On the Counterverbality of ‘Nonverbal’ as a Verbal Term

  • John B. Newman
Part of the Cognition and Language: A Series in Psycholinguistics book series (CALS)


Those who have studied the folklore of language must certainly have encountered ‘popular etymology’,1 in which “an irregular or semantically obscure [linguistic] form is replaced by a new form of more normal structure and some semantic content—though the latter is often far-fetched” (Bloomfield, 1933, p. 423). So, for instance, “forlorn hope” came into English because the Dutch expression verloren hoop (which means “lost troop”) looked (to the eyes of readers of English) as though it meant “forlorn hope”. Popular etymology may also be illustrated in another way. We could point out (and, we daresay, without untoward redundancy or without restating what might be presumed to be “common knowledge”) that ‘noisome’ is not a variant of ‘noisy’, that ‘fulsome’ (despite its looking like ‘handsome’, ‘toothsome’, and ‘winsome’) is not a synonym for ‘lavish’, and that ‘machination’ has nothing to do with machines. These words may look or sound (or be made to sound) like well-known, similar-looking words. Common sense (whose commonality, despite the order of its words, commonly comes after the sense) then “tells” us (i.e., presumably forewarns us) that such “strong family resemblances” in the appearance of these words must indicate equally strong family resemblances in their meaning as well. But there really is no justification (beyond popular belief—and, hence, popular etymology) to assume that because of similarities in their appearance (i.e., their surface structure) words must somehow be etymologically or semantically related in their deep structure as well. Mark Twain summed all this up in his etymology of ‘Massachusetts’. It was, he insisted, derived from ‘Moses’. Over the years, he explained, the “oses” somehow got lost, and there was added the “assachusetts”!


Nonverbal Behavior Nonverbal Communication Lexical Item Specific Meaning General Semantic 
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  1. 1.
    A word about typography, orthographical diacritics, and other such graphic conventions as they are used in this essay: Items enclosed in single quotation marks, like ‘hunger,’ represent verbal signifiers, or words, names, labels, and the like. Items in italics (or underlining in typescript) represent the phenomenon which is signified, as in hunger; and this would include foreign terms, foreign names, and statements in foreign languages, as well as the titles of publications. Items enclosed in double quotation marks, as in “hunger,” represent verbal signifiers or words that are rhetorically modified in their specific use. Thus, to speak of an intellectual “hunger” would be a rhetorical extension of the word ‘hunger,’ which is the name of the physiological phenomenon of hunger. Since someone’s use of words is a rhetorical extension of those words, quotations will, as is usual, be enclosed in double quotation marks. That leaves emphasis. Though usually indicated by italics (or underlining in typescript), emphasis is indicated here by small capital letters. We are very much aware that these modifications will take some (little) getting used to; but we must suffer the consequences of any inconvenience this may cause our readers—such as it may be for those readers to whom it may pertain. As a would-be healer of orthographical diseases, we must (as should all physicians) try to heal ourself first. Typography, punctuation, and other diacritical markings, as well as all the rest of the formal conventions of writing and printing, can full well give rise to counterverbality in, of, and by themselves. We sincerely hope, therefore, that this caution will prove to be salubrious.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Frankly, we do not know who Paul Anderson is—or was, for that matter—but the quote heads Chapter 3 in Katz (1972, p. 56) and it certainly is apropos here.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In a dissertation such as this one, verbalists like us must always look to their laurels, but we do retain the privilege of resting on them as well. In our view, then, ‘oral,’ like ‘anal,’ connotes a body orifice provided by nature for reasons more fundamental (!) than verbalization. We would, then, rather talk about words as being’ spoken,’ or as being ‘vocal,’ when they are not ‘written’ or ‘printed.’.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Be it noted that we do not mean to deliberately misinterpret Leach here: he does go on to explain that it is the patterning of the sound that is what makes the utterance verbal. The statement, however, still imputes the identification of verbality with vocality. In fact, Leach’s statement on the very next page of the same essay (141) to the effect that “writing a letter is a non-verbal kind of behavior, but it conveys information by verbal means,” which is intended to illustrate the fact that “there is no straightforward distinction between verbal and non-verbal communication,” rather than clarifying it, only seems to obfuscate the observation still further.