Reported threats: The routinization of violence in Central America

Susan Berk-Seligson and Mitchell A. Seligson


This study offers new insights into the complex and underexplored nature of reported threats. Combining the theoretical framework of speech act analysis with the concept of reported speech, the study finds six categories of reported threats, uncovering ones that have been overlooked by existing scholarship thus far. The texts presented are derived from audio-recordings of 847 interviews carried out in four Central American countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama between 2010 and 2014. References to threats and threat narratives came from school teachers, community leaders, police officers, clergy, and members of municipal violence prevention committees. The interpretation of indirect and implicit threats are made in the social context of communities under siege, that is, under constant attack by local gangs, many of whom are connected to national gangs and international narcotrafficking cartels. The credibility of the different types of threats is evaluated, using Goffman’s (1981) insight into the complexity of speaker roles in face-to-face interaction.

Quick links
A browser-friendly version of this article is not yet available. View PDF
Berk-Seligson, Susan
(2009) Coerced Confessions: The Discourse of Bilingual Police Interrogations. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Berk-Seligson, Susan, Diana Orcés, Georgina Pizzolitto, Mitchell A. Seligson, and Carole Wilson
(2014) Impact Evaluation of USAID's Community-Based Crime and Violence Prevention Approach in Central America: Regional Report for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. LAPOP, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.Google Scholar
Bakhtin, M.M
(1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holmquist (eds.). Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
(1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. V.W. McGee, C. Emerson and M. Holquist (eds.). Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
Bogen, David, and Michael Lynch
(1989) Taking account of the hostile native: Plausible deniability and the production of conventional history in the Iran-Contra hearings. Social Problems 36.3: 197–224. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Briggs, Charles
(1996) Introduction. In Charles Briggs (ed.), Disorderly Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–40.Google Scholar
Clift, Rebecca, and Elizabeth Holt
(2007) In Elizabeth Holt, and Rebecca Clift (eds.), Reporting Talk: Reported Speech in Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-15.Google Scholar
Cotterill, Janet
(2002) Language in the Legal Process. Basingstoke, UK/New York: Palgrave MacMillan. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Fraser, Bruce
(1975) Warning and threatening. Centrum 3.2: 169–180.Google Scholar
(1998) Threatening revisited. Forensic Linguistics: The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law 5.2: 159–173. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Galatolo, Renata
(2007) Active voicing in court. In Elizabeth Holt, and Rebecca Clift (eds.), Reporting Talk: Reported Speech in Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 195–220.Google Scholar
Gingiss, Peter
(1986) Indirect threats. Word: Journal of the Linguistic Circle of New York 37.3: 153–158. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Goffman, Erving
(1981) Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
Harris, Sandra
(1984) The form and function of threats in court. Language & Communication 4.4: 247–271. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Holt, Elizabeth
(2009) Reported Speech. In Jef Verschueren, Jan-Ola Ostman, and Sigurd D’hondt (eds.), The Pragmatics of Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Kristeva, Julia
(1980) Word, dialogue and novel. In Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Labov, William and David Fanshel
(1977) Therapeutic Discourse: Psychotherapy as Conversation. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Lucy, John A
(1993) Reflexive language and the human disciplines. In John A. Lucy (ed.), Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 9–32. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Matoesian, Gregory M
(2001) Law and the Language of Identity: Discourse in the William Kennedy Smith Rape Trial. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Polanyi, Livia
(1985) Telling the American Story: A Structural and Cultural Analysis of Conversational Storytelling. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.Google Scholar
RT Actualidad
(August 18 2011) Más de mil maestros amenazados de muerte en el Salvador. actualidad​.rt​.com.Google Scholar
Searle, John R
(1971) The Philosophy of Language. London: Oxford University.Google Scholar
Shon, Phillip Chong Ho
(2005) ‘I’d grab him by his hair and yank him out the window’: The fraternal order of warnings and threats in police-citizen encounters. Discourse & Society 16.6: 829–825. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Shuy, Roger W
(1996) Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom. Malden, Mass./Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
Silverstein, Michael
(1993) Metapragmatic discourse and the metapragmatic function. In John A. Lucy (ed.), Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Solan, Lawrence, and Peter Tiersma
(2005) Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Storey, Kate
(1995) The language of threats. Forensic Linguistics 2.1: 74–80.Google Scholar
Tannen, Deborah
(1986) Introducing constructed dialogue in Greek and American conversational and literary narrative. In F. Coulmas (ed.), Direct and Indirect Speech. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 311–332. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
(1989) Talking Voices, Repetition, Dialogue and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Taussig, Michael
(1986) Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Toolan, Michael
(2001) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Trinch, Shonna L., and Susan Berk-Seligson
(2002) Narrating in protective order interviews: A source of interactional trouble. Language in Society 31.3: 383–418. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Trinch, Shonna L
(2003) Latinas’ Narratives of Domestic Abuse: Discrepant Versions of Violence. Amsterdam/New York: John Benjamins Publishing Company. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
(2014) Global Study on Homicide 2013: Trends, Contexts, Data. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Voloshinov, Valentin Nikolaevich
(1973) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. L. Matejka and I.R. Titunik. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Wodak, Ruth
(2002) The discourse historical approach. In Ruth Wodak, and Michael Meyer (eds.), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi: Sage Publications, Ltd., pp. 63–94.Google Scholar