what’s in a whisper……

April 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve just been reading a book Martin passed on to me that is at once fascinating and deeply disturbing and it’s all about whispering – The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes. Whispering was a daily activity in Stalinist Russia, in the more than two decades of Stalin’s reign of terror until his death in 1953. Early on in the book the language of ‘whisperer’ in Russian is mentioned and is particularly revealing – shepchushchii is for somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard, and sheptun for the person who informs or whispers behind people’s backs to the authorities. Both functions of whispering formed the fabric of relationships and socio-political life in Stalinist Russia – the richness and necessity of whispering, the meaning it held for participants and the significance for individuals is explored in the book. This got me thinking….humour and gossip have been the subject of much study in linguistics in the last decade or so, but I don’t know about whispering….yet it remains a very salient and often high stakes form of language use. So now my awareness has been raised and my curiosity ignited – any ideas out there about whispering? When, where and why do we whisper? How do you respond to whispering, in all its forms? What is its meaning in different sociocultural contexts? When is whispering experienced as shameful, intimate, complicit,…..? And how do whisperers recover, when they are sprung?

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