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Summary Details

Query:   Formula for Addressing Absent Reply
Author:  Jan Lindström
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics

Summary:   Regarding query

I am sorry that it has taken all this time, but I have eventually had the opportunity to sit down and summarize the replies to my query about formula (rituals, idioms, locutions) that in different languages may be used to address the interactional problem of not receiving a response, for example, to a greeting or a question.

In the terms of conversation analysis, we could say that the problem concerns adjacency pairs: a speaker who has produced a recognizable first pair-part move does not receive a presupposed second pair-part move from another speaker. Because it seems to be a strong social convention that greetings and questions be responded to, I have got interested in whether language users have developed routinized ways of dealing with situations where the other party fails to behave in accordance with the social convention. To map such routines could be one way of getting culturally coded evidence that make the existence of adjacency pairs in the systematics of turn-taking especially visible.

The query resulted in 19 replies which concerned 15 different languages or varieties: Danish, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Low-Lithuanian, Marathi (India), Persian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Romanian, Swedish (standard & Finland Sw.), Tunisian Arabic, and Turkish. I send my thanks and best regards to all of you who replied; a list of the names of these helpful people is provided in the end of this summary.


There are certainly several ways of sorting the expressions I have had the opportunity to gather. The presentation below provides one possible classification. I have principally sorted the formula (idioms, locutions) according to what they seem to highlight in the non-responding persons conduct; possible reasons for why a person fails to respond, or more general comments to the other person?s conduct and its effect. Thus, we get
the following categories of expressions:


Examples from the different categories are provided below.


It seems to be fairly usual to refer to a speakers TONGUE, or rather, a speaker?s lack of the tongue, as a possible reason for silence. The common English locution is thus:
- (What?s the matter?) Cat got your tongue?

I do not dare say anything decisive about the origins of this expression; one source says it might be originally French although not used exactly in the same form and funtion (?Je donne ma langue au chat?). It is noteworthy, however, that the same locution seems to have spread to several languages; it was noted in Brazilian Portuguese:

- O gato comeu a sua lingua?

and Finnish:

- Onko kissa vienyt kielen?

Also other animals can have ?taken? the tongue. Besides the cat, a rooster could allegedly had gotten the tongue in Finnish, and in Turkish the tongue might be affected by a dog or a wasp (?Has the dog eaten your tongue??, ?Was your tongue bitten by a wasp??).

Also other kinds of references to a non-functional or a lost tongue seem to be popular; in German
- Da beisst du dir wohl die Zunge ab, als dass du antwortest!? (?You then prefer to bite off your tongue rather than to reply??)

in Tunisian Arabic:

- Fi:nu lsanik? (?Where is your tongue?)

in Swedish:

- Har du svalt tungan? (?Have you swallowed your tongue??)
- Har du tappat tungan? (?Have you lost your tongue??)

Instead of the tongue, the problem may be the mouth. Thus, in Marathi one could say ?Did someone stitch your mouth??. Or in Romanian, with a reference to not greeting, one can comment both not raising one?s hat and not saying anything:

- Buna ziua, caciula, ca stapanul n-are gura (?Good afternoon, hat, does
your owner have a mouth??

In Swedish (Finland) one could also use the figurative expression ?ha mj?let i munnen? (?to have flour in the mouth?).

More general references to a person?s unability to speak are also recorded, thus from Swedish:

- Har du tappat talf?rm?gan / m?lf?ret? (?Have you lost your speaking ability??)

and German:

- Da biste sprachlos!? (?You are unable to speak??)

In sum, speaking is very often supposed to be impossible without the tongue, which can be lost altogether or at least be affected by an injury. Speaking may also be difficult if one is not able to open the mouth, or the mouth is filled with something.


Instead of referring to supposed problems with speech production, an issue can be made of a possible hearing problem. In Danish one could ask if the other person is deaf:

-Er du doev?

A similar strategy is possible in Marathi with a locution that translates ?Did ears break?? (?Have you become deaf??). Reference to a hearing problem can, apparently, motivate the following expression from Tunisian Arabic:

- Fi:n rtust? (?Where have you been diving??)

A very practical thing would, of course, be to ask whether the other person has heard what was said; thus one could say in Marathi ?Did you hear?? or ?What am I saying??.


If a person does not reply and possibly hear what has been said, one can refer to the person?s attention or presence in a more general fashion than by referring to functionality of the speech productive and receptive organs. Certain locutions in Marathi work in this fashion, translating ?Give attention here / Look at here?. Similarly, we have following examples from Persian: ?What a reception / What an attention?.

Perhaps the following expression from a Low-Lithuanian dialect also belongs to this general category:

- Ar matee kiaule su skombalel?o? (?Did you see a swine with a [little] bell??)

