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On Declining an Invitation in Homer and in Everyday Talk: Context, Form, and Function

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

Elizabeth Minchin*
Australian National University


Speech-act theory starts from the premise that the minimal unit of spoken communication is not the word or sentence but the production of words or sentences in the performance of certain kinds of acts, such as challenging, entreating, apologising, thanking, or rebuking. Some speech acts may be expressed quite economically, in a few words (for example, ‘I congratulate you’); others require a sequence of sentences or syntactic chunks to achieve their illocutionary function—that is, to fulfil the intention of the speaker. In a recent paper, drawing on two fields of study outside Classics—cognitive psychology and discourse analysis—I examined a single set of speech acts recorded in the Homeric epics: the rebukes which Homer's characters address to one another in the course of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In that paper I demonstrated that all speeches in Homer which we identify as rebukes share a common structure, or format, and that this format is remarkably similar to the format to which we ourselves—in middle-class communities in the Western world—refer when, for example, we chastise a child. And I proposed that this notion of format-based speech may be extended perhaps even to the full range of speech acts observable in this everyday world and in the Homeric epics, of which apologies, challenges, words of consolation, and refusals of invitations are examples.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 2001

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1 On speech acts see, e.g., Austin, J. L., How to Do Things with Words (Oxford 1962)Google Scholar; Searle, J., Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge 1969) 1619CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge 1979) 129CrossRefGoogle Scholar (‘A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts’).

2 Speech Acts in the Everyday World and in Homer: The Rebuke as a Case Study’, in Worthington, I. (ed.), Epea and Grommata: Orai and Written Communication in Ancient Greece (Leiden 2002) 7196Google Scholar. In that paper I examine Richard Martin's claim in The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad (Ithaca and London 1989) 45Google Scholar that the speeches of the Iliad are ‘without question stylised versions of reality’. The present paper addresses the same issue, to give a further demonstration that we can find analogies between everyday talk and Homeric speech acts. This paper is also a companion to that study: here I explore in the context of a different speech act a number of supplementary issues.

3 This is in line with the important observations of Mikhail Bakhtin on stable generic forms in The Problem of Speech Genres’ trans. McGee, V. W., in Emerson, C. and Holquist, M. (eds.), Speech Genres and Other Late Essays: M. M. Bakhtin (Austin 1986) 60-102 esp. at 78–9Google Scholar: ‘We learn to cast our speech in generic forms and when hearing others’ speech we guess its genre from the very first words …. if speech genres did not exist and we had not mastered them, if we had to originate them during the speech process and construct each utterance at will for the first time, speech communication would be almost impossible.’ (79). On speech acts in Homer see Roochink, D., ‘Homeric Speech Acts: Word and Deed in the Epics’, CJ 85 (19891990) 289-99, at 290–1Google Scholar, who makes the point that the Homeric poems reveal a concept of language similar to the speech-act theories of Austin or Searle. For a lucid discussion of speech-act theory in the context of the spoken discourse recreated by Homer, see Clark, M., ‘Chryses' Supplication: Speech Act and Mythological Allusion’, CA 17 (1998) 5-24, at 710Google Scholar. I thank Bill Dominik for drawing my attention to Bakhtin's work on speech genres.

4 My study of rebukes in the Iliad and the Odyssey—and in the real world—has led me to propose the following typology for a rebuke format: (1) address/emotional response/words of reproach (the introductory phase); (2) an account of the problem (in which the speaker alludes to the undesirable behaviour at issue: this element is situation-specific); (3) a generalization about appropriate action/or a view of the undesirable action from a broader perspective; (4) a proposal for amends. For full discussion see ‘Speech Acts in the Everyday World and in Homer’ (n.2).

