THE BOOKSHELF: EAVESDROPPING.

I recently finished the copy of John L. Locke’s recent Eavesdropping: An Intimate History that the publisher was good enough to send me, and I feel that it has given me a new keyhole through which to peep at the world. Eavesdropping would not, on the face of it, seem to have much to do with language as such, and yet the author is Professor of Linguistics at Lehman College. He says in the prologue that a colleague asked him why he had chosen the subject, which “must have seemed a radical departure from my previous work on the psychology of language.” Locke explained that he “had come across Marjorie McIntosh’s analysis of court records indicating that five and six centuries ago, English citizens had, in impressive numbers, been arrested for eavesdropping” and wondered “what, in the medieval mind, would have caused this behavior to be criminalized, and what the ‘criminals’ themselves were doing, or thought they were doing”; he “had also begun to study ethology, a field that deals with behavior in a broad range of species, and had encountered the work of Peter McGregor”:

He pointed out that birds increase their chances of survival by monitoring the long-distance calls of other birds – signals that are not even intended for their ears. Such interceptions, McGregor noted, are ignored by all existing models of animal communication…. If real people also tune in to each other, and become usefully informed in the process, then theories of human communication must explain these things that real people do.
But they have not done so. … The reason why social scientists have failed to document equivalent levels of eavesdropping in humans, however, is not because they looked for it and discovered that there was nothing to be seen. They never looked in the first place.
Why they did not, I think, is linked to a long-standing tendency of philosophers and psychologists to put humans on a pedestal, to regard our species as more intelligent and rational than other animals. This view could not be sustained if humans were on a continuum with other primates and mammals, so they concentrated on the behaviors accounting for, and related to, Man’s best and highest accomplishments. Central to these was language, the symbolic code that enables speakers to consciously transmit thought to willing listeners. This kept other animals safely at bay but, paradoxically, also excluded important facts about human communication.

That’s an impressive and intriguing program for a study—a program, however, that this book only partially fulfills.


One problem is the lack of clear focus. Locke’s discussion of the development of walled living, as reflected in various tribes in remote areas and as hypothesized for our distant ancestors, is fascinating and sometimes riveting (the Mehinaku of Brazil can not only recognize each other’s footprints, they can draw them from memory!). I had never thought about what it must have been like to move from communal living, in which everyone knew what everyone else was up to and there was no such thing as private life, to a situation in which people had their own dwellings into which they could retreat; as Locke says, it required a long period of adaptation and turmoil. Interestingly, some groups, like the ǃKung of the Kalahari Desert (oddly for a linguist, he omits the initial !, representing a click consonant), use their huts only for storage and rarely enter them—they “rarely spend time alone,” and “to seek solitude is regarded as a bizarre form of behavior.” I would have preferred that he focus on this sort of material, and perhaps throw in a final chapter summing up more recent developments.
Unfortunately (from my point of view), most of the book deals with the last few centuries; there are some piquant anecdotes (and lots of illustrations of maids listening at doors and the like), but it’s hard to see what any of it has to do with language. What’s worse, it focuses entirely on Western Europe, really just on England and Paris, with a few excursuses into other parts. If you’re going to discuss the history of eavesdropping, how can you simply omit the Middle East, Asia, almost the entire world? Those regions have as rich a history of masters and servants, slander and gossip, as England and France. It’s all very well to say one man can’t cover all that material; in the first place, by asking colleagues and making use of the internet he could certainly have done at least a superficial job of it (and let’s face it, what he has is pretty superficial, as is only natural for a first study), but even if we accept that he had to limit his focus, he should have made it clear that he was doing so, and doing so with regret: “I hope that these first steps will be followed by scholars in Russia, China, Japan, and elsewhere who will mine the rich resources of their traditions…” But there is nothing like that, no indication that he is looking only at that tiny bit of civilization that happens to be convenient to hand and linguistically accessible. It all smacks a bit too much of traditional scholarship, in which it was assumed that if you covered the Greeks, Romans, French, and English, with a nod to the Germans, you’d covered all the ground that needed to be covered. I thought we had moved past that.
But that’s something of a quibble. There’s a great deal of interesting material here (did you know that “scolding” used to be an official crime, and that it could be committed only by women?), and it’s a good first step in an unaccountably untrodden field. It gives me the same feeling of discovery, of widening horizons, I used to have in anthropology class, all those years ago.

