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

In the reading “‘To Give Up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” Basso displayed is that in Western Apache culture there is no verbal communication between persons in social situations that include the loss of a loved one, uncertainty of an outcome, and the encounter of an unfamiliar person(s). Basso briefly discussed social situations in which silence is normal in the Navajo culture which was similar to the Apache culture. The reading describes six total situations in which the hypothesis of the Western Apache culture is seen. The first example is when encountering strangers, a story was told about two men who worked together and had some connection through friends but had never met one another. It took them a while to begin talking, because if it had been sooner it can be seen as desperate and strange. Conversation needs to happen naturally, no one else can interfere, they don’t know what each of them are capable of so it takes time. The second example that was given was during the beginning stages of courting it’s common to stay silent for even up to an hour, usually because they’re too shy or nervous they won’t say the right thing. The third situation is between a child who’s been away from home for a while and their parents who feel too nervous to talk because they think being away from home for so long has changed them, soon they realize there was nothing to worry about once the child starts the conversation.

The last three include emotions, or family. The fourth example is when a person is angry, they may yell or curse at people that may have nothing to do with their anger and the Apache people tend to stay silent until the person has calmed down enough to speak rationally because things could end badly for everyone. The fifth example is during the loss of a loved one, usually comforting the loved ones of the deceased happens after a couple of days when the loved one has been able to process their loss. Lastly the sixth is during a curing ceremony, people can talk to the patient as much as they want but once the curing begins no one can speak to the patient until the next day, only the medicine man, it’s possible it could ruin the ceremony. All of these situations are different in the sense that the encounters are but the case of silence remains the same because they no longer or never were familiar with the consequences that come with speaking.

The different situations described in the article about how the Apache people socially interact can effectively support the hypothesis that staying silent within the Western Apache can be “a response to uncertainty and unpredictability in social relations” (227). This article brings awareness of how language or no speech in this case, like that of American Indians can be seen as strange, but in actuality, ours and others may be more alike then what was initially thought.

Language is a very important part of culture for the Apache people as seen in this video, where some people describe the significance of it for them.

Basso, Keith H. 1970. “‘To Give Up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 26 (3): 213–30.

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


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

The article “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” by Keith H. Basso focuses on the use of silence and why it’s acceptable to not use words at times. The main argument is based on the use of silence in the Western Apache culture and how it comes into play during these situations and is one of the main reasons they use silence. Silence can be beneficial to many situations such as listening to someone vent about their problems, in church, in serious situations and much more. As the author states, “Although the form of silence is always the same, the function of a specific act of silence- that is, its interpretation by and effect upon other people- will vary according to the social context in which it occurs” (Page 215). This stood out the most because it shows deeper meaning to why silence can be so important, due to all the different things it can show instead of just having one universal meaning. The author makes many clear points to help the reader understand their argument such as using specific examples of when silence becomes okay, which gives us a deeper understanding of why it would be appropriate at that time. For example, talking to a stranger sometimes allows for silence because you never know what is okay to say to others without offending or crossing boundaries with people you don’t know. I feel like that example is the easiest for most individuals to relate to because everyone has been in weird situations with strangers and being left not knowing how to answer. The author’s argument helps us understand language on another level. The definition of language is “the principal method of human communication, consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way and conveyed by speech, writing, or gesture”, however silence shows a different side to language which is something we should be aware of. It goes against what we would traditionally consider language, but it expands our knowledge on language and the diversity of it. While reading this article, the author shows the readers that silence can say just as much as words can. Silence is equally as expressive as anything words can say. This may be an eye opener to people from other cultures who don’t believe silence is a form of language due to what is seen as socially acceptable in some cultures. The author develops a strong argument that expresses that in the Western Apache culture silence is critical and should be valued the same as words. This article had clear and valid points that showed the readers the meaning of silence and when they see it being the best way to communicate in situations. 

Basso, K. H. (1970). ‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 26(3), 213-230

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

In “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” by Keith H. Basso, the author discusses his research of situations where silence is encouraged and used in Western Apache culture. Basso then attempts to defend his hypothesis that in situations where the Western Apaches use silence are in situations where there is uncertainty or unpredictability in social relations. He then goes on to compare the use of silence in Western Apache culture to other cultures, like the Navajo Indians in the American southwest. There were six situations where Western Apaches choose to remain silent. The first being when meeting someone for the first time. Silence is used then to essentially try to observe the other person and decide whether they seem trustworthy enough to form a friendship. The second situation is when two people are courting. The reluctance to speak typically stems from the couple being shy or self-conscious around each other since they are still unfamiliar with one another. The third situation is when children come home from boarding school or long stays outside the reservation. Parents stay silent when children come home in order to examine the changes their children may have gone through being away from home and see if their child feels happy being back home. The fourth situation is when a person is being cussed out. The person being cussed out remains silent in order not to provoke the angry person because when a person is enraged, the Western Apaches believed that they are “crazy” and not in their senses. The fifth situation is when being around people who are sad. Usually, most of the people on the reservation know of the circumstances that have taken place that has made the person mourn, so there isn’t a point in speaking about it to further make the person sad. The last situation where silence is encouraged is around a person who sings. The medicine man has to heal the sick patient, so silence is needed in order not to mess or distract the healing process. The evidence all show clear examples using stories and quotes from Western Apaches regarding silence within certain situations, defending the author’s hypothesis. In each situation, there is a level of uncertainty either for another individual or unpredictability of how a person might react. 

Often times literature has portrayed American Indians to be quite silent and that their lack of talking makes them appear cold to outsiders. Basso writes this article in an attempt to correct these misleading assumptions and stereotypes. What is interesting about the silent situation examples Basso brings up is that it shows how much Western Apaches and Navajos (whose silent situations are every similar to the Western Apaches) are careful when it comes to forming social relations or interacting with one another. I guess a question to bring up would be, knowing the brutal history American Indians have had with foreigners, have silence in certain situations always existed in many American Indian cultures, or did it come about after interactions with foreigners which could have made them very cautious and hesitant to form social relations and also learn how to control and handle themselves around certain people? Overall, the author did a good job shining a light on the linguistic choices of the Western Apaches and putting to rest many stereotypes of the quietness of American Indians.

Basso, K. H. (1970). ‘To Give Up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology26(3), 213–230.