5 See Schank, R. and Abelson, R., Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures (Hillsdale NJ 1977)Google Scholar. According to Schank and Abelson, scripts are cognitive entities which store information in sequential form about routine experiences such as using a library, eating in a restaurant, or attending a conference. When, for example, we are participating in a conference, or reading about one we refer to the conference script in order to follow the sequence of events and to understand the roles of the people involved. For application of these ideas from the cognitive sciences to the composition of the Homeric epic, see Minchin, E., Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey (Oxford 2001) 215Google Scholar; Rubin, D., Memory In Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epics, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (New York and Oxford 1995) 24-8, 210–20Google Scholar.

6 For discussion see also Rubin, , Memory in Oral Tradition (n.5) 190–1Google Scholar.

7 This kind of knowledge is intuitive. See Bakhtin, , ‘Speech Genres’ (n.3), at 78Google Scholar: ‘we speak in diverse genres without suspecting that they exist’. Note also the observations of Wolfson, N., D'Amico-Reisner, L. and Huber, L., ‘How to Arrange for Social Commitments in American English: The Invitation’, in Wolfson, N. and Judd, E., Sociolinguistics and Language Acquisition (Rowley MA 1983) 116-28, at 116–7Google Scholar: ‘although native speakers are able to recognise intuitively and respond appropriately to speech acts such as invitations, they are not in a position to describe how such interactions are patterned’ (117).

8 For discussion of what makes Homeric poetry ‘special’ see Bakker, E., Poetry in Speech: Orality and Homeric Discourse (Ithaka and London 1997)Google Scholar chap. 1. Bakker argues that poetry is the ‘special case of oral’ (17) and that Homeric discourse should be considered not as oral poetry but as special speech. On the acquisition of the kind of task-based knowledge which underlies the composition of speech acts and its application to the circumstances of oral poetry, see Rubin, D., Wallace, W. and Houston, B., ‘The Beginnings of Expertise for Ballads’, Cognitive Science 17 (1993) 435-62, at 436-8, 452–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 On the importance of the ‘contextedness’ of talk, see Heritage, J. and Atkinson, J., ‘Introduction’ in Atkinson, J. and Heritage, J., Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversational Analysis (Cambridge 1984) 1-15, at 57Google Scholar.

10 One notable surprise visit which does not generate an invitation as such is the visit of the Embassy to Achilleus (II. 9.182-713, especially 196-224). Observe that Achilleus does not invite his visitors to eat and drink with him. It is, however, assumed by both parties that this is what will happen: the members of the Embassy expect that their offer can be made only in the context of the quiet relaxation and goodwill of a shared meal. And Achilleus must suspect that his visitors—Odysseus is amongst them!—have come with a purpose; and that the rituals of hospitality will be the appropriate prelude.

11 Patroklos refuses the invitation because he must hasten back to Achilleus; but Nestor brushes aside his refusal and detains him while he says what he wants to say. The urgency of the situation pushes him to claim his prerogative as an elder and to ignore Patroklos’ plea. On Nestor's strategy, see Speaker and Listener Text and Context: Some Notes on the Encounter of Nestor and Patroklos in Iliad 11, CW 84 (1991) 273-85 at 276–8Google Scholar (with notes); Dickson, K., ‘Nestor Among the Sirens’, Oral Tradition 8 (1993) 21-58, at 39-41, 4653Google Scholar.

12 In our culture this is an automatic response to a surprise visit. This also appears to be the case in the world which Homer describes. Here we note the importance of xenia, a code of hospitality which ensures that a visitor on the doorstep is the responsibility of the householders. To fail to welcome any guests who present themselves at the door would be to transgress the laws of Zeus, who keeps watch to see that all visitors are treated with respect (Od. 9.269-71). Eumaios, therefore, offers hospitality to Odysseus in disguise as a beggar (Od. 14.45-7). For commentary on this moment in the Odyssey when Odysseus is set upon by Eumaios’ dogs, see Cook, E., ‘“Active” and “Passive” Heroics in the Odyssey’, CW 93 (19992000) 149-67 at 163–4Google Scholar. It is important to note that the sequence of actions which is set in train by the arrival of a visitor is as true of life in many societies in the Teal world as it is in the world of Homer. I shall take up this point in discussion below.

