All posts by Raymond Duhaime

Summary of “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” by Keith H. Basso

Did you know there is an innate language that all humans speak? This language is silence. “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” by Keith H. Basso dives into the stereotype of Apache silence and what silence truly is. The anonymous quote at the beginning of the article “It is not the case that a man who is silent says nothing.” encapsulates the main idea of the article. Silence is a form of communication, a versatile language used in countless different ways in many cultures, Basso focuses on the intricate uses of silence in Apache culture.

Silence may seem simple but as basso states, silence has many different uses and various interpretations depending on the context of the situation. In Apache culture there are many situations in which silence is used, Basso lists them as the following: Meeting Strangers, Courting/Dating, Children returning home after long amounts of time, during verbal altercations, being with someone who is sad, and finally, in the presence of someone for whom they sing.

When meeting strangers it is common in Apache culture to remain silent until both parties have been introduced and have an organic opportunity to speak or strike up a conversation. When dating/courting or dating it’s common to remain silent for a significant amount of time, while still showing affection like holding hands and remaining close to each other. This occurs anywhere from ceremonies to wakes, the reason for this seems to be the fear of saying something inappropriate or just plain old shyness. The use of silence when children return home after a long time is particularly interesting. The reason parents remain silent is in fear that their children have changed in their journey away from home, and think of their parents differently. When I’m verbal altercations, or, when being cussed out, the appropriate response in Apache culture is to refrain from responding and stay silent. They use this response as a way to prevent whoever is angry from getting any worse or potentially losing control and harming others. When being with someone who is sad, usually in the times of grieving weeks after losing a loved one, silence is encouraged as a way of lessening the burden of the person grieving, for even talking about what happened can be emotionally and physically draining for them. Finally, the last situation listed, being with someone for whom they sing. This situation can be a little complicated to understand, during ceremonies in which someone is sick and attempting to be healed, after this ceremony the person is deemed to be “holy” and isn’t spoken too in fear of a change within that person.

All of these situations have a common theme tying them together. They are all born from a place of uncertainty, where they either aren’t sure how someone will react if they speak, or don’t know how they should act around a certain person. The physical setting is irrelevant and most of these situations develop because of an individual’s mental state, along with the consideration of others. 

 Basso’s paper gives us some valuable insight towards language as a whole. Silence is usually thought of as the lack of language, devoid of all communication, however, this is not the case. It’s a versatile tool to be used in a variety of situations in Western Apache culture and other cultures around the world. I’m not sure where this aptitude for interpreting silence developed, but next time I’m in a situation like the ones listed above, instead of wondering what to say, I may just remain silent altogether.

Basso, Keith H. 1970. “‘To Give Up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture.”
Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 26 (3): 213–30.
Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi B. Schieffelin. (1984) 1995. “Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental Stories and Their Implications.” In Language, Culture, and Society: A Book of Readings, edited by Ben G. Blount, 2nd ed., 470–512. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press