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In Early Language deVilliers and deVilliers (1979) apologize for having “used the male pronoun generically because it seemed awkward to do otherwise” (p. 2n). Well, dear reader, be advised that we here are going to do the otherwise—even at the risk of further provoking the annoyance of those of you who may still be with us (cf. note 1 supra)—not out of some sort of inherent perversity, but simply because, as Milt Horowitz used to say, “there comes a time in every man’s life when he must set aside his principles, and do what’s right!” And so, to avoid any deliberate charge of sexism, we have adopted the conventional forms of the pronouns and adjectives “he or she,”. “him or her,” “himself or herself,” “hir” (a composite of ‘his’ and ‘her’), and “hirself” (‘himself’/‘herself“), and we shall use them throughout this essay. The so-called “feminist movement” has moved us (in this regard, at least!), and for sure!.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    A word about the orthography of “the verbal term ‘nonverbal,’” which is, after all, what this whole megillah is all about. Common sense (!)—perhaps better (even if somewhat pleonastically) a native Sprachgefühl—would incline one to assume a difference of some kind between “nonverbal” and “non-verbal.” Well, let us make it perfectly clear at this point that we make no distinction, we intend no distinction, and we mean to imply no distinction between the two. Different writers do spell the term differently. Perhaps THEY intend a distinction: we do not intend to probe, and certainly not to argue, the point. We simply quote them. If they hyphenate, we do when they do. But when we use the term, even when we refer to their use of the term, we do not hyphenate it.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    In the September 1978 issue of Asha there is a full-page advertisement on the back cover which urges the readers of the journal to “open a new world for the non-vocal/non-verbal” with “the voice that actually talks for them!” The advertisement (which was run again in several succeeding issues of the journal) tells us that “until now, communication aids could only communicate in symbols, in pictures or by spelling words,” but this device, which is “a hand-held electronic voice synthesizer which can produce virtually any word in the English language,” is “a remarkable communication breakthrough” because it “actually talks.” Such a device, the ad goes on to say, opens a new world of communication for children and adults who do not have oral communication abilities. This includes people who have cerebral palsy, aphasia, or who have had strokes, spinal cord injuries, brain damage, or other afflictions or birth defects which have left them non-oral. for a wide range of orally-disabled, two. models are available: [one] offers a touch-sensitive pre-programmed keyboard with 473 sounds, words and phrases. [The other] works like a calculator and has 991 sounds, words and phrases in its program. Each is accessed through a three-digit code. Both [models] are programmed with phonemes and morphemes. This enables the user to create a virtually unlimited English language vocabulary by combining basic component sounds. Now [speech-language pathologists] can open a new world for the non-vocal/non-verbal. This is a commercial advertisement placed by a manufacturer whose purpose it is to sell his or her product. One would assume that manufacturers who advertise in professional journals would make it their business to address their prospective professional clients (in this case they would be speech-language-hearing pathologists) in an appropriate professional way, using the currently accepted technical terminology (or at least that which is current among practising professionals at the time the advertisement is published). This is why we quote this advertisement at such length here. If this advertisement is indicative of the current use of the terminology among practising speech-language-hearing pathologists, particularly with regard to the use of the term “nonverbal,” then we rest our case. It is certainly not our intention either to dilate this already distended note or to hold forth any further on the polysemia, much less the multiple usage, of the term ‘Verbal.’ But we cannot desist here without making some reference to that not infrequently heard usage which takes ‘Verbal’ to mean an excessive use of words in vocal speech. A person will be said to be “very verbal” when what is meant is something akin to ‘garrulous,’ ‘Voluble,’ or ‘Verbose.’ This usage would remain an incidental item of dialectological trivia but for what it does to the converse term. A “nonverbal person” would, then, be dumb, mute, or speechless! O, how many times must we cry, “O, mores!”?.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    We should note the recent appearance in print of the phrase “precise words” which are described as antidotes to the fuzzballs of jargon (which are also subsumed by what we are here descrying [no, that is not a misprint!] as counterwords).