Takes on wordlessness
May 7, 2013 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Hi all-- I'm writing an essay that began as one about keening and the times I've been reduced to wordless cries of grief. Now it's sprawling all over the place and I'm also talking about wordlessness in general (including references to people like Meredith Monk who often sing and emote without words), and also the speech act (when it doesn't matter what is said but that it is said). I don't know how much I'll pare it down, but in the meantime I wanted to crowdsource some ideas. Does anything come to mind when you think of wordlessness, especially in the context of grief? Are there any words (from any cultures) that mean "that which cannot be expressed in words?" (Aside from more general terms like "unable to be articulated" and such.)
posted by mermaidcafe to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The religious practice of glossolalia?
posted by Rock Steady at 8:55 AM on May 7, 2013

Ululation-- sometimes joy, but also grief.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:03 AM on May 7, 2013

The first thing that I thought of was a Banshee. Growing up in Ireland we were taught that if you heard a banshee wailing it meant someone was going to die. And if someone is crying profusely it can be likened to that - "She was wailing like a banshee." Not always sympathetically...it can be used to emphasise that their grief was an overreaction or that they were looking for attention. Or just being annoying...
posted by billiebee at 9:10 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start”
posted by bobdow at 9:11 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

The metafilter obit thread "." is an interesting example.
posted by yoink at 9:13 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Primal scream therapy
posted by winterportage at 9:15 AM on May 7, 2013

Also, the comic book convention of using "....." to indicate a character's speechlessness. I see that all the time.
posted by emjaybee at 9:21 AM on May 7, 2013

If you're willing to explore text as well as the spoken word, consider the various forms of wordless communications used online, from emoticons to generalized keysmashing to express a wide variety of emotions.
posted by elizardbits at 9:22 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

A couple of philosophical essays on ineffability worth checking out, if you have access to a university library system (or you can memail me for them):

Jan Zwicky, "What is Ineffable?"

David Pugmire, "Saying It"

There's also the famous ending of Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence" (or more baroquely, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent").
posted by Beardman at 9:56 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not quite wordless, but it does carry the connotation of inexpressable/inarticulated sometimes. In Korean, the concept of han is seen as the reason for everything for funeral wails to Gangnam Style. Well maybe not Gangnam Style per se, but I bet if I had had my morning coffee I could make a case for it.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:11 AM on May 7, 2013

Ineffable -- unable to be expressed in words.
posted by ravioli at 11:38 AM on May 7, 2013

posted by mrfuga0 at 12:37 PM on May 7, 2013

Ancient Greeks had a word for a howl of wordless grief: aiai.

For example, Euripides has Hecuba say it in the play of the same name (the most moving of all the Greek tragedies) when she recognizes the body of her dead son.

(Ovid, in his Metamorphosis, explains that you can still read the word "aiai" written on the petals of the hyacinth flower, which are stained with the blood of Apollo who grieved over the death of the youth Hyancinthus).

I'm sure there will be a monograph somewhere that some classical scholar has written about "aiai", "ototoi" (a similar word) and Greek ululation.
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:54 PM on May 7, 2013

Not sure how close the relationship to wordlessness and grief is, but your mention of speech acts made me think of phatic communication.
posted by ootandaboot at 2:01 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thinking about grief as a kind of pain, I think of The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry:

"Scarry begins with the fact of pain's inexpressibility. Not only is physical pain enormously difficult to describe in words--confronted with it, Virginia Woolf once noted, "language runs dry"--it also actively destroys language, reducing sufferers in the most extreme instances to an inarticulate state of cries and moans. Scarry analyzes the political ramifications of deliberately inflicted pain, specifically in the cases of torture and warfare, and shows how to be fictive. From these actions of "unmaking" Scarry turns finally to the actions of "making"--the examples of artistic and cultural creation that work against pain and the debased uses that are made of it."
posted by wrabbit at 8:12 PM on May 9, 2013

« Older Dino Debates?   |   Landline alternative to AT&T in San Francisco? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.