Sometimes it seems like the world can’t stop talking. In English, we have so many words to describe the ways people speak that we’re often taught in school to avoid the word “said” at all costs, in favor of the dozens of more colorful speech tags we have at our disposal. (We’re usually later reprimanded by veteran authors for needing to use anything but “said”, but that’s another matter.) But we have no words for the opposite. As it turns out, we may be in the linguistic minority on this — many European languages have words for the act of being silent, and some of them distinguish themselves enough from one another to get their own posts in the future. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to feature a Serbo-Croatian word, even if it meant posting two words from Slavic languages in a row — so I chose ćutati. What I like about it, and words that mean the same in other languages, is that they don’t just use one blanket term for “silence”, the absence of any noise — instead they refer only to the absence of people talking, which is a different kind of silence unto itself. It doesn’t exist detached from humanity; it’s entwined with it, infused with it. We control it. It can be awkward or unwelcome — the imperative form of ćutati translates as “shut up” — but it can also be peaceful, born of contentment. Sometimes there’s just nothing to say.
Being aggressively introverted in a society that often doesn’t understand people like me, I quite like the idea of having a word for not talking. My whole life I’ve been shy and labeled “the quiet one”; I don’t bother to remember all the times someone has commented to me, “You don’t say much”, as if I don’t already know. (Of course, not all introverts are necessarily shy or quiet, but I will confess to being the stereotype in that regard.) Oftentimes, it can feel like I’m being defined by what I don’t do. So a word like ćutati feels like a breath of fresh air — it ditches the negative and instead describes what I do do. I don’t not talk, I simply keep quiet. And when I’m quiet, I’m doing so much more than not talking — I’m listening, observing, thinking. I’m taking everything in, processing all the information that surrounds me at any given time. To boil all that down to the one thing I’m not doing is almost an insult, and is certainly an oversimplification of how the minds of many introverts work. The existence of a word that acknowledges being quiet as a unique action, rather than a lack thereof, feels like a step toward being understood.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being talkative; some of my favorite people are, and I respect their ability to listen, to observe, and to produce deep and meaningful thoughts as much as anyone’s. Non-quiet people aren’t the problem. It only becomes disheartening when we, as a society, agree that being that way is the standard, and treat the people who don’t follow along as unusual — or worse, as having something that needs to be fixed. Sometimes quiet people have the most to say, if you give them the chance to let their thoughts fully form and listen with the right kind of ears. It sounds cheesy, but it’s the quality of people’s words that really matters, not the quantity. Maybe it’s time for English to adopt a word like ćutati to remind us of that; maybe it’s time to stop being afraid of silence, and instead embrace the things that can start to happen when we stop talking.