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Anyone curious enough to do so may glance at the literature on general semantics—not to mention General Semantics (which is certainly not the same thing)—as well as what has been written on the other specific types of the stuff, all of which have to do, more or less, in one way or another, as the case may be, with meaning. We cannot go into it fully here (it would take an essay at least as long as this one to treat the subject adequately), but this sort of thing can also be the consequence of historical circumstances of such a nature as to preclude attribution to any one person, group, movement, or circumstance. Consider the polysemanticity (now, that is an impressive sesquipedalianism, but it is as euphemistic a bit of jargon as can anywhere be found to blanket the meaning of what one is trying to express!)—consider the polysemanticity of the English word ‘love,’ which in and by itself comprehends the separate concepts delineated in Greek as agape, eros, and philia. And the English word ‘language’ which in and by itself comprehends the separate concepts delineated in French as le langage, la langue, and la parole. “Polysemantemes” of this sort should not be confused with (and so dismissed as) homonyms, such as the word ‘glasses.’ “Containers to be drunk out of” are not the same as “spectacles to be peered through” (though both are frequently made of glass, and so go by the same name). The name given these two classes of objects is a word whose meaning may be said to have “expanded” semantically; hence, that “word” (actually, there are TWO words here, two homonyms, both of which are homographic (spelled the same) AND homophonic (pronounced the same) but which have different meanings)—hence, the “word” ‘glasses’ may be said to be polysemantic. But the English language has, and has had, only the one word ‘love.’ When it was learned by speakers of English that speakers of ancient Greek recognized and separately named.Google Scholar
  10. (1).
    agape: religious (specifically Christian) devotion and transcendence, which is something completely different from (and having no relation to) (2) eros: sexual attraction and erotic attention, each of which was completely different from (and had no relation to) (3) philia: fraternal responsibility and concern, all three were, and are, popularly conceived as “having a common denominator,” which is a classic example of rationalization after the fact. Much the same circumstances have prevailed in English in the case of the word ‘language,’ as was indicated so pointedly by Saussure (1959).Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    It is apropos at this point to mention New York State’s “Plain English” Law, which was signed by Governor Hugh Carey on 5 August 1977 as L.1977, ch.747, and was further amended in May of the following year as L.1978, ch.199. The new Sec. 5-702 of the law requires that each written agreement entered into after November, 1978, for a residential lease or for money, property or services for personal, family or household purposes involving less than $50,000 must be. written in a clear and coherent manner using words with common and everyday meanings. Writing in the New York State Bar Journal, Richard A. Givens (1978) says: The 1977 Act grew out of concern over consumer credit contracts couched in unintelligible language, understandable only by an attorney versed in the arcane subtleties of creditor remedies, or in what. has [been] called. ‘bafflegab.’ (p. 480). The intention of the statute, it cannot be gainsaid, was noble, but, we daresay, it was linguistically and communicatively naive. Legal bafflegab may be couched in arcane subtleties, but at least those subtleties have been fought out in the courts and so are legally defined (even if understood only by grasping legal-eagles). It is too early to tell at the time of this writing, but the likelihood is that as a result of the “Plain English” in those consumer credit contracts, there will be even more litigation (and, hence, more business for those legal-eagles) than before—simply because of the ubiquity of counter-verbality, especially in “‘plain’ English”!.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Although the point here is that despite Kendon’s excoriation of Key’s profligacy in her recognition of so much as being relevant (in the broadest possible sense of relevance, of course) “to understanding how people manage to communicate with one another when co-present,” he still censures her failure to include yet another area of consideration, namely, that of communication by way of the written word, one may wonder nonetheless what there could be about the written word that is NONVERBAL. The verbality of the written word is so obvious as to be tautological, but what could be nonverbal about writing? Well, dear reader, have no fear! This will all be explained in due time—at the appropriate time—later in this essay: as the pedants would have it, q.u.infra..Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    A taxonomy that would categorize “a non-avian zoology” would certainly recognize “a zoology of the hairy quadrupeds”!.