Speech, silence, and slave descent in highland Madagascar


  • Correction Note: This article was first published online on the 7th of August 2013, under a subscription publication licence. The article has since been made OnlineOpen, and the copyright line and licence statement was therefore updated in August 2014.


This article is an examination of the uses and effects of words and silence. It analyses the rhetorical strategies used in connection with a fundamental cleavage in highland Malagasy society: the distinction between people of free and slave descent. A pervasive silence hangs over this topic since it is almost never mentioned between the two groups. This silence, along with the careful words used to play down status differentiation, forms the rhetorical micro-politics of village life. The article takes the view that this wholesale avoidance constitutes a generalized speech act: that is to say, it is constituted of diverse motivations and strategies, and has multiple and contradictory effects. One of these is that while allowing a liveable fiction of equality to be evoked, these rhetorical strategies also entrench the division even more deeply.