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Self-Awareness and Its Linguistic Dimension

As part of the self-control that characterizes human behavior we all have what is called self-awareness, i. e., awareness of our own thoughts and actions, including our speech, both actual and virtual (silent). Different persons at different times and moments of their sentient existence exhibit self-awareness in varying degree, spanning the range from what seems to others as a total lack, at one end, to a hyper-state, at the other.

Since language as used is a structured system of linguistic habits, we are more often than not unaware of precisely how we go about negotiating the universe of discourse when confronted by actual interlocutors or an audience exposed to our utterances. The most immediate consequence of the variability attendant upon speaking is, of course, the content of what we say, which is tantamount to a choice of vocabulary items and the way we utter them in sustained speech. Given the intention to speak, we select words and ways of arranging them that answer to the rules of grammar in a given language and to what we gauge to be the expectations of our interlocutors.

Although there is always the possibility of not being understood for a number of diverse reasons, rational speakers habitually tailor their utterances to their interlocutors’ perceived level of linguistic knowledge. Only someone who is perversely oblivious to this parameter will choose vocabulary items, for instance, that are so specialized as not to be known by one’s interlocutor. One can be ignorant of this constraint, but generally the context of speech includes enough information to make miscommunication avoidable.

A particularly troublesome aspect of speaking effectively is gauging the stylistic knowledge of language at one’s interlocutors’ command. Typically, this involves sensitivity to stylistic variation, where sensitivity necessarily equals self-awareness. A person listening to an interlocutor who constantly repeats the same phrase––e. g., “that said”/”having said that”––to introduce a sentence may develop a negative assessment of the utterer’s speech because this piece of language use is evaluated as a verbal tic and found annoying. The speaker is evidently not aware of the phrase’s repetition, and, what is more, unaware of the negative effect it is producing on the hearer.

Another typical case of lack of self-awareness in speech comes down to a failure to assess accurately the degree to which one’s interlocutor shares the universe of discourse (knowledge of the world) in which the conversation is embedded. This failure may be inadvertent, of course, owing to a simple lack of information, but it rises to an absence of self-awareness when one speaker habitually ignores the (pre)existence of shared knowledge and continues to gloss vocabulary items as interpolations in speech nevertheless.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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