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    Oscar Wilde once said that he could resist anything but temptation. Well, we can appreciate that, because we cannot resist the temptation at this point of noting Barnett Newman’s remark to the effect that although it may be for the critics what the Holy Bible is for the fundamentalists, esthetics for the artists is like ornithology “is” for the birds.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    The problem is not unique. Korzybski ran into it early on in his career, perhaps even prior to the time his Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics was first published by the International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1933. Korzybski spent the rest of his life (and some of his “disciples” and apologists are still) explaining that what he meant by “non-Aristotelian” was not to be construed as ANTi-Aristotelian.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    In a way, the description of dialects as “nonstandard” has suffered a somewhat similar fate.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    In the 1976 translation by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness, Wittgenstein’s famous koan is rendered, on p. 3, as “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” We take the liberty here of rendering what, to our taste, is at least a more alliterative version of the same statement.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    We considered the possibility of traducement in the translation, but the original German says the same thing: “Was sich überhaupt sagen lässt, lässt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kam, darüber muss man schweigen.” Sagen means “to say,” reden means “to speak,” and schweigen means (perhaps most closely in English) “to shut up” or “not to speak.” The problem—again, it is a matter of counterverbality—inheres in the referential implication of sagen in German and’ say’ in English. Both terms comprehend BOTH generalized “expression” (regardless of mode) as well as specialized “vocalization.”.Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    This is demonstrable in the restriction on the utterance of The Ineffable Name of the Deity—particularly in tetragrammatal form—by those who follow the practices of Orthodox Judaism. Even THE SIGN of The Name in written form (which is, after all, silent) will be avoided by the truly devout, who will not even spell out (much less utter) the word for “G-d.”.Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    Anyone curious as to why Korzybski chose to call the system he created “General Semantics” (with an upper-case ‘G’ and an upper-case’ s’ to distinguish it from ‘general semantics’) can find out why in an article I wrote (Newman, 1961), entitled “General Semantics and Academic Phagocytosis.”.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Gray and Wise do not mention “secondary sex characteristics,” but biologists (maybe even sociobiologists) still speak of them, do they not?.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Compare Ray Birdwhistell’s (1970, p. 3) colorful comment: “A human being is not a black box with one orifice for emitting a chunk of stuff called ‘communication’ and another for receiving it.”.Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    To illustrate further that (as Letitia Raubicheck used to say) “the whole person speaks,” The New York Times once ran a story about a well known (and highly successful) movie actor who was embroiled in litigation with his producers over who had the rights to the films he had starred in. The Times reported that in an interview “the actor sat in his lawyer’s office close to tears. He tried to give an unemotional account of the seizure of the films he had acted in. But his arms flailed the air as the words were not themselves adequate.” Even a highly skilled actor, who should have had more experience than the average person in thr practice of deliberate, overt expression, can find that words may not be adequate by themselves to express what is meant, much less what is felt.Google Scholar
  24. 23.
    Even if we were to concede the existence of true anatomical hermaphrodites (it should be obvious that we are not at all inclined to do so), their occurrence would be so rare as not to affect our discussion here.Google Scholar
  25. 24.
    We look forward to Edgar A. Gregersen’s forthcoming book on sexual practices around the world in which there is to be a whole chapter on genital jewelry. (He is Professor of Anthropology at Queens College of the City University of New York.).Google Scholar
  26. 25.
    For those who do not get this reference, or who would like to know more about it, may we suggest Paul Watzlawick’s (1977) How Real is Real?: Confusion, Disinformation, Communication.Google Scholar
  27. 26.
    The interested reader will find Erving Goffman’s fuller treatment of this aspect of the process in the book by him that has already been cited, as well as in others of his works.Google Scholar
  28. 27.
    Again, should any reader care to pursue the matter entailed here, may we suggest that he or she look into Adam Schaff, Introduction to Semantics (1962), particularly chapter 2.Google Scholar
  29. 28.