13 See Goffman, Erving, ‘Replies and Responses’, in Forms of Talk (Oxford 1981) 5-77, at 73–4Google Scholar; and for a valuable discussion of so-called ‘adjacency pairs’ (such as invitation-response to an invitation) and their role in the production of coherent discourse, see Schegloff, E. and Sacks, H., ‘Opening up Closings’, Semiotica 8 (1973) 289-327, at 295–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In the context of the present discussion an invitation is a so-called ‘first pair part’ the response is the ‘second pair part’. A prompt response (the second pair part) is required if the exchange of talk is to be readily comprehensible. When an invitation is to be refused, however, it is notable that although the speaker of the second pair part begins his or her response promptly his actual rejection will be prefaced by a certain amount of ‘hedging’. See further n.23 below.

14 For comment on this see Drew, P., ‘Speakers’ Reportings in Invitation Sequences’, in Atkinson, and Heritage, , Structures of Social Action (n.9) 129-51, especially 146Google Scholar. For examples, see discussion below. Drew comments (146) that ‘[i]n providing for the circumstances that prevent recipients from accepting, reportings go toward absolving their consequences from being the outcomes of personal preference, choice, unwillingness, and the like. Though certainly another's (un)willingness, (dis)preference, or (dis)inclination may be detected from the reporting, what gets treated officially is the recipient's (lack of) freedom/availability to do something’. See also Goodwin, C. and Heritage, J., ‘Conversation Analysis’, Annual Review of Anthropology 19 (1990) 283-307, at 297CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who use the term account. I thank Tony Liddicoat for drawing my attention to this reference.

15 See Goodwin, and Heritage, , ‘Conversation Analysis’ (n.14) 297Google Scholar.

16 His refusal of Menelaos’ first invitation (Od. 4.594-608) appears to be blandly ignored by his host. On the ambiguity of Telemachos’ reply at this point (is it an outright refusal?), see West, S. in Heubeck, A., West, S., Hainsworth, J. B., A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 1 (Oxford 1988), at 229Google Scholar; and see further below. For discussion of the time that elapses before Telemachos is reminded by Athene that he must leave Menelaos’ palace, see Hoekstra, A. on Od. 15.13Google Scholar, in Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A., A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 2 (Oxford 1990) 231Google Scholar.

17 On this latter point see Nagler, M., ‘Dread Goddess Revisited’, in Schein, Seth, Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays (Princeton 1996) 141-161, at 145149Google Scholar.

18 Odysseus’ request to Kirke at this point reminds us of Priam's to Achilleus (II. 24.553-8): the visitor uses his response to his host's invitation to negotiate with him or her. The instructions of Il. 24.554-5 and Od. 10.386-7 are not elements of the refusal. The speaker has moved to a different speech act.

19 In his reply Odysseus sounds gruff and ungrateful. We usually expect our guests to refer with gratitude to what has been offered, whether they accept it or not. The beggar's concession at 346-8, however softens his initial refusal and allows the story to move forward, admitting Eurykleia to the secret of his disguise. For discussion of why Odysseus persists in declining these comforts see Joseph Russo's comments in Russo, J., Fernández-Galiano, M., and Heubeck, A., A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 3 (Oxford 1992) 93Google Scholar.

20 As Dickson notes in ‘Nestor Among the Sirens’ (n.ll) at 41. The exceptions, as noted above, are the refusals of Odysseus, to Kirke and to Penelope.

21 Children are taught at an early age that one does not simply refuse an offer of hospitality made in friendship; the information that one builds into one's refusal by way of an explanation is essential to the expression of the speech act—in our society, at least. Cf. Drew, ‘Speakers’ Reportings’ (n.14).

22 Drew, ‘Speakers’ Reportings’ (n.14) 146.

23 On the other hand, since speakers may feel that their rejection of an invitation leaves the way open to social discomfort and the risk of offence they will often hedge in order to avoid an outright refusal. Such hedging may take the form of hesitant speech (which we do not observe in refusals of invitations in Homer); or it may be represented as part of the reporting. For a parallel situation, see Pomerantz, A., ‘Agreeing and Disagreeing with Assessments: Some Features of Preferred/Dispreferred Turn Shapes’, in Atkinson, and Heritage, , Structures of Social Action (n.9) 57-101, at 7577Google Scholar.