Comments

  1. Hat: Locke explained that he “had come across Marjorie McIntosh’s analysis of court records indicating that five and six centuries ago, English citizens had, in impressive numbers, been arrested for eavesdropping” and wondered “what, in the medieval mind, would have caused this behavior to be criminalized, and what the ‘criminals’ themselves were doing, or thought they were doing”

    Dunno … I wonder what makes Locke wonder. What, in the Lockean mind, can have suggested the idea that eavesdropping is something “the medieval mind” may have seen differently than his modern mind does ? Is he completely out of it ? Under the title of invasion of privacy, eavesdropping is still criminalized today. As to possible motives for eavesdropping, recognizable by any social scientist and man on the street, tradition gives us at the very least: innocent or spiteful curiosity, the possible commercial advantages in learning something you’re not supposed to know, linguistic research (dictionaries of usage were being compiled already in the 16th century, I believe), the search for sin.

    Locke: The reason why social scientists have failed to document equivalent levels of eavesdropping in humans, however, is not because they looked for it and discovered that there was nothing to be seen. They never looked in the first place.

    OK, Locke is out of it. He has never heard of, or read, Foucault’s views on the origins of the Inquisition and the Catholic practice of confession (institutionalized eavesdropping !), as set out in Surveillir et punir and La volonté de savoir – to name only Foucault, and only some of what I’ve read by him. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Luhmann considers all communication to be eavesdropping.

    Hat: (did you know that “scolding” used to be an official crime, and that it could be committed only by women?)

    I didn’t know that, but it doesn’t surprise me. In societies in which women have no say in matters, what else can they do but scold (“typically” !) ? The criminalization of scolding may have been a response to an early-modern surge of liberation sentiment among women. :-) Does Locke try to correlate social phenomena at all, or does he just let the speculation roll ?

    Hat: I had never thought about what it must have been like to move from communal living, in which everyone knew what everyone else was up to and there was no such thing as private life, to a situation in which people had their own dwellings into which they could retreat; as Locke says, it required a long period of adaptation and turmoil.

    This topic has been discussed in depth by German social scientists and philosophers since at least the early 1900s, even in the very little I have read: Plessner (Grenzen der Gemeinschaft), for instance. And of course, later, Sloterdijk at great length (the Sphären trilogy) with all the writers he cites.
    I agree with you that it is all very fascinating and intriguing – also that the book seems to be a muffed opportunity, and that “it’s hard to see what any of it has to do with language”.

  2. I agree with his comment about the animals.
    Even though England may have been excessively scrutinised already, this past week’s Guardian‘s headlines, articles, tweets & comments on the Wikileaks eavesdropping ought to be collected for an anthropologist’s paper. Of course the way language is deployed is part of eavesdropping, as these headlines from today’s Guardian show: Afghan contempt for British army exposed … Brown an ‘abysmal’ prime minister … UK overruled on Lebanon flights … Gordon Brown’s global moves dismissed by US. There was little news underneath the headline, but it is, apparently, deeply shocking to hear how your supposed friends have been talking about you behind your back (many British newspapers were calling Brown ‘abysmal’ themselves at the time, but that’s different).

  3. Small typo: that title should be Surveiller et punir.

  4. Oops, thanks bruessel ! Worse than a typo, though – the right word was not securely fixed in my head. Bloody French verbs …

  5. Locke: … Man’s best and highest accomplishments. Central to these was language, the symbolic code that enables speakers to consciously transmit thought to willing listeners. This kept other animals safely at bay but, paradoxically, also excluded important facts about human communication.
    1. “Consciously” and “willing” – very important, this is territory where lately Luhmann roamed.
    2. But what “transmission” is supposed to be involved ? Is this like money changing hands ?
    3. Isn’t eavesdropping an unconscious transmission ?
    4. Language keeps other animals at bay ? Hmmm …
    5. Where is the paradox ? Is there something besides language keeping the other animals at bay ?

  6. Can someone identify for me a code that is not symbolic ?

  7. The Code Of The Woosters.

  8. Damn your i’s and cross your t’s, Crown: I was so sure I had won that game point. I concede victory.

  9. I should jolly well hope so.

  10. There were some special forms of punishment for the common scold. It seems that scolding did not become legal until 1967 — a watershed year in so many ways.

  11. The essence of being a scold is that you are not only loud and argumentative, but you are loud and argumentative enough that your behavior is a breach of the public peace. That’s still an offense today, though under other names.
    The last common scold was prosecuted in New Jersey in 1972, says Wikipedia, whereupon the court declared the offense unconstitutional for vagueness.

  12. narrowmargin says:

    So, you’re saying that criminal prosecution is the cure for the common scold?

  13. A more cautious assessment would be that there is no cure for the common cold.

  14. With the best modern patient management, including a doctor’s care, medications, bed rest, etc., the rhinovirus can be eliminated from the body in just seven days. Whereas if you ignore the cold, it will last about a week!

