Two highly influential figures in modern linguistics, J. L. Austin and Paul Grice, did their pioneering work by analyzing conversation. Both men came up with original and still well-respected observations about what we assume, what we are trying to do, and what we actually accomplish through the ordinary activity of conversing with each other. Austin's 1955 lecture series at Harvard, published as How to Do Things with Words, introduced the world to the notion of speech acts. Grice's 1967 lecture series at Harvard, later published as Studies in the Ways of Words, codified the "rules" of conversation and provided the world with very useful maxims about what we can learn about speakers' intentions when they follow, break, or intentionally exploit various features of the rules we all would ideally follow in our conversations.

The profound insights that both of these linguist-philosophers have bequeathed us serve very well for analyzing conversations of all kinds today. But humans have an incurable habit of "conversing" when one of the canonical parties to conversation — speaker or listener — is not present in a conventional sense.

We talk to our pets and other animals; to inanimate objects, such as toys or appliances; to God, to gods, or to other beings whose putative immaterial presence prevents them from responding in an ordinary way; we talk to ourselves; we talk to departed loved (or despised) ones, or to humans who are alive but not present to benefit from whatever speech is issuing from our pie-holes. So it seems legitimate to ask: do the observations made by Austin and Grice have any application to "conversations" in which the traffic in words is by definition all or nearly all one-way?

Let's start at what might be the first manifestation of this very human habit: talking to yourself! Children do it, starting at around the same time that they begin to use language as a tool of communication. Some of us later take more of the dialogue inside as we age but many of us are life-long self-talkers, loud and clear. Does this sort of talking to your best listener ever accomplish anything on the Austinian or Gricean charts?

Certainly a vow or a promise that you make to yourself, in the presence of no one but you, would qualify as a speech act. Its intention, presumably, would be to hold you to a particular line of behavior and its effect, if successful, would be in your keeping the vow or promise. Perhaps most of us don't invoke a witness for such an act, in the dramatic manner of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind:

But whether we invoke a deity as a witness or not, it seems reasonable to say that a promise to oneself is as much a speech act as a promise to another.

The Gricean perspective on private speech (that's the technical term for talking to yourself) is a little more nuanced. The focus of Grice's work is on the idea of conversation as a cooperative enterprise. Barring circumstances that would mitigate cooperation, the idea is that when we converse with another, a persistent underlying motive is that we do so with the intention of being helpful and arriving at an outcome that favors both parties. How does that work when you're talking to yourself?

In general, and for a psychologically normal person, our instincts would say "pretty well." We often talk to ourselves as a way of coming to a better understanding of a particular conflict or difficult situation in our lives. A helpful conversation with yourself can accomplish a number of different things, as studies have shown. But when something like a conversation is unfolding within one psyche, are there different speakers? Do they have conflicting points of view? Are they working towards a common goal?

These are harder questions, and in the case of a mind that's not quite in good order, the results might not be felicitous. Consider the conversation that Norman Bates has with his mother (spoiler: she has been dead for some time!) in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho:

Mom prevails in this conversation, to the detriment of the young woman who overheard the conversation from her room in the adjacent Bates Motel.

According to Grice, conversations unfold in observance of maxims that govern what we say and what we don't say. Combined with our assessment of the differences and similarities between ourselves and our listeners, we make real-time decisions about what should be spelled out at greater length, what can be abbreviated, what must be put delicately, and the like. The maxims are:

  1. The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.
  2. The maxim of quality, where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.
  3. The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion.
  4. The maxim of manner, when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity.

In talking to ourselves, these maxims may seem largely irrelevant: the speaker and listener, being the same person, have exactly the same information readily available to them, and so the maxims of quantity and relation would have little meaning: there's no need for "you" to tell me what "I" already know, and what is pertinent to the discussion would be everything or nothing. The maxim of quality could hardly be breached without the listener observing "You lie!", and the maxim of manner, unless one of the voices in your head is very unruly, would surely be observed in the interest of not wasting time.

The irony, however, is that our soliloquies often flout these maxims. We may rattle on pointlessly, we may spell out things in great detail that are in fact already well known. We do in fact find ourselves, from time to time, trying to pass off to ourselves half-truths for truths, and it is often the very process of talking to ourselves that alerts us to this.

I expect that much of our self-dialog is modeled on conversations we have heard or taken part in. Perhaps we try to make our conversations with ourselves as successful as the best conversations whose fragments still float about in our heads. The most influential voices of our early life may be disproportionately present, so it is to be hoped that they were not the voices of tyrants, bullies, or scolds.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of private speech for all of us is that there is always someone who will talk, and ideally, always someone who is willing to listen. Those are both conditions that are conducive to getting things done.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 5th, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
Our gardener talks to the plants in our yard. Our yard is practically a jungle of thriving, living botanical wonders. I'm learning to converse with these plants each morning as I write in my journal.
Tuesday May 5th, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Vern H. (Brampton Canada)
Thought provoking. Thank you. Appreciate how delicately you treat the difference between hallucination and talking with oneself. Mental illness is not funny.
I try to make a point when in conversation to sublimate my inner dialogue and listen carefully and patiently. It takes discipline, and it’s annoying when others don’t allow time for speakers to express themselves. So often, impatience drives people to interrupt one another, perhaps due their inner dialoguing, and nothing substantively memorable comes of the conversation except frustration. In other words, a waste of precious time.
However, I’m not disciplined quite enough; my wife frequently talks at length aloud to herself, then later accuses me of not listening.

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