The locution possibly suggests that the person?s attention is elsewhere, apparently, focussed on some unexpected phenomenon.
The English expression ?Earth to NN? (for instance, ?Earth to Jim?) is a jocular variant in this category of formula; the person not responding is considered to be off in outer space (cf. Earth to Eagle). This idiom is probably spreading to other languages, for in Danish one could say:

- Jorden kalder NN. (?Earth is calling NN?)

A related kind of metaphor between distance and presence/attention is used in Tunisian Arabic:

- Essqifa twalit? ?Has the ?hall? become longer??

although in less cosmic terms.


From distance in practice there is no great leap to referring to a social or emotional distance between the interlocutors. General comments on the non-responding person?s conduct are certainly a common strategy, and can vary from fairly neutral expressions to more figurative, even indecent and insulting ones. To begin from the more neutral end, we may note two expressions from German addressing an absent second pair-part greeting:

- Du hast aber auch schonmal besser gegruesst. (?Well you?ve greeted better
in the past, too!?)

- Der kennt auch keinen mehr. (?Well he doesn?t know anyone anymore either.?)

Comments to silence after a question would include:

- Du hast es wohl nicht n?tig (zu antworten)!? (?You don?t seem to think it?s necessary (to reply)?)

- Du bist ja so einsilbig? (?You are so one-syllabic.?)

Some locutions refer to the insult one feels when the other party seems to ignore him or her. The German ?he doesn?t know anyone anymore? is one variant of this, and this aspect is present also in the Greek:

- Mila mas kj as mi mas agapas. (?Talk to us even if you don?t love us.?)

The same applies to the Persian ?I am also a human being.?

More insulting expressions from the initiative taking speaker include the Tunisian Arabic:

- Wijh ittapsi la yissabah la ymessi. (?Face of a plate does not either bid good morning nor good afternoon/evening.?)

or the French:

-Parle ? mon cul, ma t?te est malade. (?Speak to my ass, my head is ill.?)

It seems generally that many of these expresions in this as well as in the other categories can have a jocular connotation although they may be literally dramatic or offensive things to say.


It was very interesting to be able to collect the types of expressions I have exemplified above, partly because of the variety in the reference and figurativeness of the locutions, partly because their very existence in diverse languages manifests culturally coded awareness of basic turn-taking principles. Clearly, the expressions have come into being because the interactional problem of not receiving a response where this is strongly
projected is a central one. So central that the speaker may have a license to comment on another person?s failure to respond. Such a face threatening move can perhaps be carried out in a little safer manner with the help of a fixed, possibly even jocular, formula in the language.

However, a word of caution must be said. Some of the people who replied to my query noted that (at least some of) the expressions above are perhaps not a very nice thing to say to another person, and that they often presuppose familiarity, or they are more likely to be addressed to children than to adults. Of course, making remarks on somebody else?s conduct is an act of bringing up the other person and a display of ?knowing better? - certainly not a preferred way of behaving in a non-familiar context. A less provacative way of dealing with the problem of getting no reply would be just to repeat the greeting or the question; thus, the speaker will give a second chance to the other party, and a possibility to remedy the problem.

Although I have tried to refrain from all too many conclusions when presenting the particular formulas, since I lack the knowledge of many of the languages discussed, I have yet made some. Please correct me if there are any mistakes. I am also still interested in getting more data on the subject: further examples and possible references to studies of this kind are most welcome. I would also briefly like to complete my studies on this
subject matter with another query about two other kinds of conversational formula; those addressing a not adequate response, and those addressing an evident interruption of a speaker?s turn. I will return to this topic in a separate posting.

Last but not least, many many thanks to the persons in the list below.
Thank you for your help, and thank you readers of Linguist List for your

Jan Lindstr?m

Associate Professor
Dept of Scandinavian languages and literature
University of Helsinki

Lits of contributors:

Ananda Lima (Brazilian Portugues)
Kim Schulte (German)
Kevin Caldwell (English)
Nancy Frishberg (English)
Meri Larjavaara (Finnish)
Ioana-Ruxandra Dascalu (Romanian)
Pierre-Aur?lien Georges (French)
Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen (Danish)
Karl Reinhardt (English)
Nora Wiedenmann (German)
Aleksas Girdenis (Low-Lithuanian)
Emily M. Bender (English)
Dr. R. Sahragard (Persian)
Veena Dixit (Marathi)
Hitay Yukseker (Turkish)
Esma Maamouri Ghrib (Tunisian Arabic)
Alexis Dimitriadis (Greek)
Cajsa Ottesj? (Swedish [Sweden])
Peter Slotte (Swedish [Finland])

LL Issue: 15.3283
Date Posted: 22-Nov-2004
Original Query: Read original query


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