    Anyone familiar with the literature of nonverbal communication may have been wondering when we were going to get around to acknowledging and referring to this item—precisely because of its apparent similarity to this essay. Well, here it is: we acknowledge Ekman and Friesen’s article and we are here referring to it. We would like to make it perfectly clear, however, that we have not been suppressing acknowledgment and reference until we could no longer do so. This essay is NOT the same as Ekman and Friesen’s, although, since we are writing on the same subject, we inevitably touch the same bases (we may not be playing in the same ball park, however—much less in the same league!). When we happen to touch the same base-pad, as is the case here, we admit it. That’s all there is, and, as far as we are concerned, there ain’t any more!.Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    Perhaps it is too small a regard for those readers who have paid almost as much attention to the notes thus far as they have (hopefully!(!)) paid to the text, but THIS is the q.v.infra referred to in note 11 above.Google Scholar
  31. 30.
    We full well realize the weighty implications inherent in this conception of the meaning of verbal, but since the arguments therefor are not involved in the point being made here, we shall leave it be.Google Scholar
  32. 31.
    Before leaving this subject and going on to the next (while, at the same time, not trying to make any more of it than is necessary to resolve and explain possible relationships and involvements), we do want to acknowledge our awareness of the possible similarity that might be noticed in what we have designated as heteroverbal and what Ekman and Friesen (1969) call “illustrators” and the various types thereof. Again, we recognize that we are all running on the same basepaths here, but, as we have said, we are not playing the same game.Google Scholar
  33. 32.
    See note 10, supra.Google Scholar
  34. 33.
    Ekman and Friesen do not consider sound at all.Google Scholar
  35. 34.
    Anyone of a scholastic bent of mind (medieval, that is!) can find a great deal of this stuff set forth in Blakney (1941) and Ancelet-Hustache (1957).Google Scholar
  36. 35.
    This is the sort of thing Aldous Huxley wrote about in Brave New World when he described the movies of the future. Huxley wrote about “feelies” rather than “smellies,” of course, but several years ago in New York City an enterprising entrepreneur did present motion pictures that projected odors throughout the theater. The reviews said that the experiment was successful. But it did not last—because the odors did.Google Scholar
  37. 36.
    We can dare say that that is one of the reasons why parents (and other older individuals) always put children off with “Wait till you grow up!” Unfortunately, not everyone does.Google Scholar
  38. 37.
    We should be satisfied with the assumption that it is not necessary to do so here, but nonetheless we want to make it perfectly clear that this rhetorical question is NOT to be construed as indicative of our belief in, or our advocacy for a belief in, extrasensory perception. Let us repeat (for the purpose of making it perfectly clear—again) that what we are trying to show here is why great numbers of people rationalize their resort to such a justification for this belief. There are similar rationalized justifications for resort to belief in the supposed predictive powers of astrology—but we neither believe in that nor do we advocate belief in that either.Google Scholar
  39. 38.
    We have met face-to-face the situation of verbality for which one does not have the words. It happened across languages, as it were. We do not claim complete mastery of the German language, but we do feel that we can manage the language receptively almost to the point of satisfying our needs and requirements. There are times, however, when we run into an opaque term or an arcane construction, and we cannot get on with what we are doing. So we usually take the easy way out and ask someone who knows. Now, we happen to have several friends whose native language was German, and who were educated in Germany up to the university level, at which time they emigrated to the United States. Their knowledge of German, one would assume, would be the equivalent of our knowledge of English. When we asked—it was the first time we did so, and so we asked with considerable humility—what (the German word in question happened to have been) Mundartforschung meant, believe it or not, they could not tell us! They fumbled and babbled and apologized rather clumsily for the difficulties encountered in trying to translate from one language to another; they murmured something having to do with the difference in semantic fields in different languages; they—finally, we realized that they simply did not know the word! “It is some kind of research”—Forschung means ‘research’—was the best they could do. So we had to undertake further bibliographical research on our own to find out that Mundart (literally, “mouth art”) meant ‘dialect’ and Mundartforschung meant ‘dialectology’. Don’t laugh! Do YOU know what ‘fanon’ means? And that is English! And do you know what ‘maniple’ means? But, enough!.Google Scholar
  40. 39.
    Since we have lapsed into the mother lode of slang, we should explain that we here use the term ‘guy’ generically, not genderically (!). We foreswore sexual chauvinism in our language use early on in this essay, and we mean to abide by our commitment.Google Scholar


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • John B. Newman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Communication Arts and SciencesQueens College of the City University of New YorkUSA

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