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Horror Silentii

In the substantial literature on speech disfluencies in normal spoken language ([pause] fillers, false starts, repairs, etc.), there is no mention as their cause of what can be called horror silentii ‘the horror of silence’––on the model of the well-known phrase from art and design, horror vacui ‘fear of empty spaces’. The exceedingly common incidence of STAMMERING (as distinct from pathological stuttering) in contemporary American English, particularly in public discourse, is of a piece with the insertion of fillers such as you know and like and is to be explained not only by speakers’ varying skill in thinking through the grammar of an intended utterance in advance of its articulation but by a near-compulsive need to maintain the intactness of the PHATIC FUNCTION, alias the channel of communication.

This horror of empty discourse spaces is responsible for stammering and other non-pathological disfluencies and is, moreover, a peculiar feature of American English in its present-day form, markedly distinct from ordinary educated speech in (for instance) French, German, Russian, or Japanese––all of which, to be sure, have their own fillers. Keeping the channel open by filling it with otiose vocables is, at bottom, a (largely unconscious) way of asserting one’s ego at the expense of the interlocutor’s right to interrupt. This is a characteristically American phenomenon that is part of the general tendency in American culture to prize individualism over communitarianism, akin to slamming instead of simply closing the door upon stopping of a car one was riding in or driving––a totally gratuitous percussive punctuation of one’s presence.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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