so for reasons that go beyond the socially determined verbal behaviour. Basso outlines a few of these scenarios: meetings with foreigners, which involve social distance; first meetings between lovers (which sometimes may go on for months); reunions between parents and children after long absences, where silence is attributed to the need to rebuild the relationship; in the face of insults or off-key words from people who are not in control of their mental faculties (for example, due to an excess of alcohol), as if reasoning is not possible, it is better not to talk; during mourning rituals, where speaking would be inconsiderate to those who are sad; and, finally, during healing ceremonies, where a patient for whom the specialist is chanting cannot be spoken to out of respect for the powers and spirits and to avoid these having a harmful effect on the patient. Despite this disparate range of situations, Basso believes that the conditions are always the same: silence, in the culture of Western Apache, is associated with social situations in which participants perceive their relations towards another person as ambiguous and/or unpredictable. Rather than being a question of this or that contextual situation, it is one of the social relations perceived, which are not structural but dynamic. But there are other ways to conceive of such silences.

In 1991, I started to conduct fieldwork in the Cóngoma community, one of the seven Tsachila communities in the western lowlands of Ecuador. At the time, there were about 2,000 people—in 2018, there are now about 2,800—and they were the only speakers of Tsafiki, a South Barbacoan language. They are a society that used to hunt, cultivate and fish but that was transitioning to a market economy. They maintained an animist view of the world, in spite of the relatively recent efforts of Catholics and Protestants. At the time, bilingualism was still the preserve of men, and everyday life occurred in Tsafiki2. It was common to see two interlocutors sitting with their backs to one another and one suddenly rising and leaving without a goodbye. Or, at most, the person leaving would say “I’m going”(majinayoe), which would be met with a rhetorical reply of, “Are you going?” (majinayun). And that’s all they would say.

A sociality that avoids conflict

Tsachila men and women are very restrained in their linguistic displays when they meet or say goodbye, unlike other ethnic groups that highly value the rhetoric in some of their stereotyped dialogues—for example, salutations. The Tsachila salutation at a crossroads boils down to a matter of good manners that has a meagre semantic content: “Where are you going?” (nunchi?), to which one responds with the obvious: “I’m going up that way” (fechi) or “I’m going down that way” (pelechi). To be sure, spotting a person coming from afar can trigger a communicative exchange focused on general information about the visitor, the host, and their respective surroundings, but in general, the arrival of a visitor to a home happens very discreetly, almost imperceptibly. Likewise, during group outings to the village, the cemetery, a shaman’s home, parties or meetings, or to go fishing, it is not unusual for it to be the case that, while women above all drift into informal and cheerful conversations, long silences also take hold, as if it were necessary to avoid bothering the others, and these silences are never considered signs of social tension. Avoiding disturbing others could be considered rather a sign of respect for one of this society’s key values, namely the appropriate weighing up of words. This corresponds to what I said earlier about goodbyes. Restraint over words, which certainly reduces the possibility of conflicts, is also expressed in other aspects of communication, such as the avoidance of eye contact during dialogue, where clearly the words are more important than the expression that accompanies them.

Linguistic exchanges are therefore very discreet, and oratory is not valued, unlike other societies in the lowlands of South America. People who attended public events such as major ceremonies during other times were not accustomed to speaking in public; happiness was expressed through singing and music, especially when fermented drinks had begun to have their effect. Today, in collective events such as community meetings, the leaders, the only people who are believed to be proficient in spoken discourse, are also laconic: they avoid big speeches and instead seem embarrassed to have the floor or be the main figures in meetings, especially if there is a high attendance. Embarrassment about being the focus of public attention is patent during interactions that correspond to situations of inferiority. Embarrassment (lu, red; lu tenka kano “be embarrassed,” literally “red heart take”) suggests discretion and shyness to us.

Weighing up the right words

The Tsafiki language system3 shows us the importance of the authority of speech, a fundamental aspect of weighing up the right words. Tsafiki has a marker for indirect speech, ti, which may be repeated to indicate up to three sources between the speaker and the original event. The indirect style seems designed to locate the source of information beyond the speaker, without this carrying connotations linked to suspicion, as would be the case in English or other European languages. Furthermore, this linguistic system allows an extremely high level of personalization of information sources (“he/she says that he/she said that he/she said that …”), and it therefore restricts the possibilities of invention even where rumours and gossip continue to exist, fostered by the great distances that separate homes from one another. Nevertheless, talking too much (tsanke epele palakiman4) is met with condemnation, and a large number of individual actions are intended to avoid revealing private acts to others, precisely so as not to give rise to rumours. These acts include preferring short cuts to main paths, walking late at night or very early in the morning in order to maintain discretion over movements, or even erasing tracks left when walking. Mythology itself punishes excessive use of words, and its repertoire offers constant demonstrations of this precept. The tale of Biali (“otter”) is a good example of this:

Biali helped a Tsachi with fishing, and he agreed to never tell anybody about it. But one day, while inebriated, he broke the agreement. After that, he lost his good relationship with Biali who had helped him to fish and, consequently, the ability to catch fish in abundance that he had been given 5.

