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How the Language Really Works:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing

Non-Verbal and Social Aspects Of Language

Non-Verbal Aspects Of Language

Spoken language is based on a face-to-face encounter. One person directly addresses another or others. (The electronic media, such as radio and television are, of course, exceptions, but even there we can envision someone at a microphone imagining an audience to whom they direct their remarks.)

Within the face-to-face encounter of speech, communication is not limited to words. Speakers use a wide variety of extra-verbal devices, from emphasis and dramatic pauses to changes in tone or tempo. Speakers also use a broad range of non-verbal clues. They “talk” with their eyes and their bodies. They use hand gestures and facial expressions to convey ideas. And speakers respond to similar cues from their listeners—the nods and grunts that say, in effect, "I hear you," or the quizzical looks that say, "I don't understand."

As we learn a language, we also learn the non-verbal conventions of that language—the meaning of a shrug, a pout, or a smile. Speech thus often includes not only a face-to-face meeting, but also a meeting of the minds. "Conversation," Steven Pinker notes, "requires cooperation.

Listeners assume speakers are conveying information relevant to what they already know and what they want to know. That allows them to hear between the lines in order to pin down the meanings of vague and ambiguous words and to fill in the unsaid logical steps.

Speaker and listener are aware of each other's knowledge, interests, and biases. They can interpret remarks within the common social setting in which they find themselves. This mutual understanding, being "on the same page" as it were, is frequently absent with written communication. Information an author would like to assume the reader knows must be included with a text. Writers must make their biases explicit to assure full understanding by the critical reader, and readers, unable to read body language, must subject texts to close scrutiny to "read" attitudes or biases underlying a text.

Using Language In A Social Context

Speech is a tool of social communication. We understand spoken remarks within the context of an exchange of ideas between rational and emotional beings in a social situation. We become aware not only of what one says, but what one does by uttering such a remark, and the effect they might bring about by such a remark.

Remarks may serve as expressions of feelings or ideas.

Don't give it another thought.
This is more than a command not to think about something. It is a promise meaning "I'll take care of it."

People not only state ideas, they can also threaten, inquire, and dare. They can be ironic or sarcastic.

Can you pass the ketchup?
This remark may have the form of a question, but functions as a request. If someone says
I can't find the ketchup.
they are probably not just announcing their inability to locate a condiment. They are asking for help.

Language can be used to request, persuade, convince, scare, promise, insult, order, and, as above, elicit action. Remarks often convey ideas that extend beyond their literal meaning. Listeners must infer unstated meaning. If someone says

The government once classified ketchup as a vegetable in the school lunch program.
they are probably not simply providing a lesson about the school lunch program. They are offering an example of bureaucratic stupidity.

We assume common rules for the use of language, and infer meaning accordingly. Thus if someone says:

The robber appeared to have a beard.
we assume that they are not sure, not that they are commenting on the mechanics of sight.

Listeners infer meaning within the context of social roles and settings. The meaning of an utterance can thus vary with the occasion, the relationship of speaker and listener (or writer and reader) or the listener's expectations of the speaker's purpose.

Do you have the time to help me?
This question carries different meaning when uttered by an employer or an employee. When uttered by an employer, the remark is a strong request for assistance; one would not generally answer "no." When spoken by an employee, it is more a respectful request for help.

An assertion that there is racism in the United States Army takes on different meaning and significance if asserted by a black soldier (an allegation), a white General (an admission), an Army Task Force report (official recognition), or a Moslem priest in Iran (a condemnation). The same comments takes on different significance when asserted in a bar, a Senate hearing room, or an elementary school classroom.

When learning to speak, we learn degrees of courtesy and "turn-yielding" cues that function somewhat like “over” in a walkie-talkie conversation. We learn social communication strategies—such as how to appeal to someone's vanity (Anyone who buys this cream can look better in days!), or how to imply a fact (Do you still beat your wife?). The late Lord Denning, often referred to either as the best known or the most colorful English judge of the 20 century, observed:

When a diplomat says yes, he means perhaps. When he says perhaps, he means no. When he says no, he is not a diplomat. When a lady says no, she means perhaps. When she says perhaps, she means yes. But when she says yes, she is no lady
While this may be an obviously sexist and politically incorrect statement, the remark nonetheless demonstrates ways in which language is a complex social tool for communication.

What We Say, Do, and Mean

In the examples above we can distinguish between what is said, what is done, and what is meant.
I left my watch home.
This remark says that I left my watch home. By making that statement, I do something: I describe where my watch is, or that I am without it. Finally, the meaning conveyed (or inferred) is that I don't know what time it is.
  • says: that I left me watch home
  • does: describes where my watch is
  • means: I want to know the time

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