Accessibility links

Breaking News

March 7, 1999 - Verbal Abuse - 2002-02-12

INTRO: How prepared are you to defend against a verbal attack? Today our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, talk about words that hurt and some ways to soothe the pain.

MUSIC: "Kiss Off"/Violent Femmes

Lyrics: "'I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record.' Oh yeah? Well, don't be so distressed. Did I happen to mention, I'm impressed?"

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, and today we start off with some good old-fashioned sarcasm.

RS: "I'm impressed." I'm Rosanne Skirble, and that tone of voice is meant to be insulting. If I really were impressed, I would have said it this way: "I'm impressed!"

AA: Why, thank you! I'm flattered ... I think. If you don't know how Americans speak, it may be hard to tell just what they're really saying.

RS: Suzette Haden Elgin is a linguist and authority on the language of verbal abuse. She's sold more than a million copies in her series on what she calls the gentle art of verbal self-defense.

AA: Verbal abuse, she says, is language that purposely causes pain, and American English uses a distinct tonal pattern to do this.


ELGIN: "The primary mechanism for transmitting hostility in spoken English is the tone of voice and the tune the words are set to. It's not the words you say. That's why verbal abusers who speak English can generally get away with it, 'but all I said, was ... ' and then setting the words to a very different tune. In many languages of the world this isn't true. There will be a special marker in the sentence that makes it abusive or a special marker on a word, and it makes it very difficult for people who don't speak English as their first language to know if something that they are saying may be offensive and interpreted as hostile, and secondly understand hostile messages coming at them from native speakers. I spend a great deal of my time straightening out messes like that."

RS: "Here's an example from one of your books. It's an example of conversation(al speech): 'If You really loved me, you wouldn't waste money the way you do.'"

ELGIN: "That's right, and that is a classic example of what is called a verbal attack pattern of English."

RS: "Could you give us another example?"

ELGIN: "Sure. 'Even a linguist should be able to understand a language like that.' 'Even a freshman should be able to grasp a concept like that.' 'Even a women should be able to balance a checkbook,' and 'a man should know how to change a diaper.'"

AA: "So, an American attacks verbally not with words, but with tone."

ELGIN: "It is higher pitch, plus greater volume, plus longer duration. But tone is one way of talking about it. In written English the tune is not there. But spoken English is a very different matter, and it's extremely hard for people who are not native speakers to figure out what is meant by the multiplicity of possible ways to say the same words."

RS: So, how can you really understand what Americans are saying? We asked Suzette Haden Elgin for some advice for speakers of English-as-a-foreign-language.


"What is most important is for them to know that they have to be wary. That is they have to know they must not leap to the conclusion that an utterance is angry without investigating it further, and they must be ready to explore it and say, 'many people would wonder what that meant. People who do not speak English might not understand that,' and then say something like, 'could you talk about it a little more.' And, you shouldn't hesitate to do that because you can get in dreadful trouble if you don't."

AA: Suzette Haden Elgin, a blackbelt in "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense."

RS: And now we'd like to say thank you -- and we really mean it! -- to all of you who entered our Name the Next Decade Contest.

AA: We'll read some of your ideas on the air at the end of the month when we celebrate the first anniversary of Wordmaster.

With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.