24 See Drew, ‘Speakers’ Reportings’ (n.14) 135, for the following example (which I reproduce without Drew's transcript notation and with my own comments in italics):

E. Wanna come down and have a bite of lunch with me? I've got some beer and stuff. (invitation)

N. Well, you're real sweet, hon, I have …. (words of appreciation)

E. Ordo you have something else …?

N. No. I have to call Rol's mother. 1 told her I'd call this morning. I got a letter from her … (mission).

As Drew explains (136), ‘a declining of the invitation or any other upshot is not explicitly stated in the reporting; it is left to E. to determine what it implicates for getting together at lunch’. We conclude that the telephone call to Rol's mother (as reported) is likely to interfere with arrangements for a lunchtime meeting.

25 See ‘Speech Acts in the Everyday World and in Homer’ (n.2).

26 Cf. Agamemnon's comment at Il. 19.79-80.

27 When actors speak hesitantly, or incoherently, it is remarkable. Cf. Achilleus at Il. 9.308-429, Telemachos at Od. 3.79-101.

28 On adjacency pairs and their inherent requirement for a prompt response, see above.

29 See also Appendix, in which are tabulated all the refusals of invitations in the epics.

30 On a number of occasions, the invitation is accepted: Charis offers Thetis hospitality (Il. 18.385-7) and Thetis is led in to be seated (388-90). At Od. 5.87-91, Calypso offers hospitality to Hermes. He is seated and offered food (92-6). Eumaios offers hospitality to Odysseus in disguise (Od. 14.45-7). Odysseus accompanies him inside, is settled comfortably (48-51) and in due course eats with his host (72-114).

31 Homer uses this device elsewhere within a refusal of an invitation: see also Il. 11.648, Patroklos to Nestor. It is also used in Homer to indicate resistance to persuasion: Il. 1.132; 18.126; 24.219; Od. 14.363.

32 Unless I note otherwise, translations throughout are those of Lattimore, Richmond, Homer: The Iliad (Chicago 1962)Google Scholar; Homer: The Odyssey (New York 1975)Google Scholar.

33 For a non-acceptance along with words of appreciation see Ar. Ra. 507 (invitation) and 508 (non-acceptance with words of appreciation); and cf. also 512. For reporting see Ec. 1058 (invitation) and 1059-62 (reporting [mission]). I thank Colleen Chaston for some assistance at this point.

34 I use Leaf and Bayfield's proposal for translation.

35 See above for comment on Nestor's overriding of Patroklos’ clearly expressed desire.

36 Contrast her direct approach with Telemachos’ apparent refusal of Menelaos’ invitation at Od. 4.594-608. Menelaos is a man of seniority and of rank. To decline his invitation is a delicate matter. So Telemachos, who perhaps wishes to express a similar sentiment to that of Athene at Od. 1.315, compromises. Hence his inclusion of the phrase which generates ambiguity (do not keep me here with you for a long time 594). And he will add words of appreciation (595-8) to soften what has amounted to a refusal. For a comment on the ambiguity of the speech see above. Compromises such as these are familiar in our world as well. We often frame a ‘refusal’ in this way ‘I can't stay—well five minutes then’. Note also the compromise built into Odysseus’ gruff refusal of Penelope's invitation (Od. 19.336-48) while he is still in the guise of a beggar. As I have observed above, he uses reporting to cover his refusal of both a comfortable bed and a footbath administered by one of the young women in the house. But he will modify the invitation (346-8) in terms that he could accept: that if an aged and virtuous serving woman were in the house he might allow her to touch his feet.

37 Athene says, at 316-18, that he should keep aside until she retums whatever it is that he chooses as a gift for her, and that she will take it with her at that time. Compare Telemachos’ graceful handling of Menelaos’ offer (4.589-90) of three horses and a chariot: he proposes after a lengthy comparison of Ithaka and Sparta that Menelaos keep the horses for his own delight (601-2). In neither case is the gift actually refused. The code of guest-friendship would not allow that.