But on the other hand, the ability to speak is not anathema. One of the terms that means stupidity, ignorance or irresponsibility is, paradoxically, epela, which in a strict sense is equivalent to “dumb, one who does not speak.” It is worth noting that this correspondence is found in other parts of the Amerindian world, particularly where people have experienced colonial domination most intensely, such as the Andes. According to Howard-Malverde (1990), a lack of mastery of Spanish was to the conquistadores equivalent to ignorance; but the insult of “dumb,” as well as the refusal to speak before the Spaniards, would have been accepted by the victims of this contempt themselves. It does not seem that this was the case regarding the Tsachila, for whom colonial pressure was less far reaching. For them, talking is a sign of wisdom, and although it is not possible to make a direct correlation, it seems pertinent to note that the body organ that allows words to be produced, the tongue, is called mikaka (“The eye or the fruit of knowledge”).

Moreover, silence as an expression of a communication barrier is also a response of rejection in situations of disagreement. Tsachila behaviour that guides most cultural practices leads, as mentioned above, to the resolution of conflicts by means of withdrawal, rather than by open confrontation. Keeping quiet is also a coded response for the Tsachila. They may decline to attend an appointment without apologizing if they consider that they have not received fair treatment. Silence, which can sometimes be difficult to maintain, can be replaced by the concealment of the truth, which can mean the same thing: denying the interlocutor good communication. However, escape and avoidance of conflict cannot be satisfactorily explained only by colonial rule or inferiorization. Everything seems to indicate that these behaviours are part of a cultural ethos taken to extremes during times of crisis. The acceptance that the Tsachila externalize in their everyday relations does not prevent prudence or protection of their privacy.

And in the field of ritual there is also a value associated with silence: secrecy. In any matter involving spirits, it is necessary to avoid causing them to lurk around or bothering them. In any remedy or treatment from shamans, people have to maintain secrecy and discretion. Secrecy and an absence of words are conditions of the ritual, unlike in other Amazonian societies, where remarkable communication takes place, especially in the aural form of recitations, songs, music and different sounds. It is necessary to avoid calling certain spirits by name, and the relationship with them must remain within individual privacy or be shared only with a small number of people. The shaman does recite litanies, but sometimes in a cryptic language, or directly in Spanish, or even Quechua, languages removed from everyday speech. Shamans learn these litanies elsewhere, and their literal sense may not be understood by the shaman: their therapeutic efficacy is not in the meaning of the words but in their aural effect, and this is explained by the power that this society attributes to otherness. Gestures and sound dominate over words in the shamanic ritual act.

The refusal to share information, confinement of language, silence and secrecy result from the same caution. It might even be suggested that forgetting, which manifests itself in extreme form in passivity and a refusal to transmit myths or certain traditions, may be an expression of this attitude. If this set of practices can be explained by the same logic, that logic would be a predominant sensitivity towards silence, the avoidance of conflict, and discretion: a cultural silence beyond linguistic pragmatics and verbal and nonverbal practices, as well as beyond the specific circumstances of interaction.


  1. Ellen Basso, “To give up on words: Silence in western appache culture”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 26 (3) (1970): 213-230.
  2. Montserrat Ventura i Oller, Identité, cosmologie et chamanisme Tsachila. À la croisée des chemins, l’Harmattan, Paris, 2009. Spanish version: En el cruce de caminos. Identidad, cosmología y chamanismo tsachila, FLACSO / Abya-Yala / IFEA, Quito, 2012.
  3. Connie Dickinson, “Mirativity in Tsafiki”, Studies in Language 24(2) (2000): 379-421.
  4. Taken from an unpublished interview by A. Aguavil of J. Aguavil and C. Calazacón, Congoma, 1997. This expression has been translated as, “One who speaks for the sake of it.” I am grateful to the Pikitsa collective, a Tsachila group that collects documents about the Tsachila language and culture, for passing it on to me.
  5. This story was explained by Florinda Aguavil in Cóngoma in 1997.