  15. David Marjanović says:
    Why they did not, I think, is linked to a long-standing tendency of philosophers and psychologists to put humans on a pedestal, to regard our species as more intelligent and rational than other animals. This view could not be sustained if humans were on a continuum with other primates and mammals, so they concentrated on the behaviors accounting for, and related to, Man’s best and highest accomplishments. Central to these was language, the symbolic code that enables speakers to consciously transmit thought to willing listeners. This kept other animals safely at bay but, paradoxically, also excluded important facts about human communication.

    “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”
    – biologist proverb

  16. Siganus Sutor says:

    That word — eavesdropping — is a funny word for anyone used to dealing with sloping roofs. In a roof, the eaves are the lowest edge of a slope, and the word is used in expressions like “eaves beams“. How has the word eaves been used to mean an activity linked to spying on others? If anybody wants to listen to other people, one of the least convenient places would be the sloping edge of a roof. Etymonline.com doesn’t sound very convincing to me when they speak about an eavesdropper:

    mid-15c., from M.E. eavesdrop, from O.E. yfesdrype “place around a house where the rainwater drips off the roof,” from eave (q.v.) + drip. Technically, “one who stands at walls or windows to overhear what’s going on inside.”

  17. The eavesdrop was the place under the eaves where you stood if you wanted to keep dry; the water dripped off the eaves just beyond you. It was therefore a perfect place from which to listen.

  18. It appears that strictly speaking the eavesdrop was the place just behind you where the water dripped. So an eavesdropper is someone who stands just within, or next to, or this side of, the eavesdrop. Still makes sense to me, though.

  19. Siganus Sutor says:

    LH: The eavesdrop was the place under the eaves where you stood if you wanted to keep dry
    So you understand that place to be at ground level more than at roof level? If such is the case than, yes, it makes sense. (If the eavesdrop was the edge from which the water was dropping, then it makes less sense as it is a place out of reach unless you have a ladder or some scaffolding.)

  20. No, you’re right. I misremembered what the book I reviewed said: “The English term ‘eavesdropping’ derives from the practice of standing under the eavesdrop—the place where rain water falls from the roof to the ground—in order to hear conversations occurring within the home.” (Emphasis added.)

  21. When I read the etymonline account I interpreted it as saying that the eavesdrop is the place on the ground where the rain falls. I pictured the little eroded line that may appear in the garden if there is no rain gutter at the edge of the roof.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    Is there really any discernable meaning to meaningfully discern here? ‘Under’ may mean both “directly beneath” and “behind in such a way that you see it below”. Also, or maybe therefore, under the eavesdrop is the same as under the eave when seen from outside.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    under the eave
    I have recently seen eave written, and I think it is a back-formation from eaves, creating a singular from a word normally used in the plural. But shouldn’t the singular be “eaf”, as in leaves, plural of leaf? Is “eaf” attested at all?

  24. Trond Engen says:

    I first wrote ‘the eaves’ but removed the s on a whim. Luckily I see that merriam-webster.com has

    eave

    1 : the lower border of a roof that overhangs the wall —usually used in plural

    2 : a projecting edge (as of a hill) —usually used in plural

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary on eave

    1570s, from S.W. Midlands dial. eovese (sing.), from O.E. efes “edge of a roof,” also “edge of a forest,” from P.Gmc. *ubaswa-/*ubiswa (cf. O.Fris. ose “eaves,” O.H.G. obasa “porch, hall, roof,” Ger. Obsen, O.N. ups, Goth. ubizwa “porch;” Ger. oben “above”), from the root of over. Treated as plural and a new singular form eave emerged 16c.

    This is more interesting than I thought! the s was originally part of the singular word, so there was never an “eaf”. But eave is indeed a back-formation, after the final s was understood as the plural suffix. I guess that must be why eavesdrop has always had an s (usually, compounds use the singular, unsuffixed form, as eaves originally was).

  26. Interesting indeed! I am more educated than I was a minute ago.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    Me too. ON ups didn’t ring any bells, but Norsk Ordbok 2014 gave me a (Western/Northern) Norwegian cognate ufs “eaves; steep rockside” that I didn’t know before. For ‘eaves’ I use takskjegg lit. “roof-beard”.
    But the vowel of Eng. ‘eaves’ is odd, isn’t it?

  28. marie-lucie says:

    the vowel of Eng. ‘eaves’
    In addition to over and German oben ‘above’, the word must be related to up and to G auf ‘up, on’. There are other instances of the -ea-/-au- correspondence, such as leap (and leave) related to G laufen ‘to run’, and cheap to G kaufen ‘to buy’ (Cheapside was the merchant district).

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