38 I use the translation here of E.V. Rieu revised by D.C.H. Rieu in consultation with Peter Jones (Harmondsworfh 1991).

39 Dickson observes in fact that these cola are used nowhere else in the poems, ‘Nestor Among the Sirens’ (n.ll), at 37. For parallel examples from the Odyssey compare Od. 1.315 (do not detain me longer) with Od. 4.594 (do not keep me [with you] here for a long time). In each case the underlying idea is ‘Don't keep me here’ or ‘Let me go’. The poet does not have a single formulaic expression for the idea.

40 See Arend, W., Die typischen Szenen bei Homer (Berlin 1933) 2863Google Scholar and Tafel 3. Schema 6 (Besuch); Edwards, M., ‘Type-Scenes and Homeric Hospitality’, TAPA 105 (1975) 51-72, at 62Google Scholar; Dickson, , ‘Nestor among the Sirens’ (n.l 1), at 34Google Scholar.

41 Dickson, , ‘Nestor among the Sirens’ (n.l 1), at 34Google Scholar. For other examples of the sequence see Il. 9.193-221; 18.380-90 (food and drink are not served); Od. 5.76-96; 14.5-114. Edwards, , ‘Type-Scenes’ (n.40), at 71–2Google Scholar considers that the rigidity of structure of the type-scene exerts so compelling a force on the poet that awkward transitions sometimes result. I shall comment on such transitions below.

42 Our understanding of the events which are associated with a visit to a friend generates a series of expectations of what will happen. As I noted above, we will be welcomed, invited inside, and offered a seat and a drink.

43 That is, the refusal of an invitation is as much a part of this sequence of events as is its acceptance.

44 Because ‘the visit’ encompasses a sequence of events which occurs frequently in daily life, we have developed a hospitality script which allows us to recognise that series of events when we observe it, to participate in those events as an actor, or to generate such a sequence as part of a narrative. On cognitive scripts, their nature, and their function see above.

45 His ready acquaintance with the script may cause the storyteller a problem in narration when he wants to break off the sequence prematurely to take events in another direction. Through a lapse of attention and by force of habit he may narrate the sequence beyond the point at which he wished to diverge. We all make this kind of mistake in everyday life. Cf. Edwards’, comments on this kind of error, ‘Type-Scenes’ (n.40) 71–2Google Scholar.

46 See Russo, J., ‘Sicilian Folktales Cognitive Psychology and Oral Theory’, in Falkner, T., Felson, N., and Konstan, D. (eds), Contextualizing Classics: Ideology Performance Dialogue (Lanham MD 1999) 151-71, at 167–8Google Scholar. As Russo observes, it is the ‘strong presence’ of the familiar which is responsible for the ‘distinctive flavor’ of traditional narrative art; Homer's words ‘resonate especially well with what we already carry within us and bring to the listening experience’.

47 Iris’ claim, however, that she must visit the Aithiopes, seems to be manufactured for the occasion. Her mission is not important to the story. Her refusal, although it is formulated according to the standards we would set for mortals, reflects a certain divine insouciance. Only a god can plead preference as a compelling reason for refusing an invitation. See also discussion above; for discussion of the development of characterisation through this speech act, see below. For relevant commentary on the Aithiopes as a favoured destination of the gods, see West's comment in Heubeck, West, and Hainsworth, , A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 1 (n. 16) 75Google Scholar.

48 This, however, does not happen in Od. 4 when Telemachos apparently is unable to make Menelaos take him seriously when he refuses his invitation (on this point see my discussions above). Homer uses the sequence to make particular points about the protagonist—and the action—at this point. He comments first on Telemachos’ present ineffectualness in the face of an elder (see further discussion below) and second on the problems which may face any guest in dealing with his or her host. Homer lets us see that hosts who are too kind can be as difficult for guests as ‘hosts’ who are inhospitable.

