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  • Speaking through the silence: Narratives, social conventions, and power in Java
  • Benjamin G. Zimmer
Laine Berman. 1998. Speaking through the silence: Narratives, social conventions, and power in Java. Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics 19. New York: Oxford University Press. 276 pp. ISBN: 0-19-510888-4. $60.00.

The title of Laine Berman's provocative and insightful study of Javanese discourse brings to mind several kinds of "speaking" and several kinds of "silence." First and most obviously, the title refers to the everyday conversations of working-class women recorded by Berman, which are permeated by telling silences under the constraints of powerful Javanese social conventions. Second, the "speaking" could refer to Berman's own scholarly representation of her ethnographic subjects, which gives them a "voice" that would normally be denied to them in the silence-inducing hegemonic structures of Javanese life, particularly given the oppressive nature of the Indonesian state in general. Third, Berman is "speaking through the silence" of Javanese studies both in Indonesia and the West, which she argues has elided all but the most elitist views of the ethnic group's ostensibly "refined" and "elegant" language and culture. I will use these three readings of the title to provide different avenues into appreciating the lively, personal descriptions and rich interactional data presented within the book's covers.

Berman bases her study in the central Javanese court town of Yogyakarta, which, along with the nearby town of Surakarta, is typically characterized as the "exemplary center" of Javanese courtly language and culture. The idealized exemplariness of refined Javanese speech hierarchically ordered around the kraton or [End Page 182] royal palace has been much discussed by linguists and anthropologists fascinated by the language's highly elaborated system of address styles commonly referred to as "speech levels." But rather than focusing on the traditional kraton-centered elite called priyayi, Berman chooses to study the interaction of those living and working in the shadow of the kraton, resigned to marginalized status in the Javanese social hierarchy. Such speakers, she emphasizes, may be perfectly competent in the most refined styles of Javanese, but this does not necessarily imply that the "speech-level" system is pragmatically salient in their speech as indexical of formality or deference towards addressees, as is often assumed in the literature on Javanese. Rather, she argues that manipulation of the speech-level hierarchy is a relatively minor concern to the majority of Javanese speakers, who may index "power and solidarity," as famously termed by Brown and Gilman (1960), via a myriad of other stylistic variables. Thus instead of concentrating solely on the lexical level of usage in refined vocabulary, Berman turns her attention to the discursive level of "storytelling," drawing on a framework of narrative analysis pioneered by William Labov and others.

After a preliminary chapter on Javanese and Indonesian gender ideologies, Berman sets out her methodological approach to Javanese storytelling, combining techniques of discourse analysis and linguistic anthropology to identify and contextualize oral narratives as they occur in everyday conversation. Javanese women rely on conversational narratives, she maintains, as both presupposing and entailing indexes (cf. Silverstein 1976) of their social relations with other speakers and the community at large. Berman observes that the shared work of coconstructing stories reflects "a striving for unanimous understanding of events" (69) and is "a means through which the world can be made more harmonious" (84). She pinpoints certain types of deictics or indexicals—past-tense adverbials, reported speech, speech-level shifts, and discursive boundary markers—as structurally significant in determining "how firmly these women tie their own sense of self to the social contexts they are currently a part of" (99). The women's narratives tend to deploy such discursive indexicality as a means of shifting emphasis away from the individual speaker to a broader social collectivity.

The final three chapters of the book take the reader through a trio of vivid narratives involving the protagonist Sari, a young woman in Berman's host family who works at the local garment factory. In the first speech situation, Sari endeavors to construct a discourse of protest involving her fellow workers as a way of building solidarity in the face of mistreatment by...


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