Publication details [#60852]

Publication type
Article in book
Publication language


In this article, silence refers to non-speech as a response to something said previously by someone else, to general non-speech when no one is speaking, or to the non-mention of a topic while speaking. Previous research on silence over the last forty years, approached silence in terms of meanings, functions and types (or forms). A basic distinction has to be made between silence as non-speech and silence as non-mention, and between intentional and unintentional silence. Verschueren (1985) investigates the semantics of verbs that denote speech and the lack of speech, focusing not on what people say but on what they “can say about their verbal behavior”. He argues that “S/he is silent” is ambiguous. Verschueren also posits eight functions (or causes) of silence. In 1985, the first book on silence from a linguistic/pragmatic perspective was published: Tannen and Saville-Troike’s “Perspectives on Silence”. Like Verschueren (1985), they also speak of the polysemy of the English word silence. In 2007, Kurzon (2007) has posited a typology of silence, proposing four types of silence: conversational, textual, situational and thematic. This article discusses silence in different fields in which studies of silence from a pragmatic viewpoint have been published, mostly since the 1990s. Thus silence is debated as an integral part of the analysis of conversation, especially turn-taking, Gricean implicatures and politeness (besides silence and power and silence in literary conversations). Silence is also looked at from the perspective of second language acquisition. Then silence is addressed in the legal context, in which the right of silence has become a major factor not only in criminal law, but in pragmatics, too. A further section deals with the transitivization of silence (Kurzon 1998),– i.e. silencing a person or a group of people, where silence becomes a transitive verb – especially in the field of the silencing of women, of gay/lesbian discourse and in the so-called spiral of silence. Silence in time of grief as a reaction to bereavement and to the Holocaust, a topic that has been the centre of much attention over the last twenty years, is also presented. Finally, what may be called silence in many but far from all languages – metaphorical or thematic silence – which may be glossed “to be silent about”, and the analysis of silence as zero, is addressed. In short, silence as an alternative to speech is universal, but different societies may have different norms as to the function and meaning of silence.