What Signifying Means in African American Discourse

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Signifying is a combination of rhetorical strategies employed in African American speech communities--in particular, the use of irony and indirection to express ideas and opinions.

In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1988), Henry Louis Gates describes signifyin(g) as "a trope in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the master tropes), and also hyperbole, litotes, and metalepsis ([Harold] Bloom's supplement to [Kenneth] Burke). To this list, we could easily add aporia, chiasmus, and catachresis, all of which are used in the ritual of signifyin(g)."

Examples and Observations

  • "Above all, signifying is a ritualistic practice that serves various functions in different African American discursive and communal spaces. Some scholars define signifying as primarily a male-dominated activity (the female version is called 'specifying'). African American men in this verbal art form focus their anger, aggression, and frustration into a relatively harmless exchange of wordplay where they can establish their masculinity in verbal 'battles' with their peers. This form of signifying lends itself to validating a pecking order style of dominance based on the result of the verbal exchange. . . .
    "Signifying can affirm, critique, or build community through the involvement of its participants." (Carole Boyce Davies, Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2008)
  • "Women, and to certain extent children, commonly use more indirect methods of signifying. These range from the most obvious kinds of indirection, like using an unexpected pronoun in discourse ('Didn't we come to shine today' or 'Who thinks his drawers don't stink?'), to the more subtle technique, of louding or loud-talking in a different sense from the one above. A person is loud-talking when he says something of someone just loud enough for that person to hear, but indirectly, so he cannot properly respond (Mitchell-Kernan). Another technique of signifying through indirection is making reference to a person or group not present, in order to start trouble between someone present and the ones who are not. An example of this technique is the famous toast, 'The Signifying Monkey.'" (Roger D. Abrahams, Talking Black. Newbury House, 1976)
  • "Rhetorically, for the African American community, the strategy behind indirection suggests that direct confrontation in everyday discourse is to be avoided when possible. . . . Normally, indirection has been treated as a function of the speech acts and not as a rhetorical strategy in oral discourse. Boasting, bragging, loud talking, rapping, signifying, and, to a degree, playing the dozens have elements of indirection. . . .
    "While signifying is a way of encoding a message, one's shared cultural knowledge is the basis on which any reinterpretation of the message is made. Theoretically, signifying (Black) as a concept can be used to give meaning to rhetorical acts of African Americans and indicate a Black presence. Rhetorically, one can also explore texts for the manner in which the themes or worldviews of other texts are repeated and revised with a signal difference, but based on shared knowledge." (Thurmon Garner and Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, "African American Orality." Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations, ed. by Ronald L. Jackson II and Elaine B. Richardson. Routledge, 2003)

Also known as: signifyin(g), signifyin'

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Signifying Means in African American Discourse." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/signifying-definition-1691957. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Signifying Means in African American Discourse. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/signifying-definition-1691957 Nordquist, Richard. "What Signifying Means in African American Discourse." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/signifying-definition-1691957 (accessed May 27, 2023).