49 See on this point Apthorp, M., ‘The Obstacles to Telemachos’ Return’, CQ 30 (1980) 1-22, esp. at 22CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The young man is obliged to carry out a range of social rituals as an adult, a task which is clearly unnerving for him. Cf. his hesitations at Od. 3.79-101.

50 Kirk describes Hektor's reply at Il. 6.264-85 as ‘practical, harsh at times rather than filial’ (Kirk, G. S., The Iliad: A Commentary 2 [Cambridge 1990] at 196CrossRefGoogle Scholar). His reply is indeed practical, because a refusal of an invitation must include a reporting of things to be done; and because Hektor explains (reason for visit) why he has returned to Troy: to pass on a message (269-78). It is harsh, but this harshness is not directed to Hekabe. Hektor is the exasperated brother who talks to his mother about Paris in terms that he might not use if he were talking to someone from outside the family (281-5). Hektor, however, shows himself to be filial. Note his respectful address to his mother ( 264), his recognition of the charms of the wine she has offered him ( 264), and his patient explanation of the reasons why he cannot do as she proposes (265-8). As for the qualities of a pious leader, to which I refer above, these are revealed in Hektor's anxiety that he should not offend Zeus (266-8) and his eagerness to return to battle with his courage undiminished (264-5). Indeed I read the commands he addresses to his mother ( [264] … [269-70]) as a reminder to us that he has just come back from the field. He is still the commander (as his son later will make clear).

51 See Kakridis, J., Homeric Researches (New York and London 1987) 50–3Google Scholar on the ranking of kinsfolk and ‘the ascending scale’ of affection; and Arthur, M., ‘The Divided World of Iliad VI’, in Foley, H., Reflections of Women in Antiquity (New York 1981) 2630Google Scholar.

52 Richardson captures the essence of the problem facing Priam at this moment when he refers to Achilleus’ ‘precarious state of tension’ (The Iliad: A Commentary 6 [Cambridge 1993] 334Google Scholar). As he observes, this particular refusal could precipitate a crisis (given what we know about Achilleus: cf. the words of Patroklos at Il. 11.649, 653-4).

53 See Hoekstra's comments on this point in Heubeck, and Hoekstra, , A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 3 (n. 16) 237Google Scholar.

54 Cf. Drew, ‘Speakers’ Reportings’ (n.14), at 129 and 146. Some of Telemachos’ apparent abruptness may however have been softened by his respectful address to Menelaos at 87.

55 Hains worth in Heubeck, West and Hainsworth, , A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey 1 (n. 16) 268Google Scholar, discusses Odysseus’ ‘superb discretion’ at this point.

56 See above. Odysseus wisely does not refuse Kirke outright. His speech incorporates reluctance and negotiation.

57 On Mentor's age see Od. 2.224-7.

58 I thank the anonymous referee for Antichthon for a number of helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

59 I have included in the format only those elements which are intrinsic to the speech act, refusal of an invitation. The element, reason for visit, which occurs in the Iliadic, but not the Odyssean, context, does not, therefore, appear. For examples of this element in the refusal of the Iliad, see 6.269-80, 363-4; 11.649-50; 23.208-11; 24.553-6.

60 In this segment, 316-18 are devoted to a gift which Telemachos offers. Athene will not refuse this; she simply postpones the moment of giving.

61 At 359-60 and 368-70 we have instructions to Nestor regarding what he should do with Telemachos. This is separate from Athene's own refusal of Nestor's invitation. We could read these words of Athene as reason for visit.

62 In this refusal, as at Od. 1.316-18, the speaker responds also to the offer of a guest gift (600-8). As before, it is not refused.

63 At 386-7 Odysseus negotiates with Kirke. He tells her that if she is sincere in the invitation she has offered to him, she should, as a token of her sincerity, set free his companions.

64 Odysseus’ refusal extends from 336-45. In 336-48 he negotiates, as he did in his encounter with Kirke (10.383-7). He will allow his feet to be washed, if an old woman (that is, Eurykleia) will do it.

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