Silence as a message conveying process: a study of Yoruba speakers of English in Nigeria.

AuthorAdamo, Grace Ebunlola


This paper explores and discusses the semiotic values and functions of silence among Yoruba speakers of English in Nigeria. It attempts to establish that silence, particularly absent turn-taking silence, has a status as a communicative system in itself. It is co-structured with other forms of non-verbal expression, and culture-bound in interpretation.


    Semiotics permeates any approach that seeks to carry out an analysis of human's communicative (non) activities. One thing that still needs to be explored by semioticians is the acknowledgment of the communicative values and the Semiotic nature of silence especially in different cultures. Silence is the (non) activity resulting from the absence of sound in the communication mode of two human beings as socializing beings. It belongs to the non-verbal mode of communication, which is basically the sending and receiving of messages in a variety of ways without the use of verbal codes (words).

    The semiotic functions and value of silence need to be properly investigated, especially regarding what it could signify in different cultures.

    In this paper therefore, we shall explore and discuss the semiotic values and functions of silence as used by the Yoruba speakers of English. Any language whatsoever that is implanted in a foreign cultural set up must take on socio-cultural clippings from the milieu of the culture on which it is implanted. The use of silence in English as a second language context is no exception. As such, the use of silence to convey certain messages by Yoruba speakers of English cannot be divorced from their cultural orientation.

    Further we shall attempt to establish that silence has a status as a semiotic system in itself but is often co-structured with other modes of non-verbal expressions.

    In this study, we interviewed twelve Yoruba speakers of English in their homes and offices in order to find out instances when they use silence as a strategy for communication. We also observed Yoruba families over a period of two years without their knowledge to see how silence is used, what messages it conveys and how effective it is as a message conveying process between husband and wives, parents and their children/wards and between friends within the mechanism of interaction in English. All these coupled with the writer's experience as a Yoruba speaker of English herself gave birth to the findings discussed in this paper.


    Man is a socializing animal. As such, sound and silence (which is its passive opposite) constitute the very fabric of culture. We acknowledge that culture is communication and that most of the relevant occurrences of sound/silence made by man is of a communicative nature, that is, they take place as interactive behaviours. They are dynamic and the dynamism especially of silence, is noted both at the level of the signified (the substance, the message) and the signifier (form) in a given culture. And since a culture "is an immensely intricate series of sign complexes, sound and silence ... are the most important complexes of all in a live culture" (Poyatoes 1983: 218). These, including (movement and stillness) are the main communicative activities or non activities produced by the human beings that constitute a culture. Once humans are not present and there is no interaction, sound and silence cease to have any semiotic significance because it is stripped of social interaction.

    Many kinds of silence have been identified in the study of paralinguistic phenomena. First, is what Duncan (1975: 19), calls "Hesitation Phenomenon". This consists of a variety of pauses serving different functions. Pauses have been described as unfilled or filled, the later being "filled" with an utterance...

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