Introduction to Text & Talk Journal Special Issue: “Ritual Unintelligibility,” 27(4): 401-407.
What is the meaning of unintelligibility in ritual speech? Limited intelligibility is a widely noted characteristic of ritual language, but anthropologists and linguists have too often simply catalogued esoteric, archaic, xenoglossic, occult, highly technical, “nonsensical,” or glossolalic codes as self-evident categories or considered them in isolation from other modalities of semiosis in ritual performance. Contributors to this special issue examine the semiotic production of unintelligible ritual speech across a range of ethnographic contexts, from ethnomedical encounters to religious, magical, and celebratory settings. In asking, rather than assuming, how (and in whose judgment) unintelligibility comes about, the articles probe its meanings and functions in ritual performance and its broader implications for social orders.
Unintelligibility may be a neglected topic because it violates a modernist ideology of language, and of communication more broadly, that emphasizes clarity, efficiency, sincerity, civility, and transparency (Samuels 2004). For this reason, too, metalinguistic judgments about the incomprehensible speech of others (especially Others) are, in many “modern” institutional contexts, inflected with fear or condescension (Collins and Slembrouck 2006; Mitchell 2006). Unintellibility, or rather, its implication in failures of comprehension, thus often indexes obscurity, inefficiency, insincerity, incivility, nonsensicality, and anti-modernity, labels that reflect poorly on those judged unintelligible.
However marginalized speech judged to be unintelligible may be within discourses of modernity, the ethnolinguistic record demonstrates that purposefully unintelligible speech is common in many kinds of ritual performances, where it usually indexes authority or even supernaturally-validated expertise. The authority of unintelligible ritual speech—for a few familiar examples: the Latin of pre-Vatican II Catholic masses, the invocation of Sanskrit or Arabic by nonfluent speakers as esoteric languages of power, the ornate oratory of formal speech in many places, the magical incantations of occult practitioners everywhere—has often been bracketed into localized pockets of “tradition” bucking the trend of modernity. So just what is unintellibility, how is it produced, what are its effects, and what are its implications within wider language ideologies?
A good starting point is the meaning of the label “unintelligibility.” Strictly speaking, unintelligibility refers to an utterance’s lack of semantic transparency, an absence of clear denotation for at least some of the original, intended participants in the speech event. However, a semantic focus is too narrow, since other factors such as textual coherence, contextual relevance, and metapragmatic framing (e.g. genre expectations) also contribute to an utterance’s unintelligibility. Malinowski, in his work on Trobriand garden magic, framed the issue of intelligibility in ritual speech as a question about the relative importance of semantic meaning versus pragmatic effect. Anthropologists have wrestled with the question of how meaning is constructed in and through ritual performances, even when a high “coefficient of weirdness” (Malinowski’s memorable phrase in 1966 : V.2) or a high degree of formalization obscures the semantic meaning of ritual speech itself (in particular, see Bloch 1974; Tambiah 1979). Rather than assume a particular definition, the contributors to this issue probe the diverse semiotic processes that generate unintelligibility in rituals and through which participants make sense (or not) of the ritual. We ask: Through what explicit and implicit means are ritual utterances marked as intelligible or unintelligible, both during performances and in the surrounding metadiscursive activity in which performances are embedded?
It should come as no surprise that intelligibility and unintelligibility are co-constructed by interlocutors during performances. Although developing this insight in different directions and contexts, the articles in this special issue—particularly those by Yoonhee Kang, Kristina Wirtz, Jennifer Jacobs, and Aurora Donzelli—consider the audience’s role in recognizing and interpreting unintelligibility, suggesting that unintelligibility is not simply a built-in feature of ritual experts’ speech that gets imposed on a non-specialist audience. Rather, unintellibility emerges out of co-participation structures that it also contributes to forming. Kang, for example, explores how the genre expectations of a Petalangan shamanic healing ritual draw the audience into imaginative interpretations of the meaning of the shaman’s unintelligible speech to the spirits. She concludes that the ritual expert’s use of an unintelligible register may invite, rather than exclude, the participation of a ritual’s non-specialist audience. In other cases reported here too, semantic opacity layers onto other features of ritual events that regulate the participation of different groups during the course of the event. Sabina Perrino, in her article, therefore argues for replacing the term “(un)intelligibility” with the notion of discourse accessibility as a way of focusing attention on “how language practices manage and distribute knowledge and authority.”
Like secrecy (Bellman 1984; Piot 1993), unintelligibility may sometimes be a matter of concealment or withholding of key information, and of who is authorized to reveal it. What Bellman says about secrets may also apply to some instances of arcane or esoteric registers of ritual speech: “Namely, it is not about a power struggle between those who know and those who want to know, but according to the ways concealed information is revealed.” She goes on to argue that esoteric texts are not about secrets but about secrecy, which she links to the idea that they must perpetually be interpreted (Bellman 1984: 5). The article by Wirtz in particular draws upon the literature on ambiguity, indirectness, secrecy, and occult meaning that demonstrates how the very indeterminateness of meaning in esoteric ritual speech can in fact open up possibilities for wide interpretation. Her analysis shows how participants in a Cuban Santería ceremony co-construct a divine message out of the utterances of a priest possessed by a deity by translating its original form into a more contextually specific, indexically anchored truth claim that both establishes its divine provenance and shields the possessed priest and possessing deity from responsibility for any errors. Unintelligibility, in contributing to indirectness and ambiguity, may produce ripe conditions for a “superabundance of understanding,” in Werbner’s (1973) phrase, where the meanings of ritual utterances such as divination results are open-ended and require participants to negotiate a common interpretation (see also Parkin 1991; Trawick 1988) .
Such analyses project a sense of endlessly recontextualizable texts. It is thus telling to closely consider interpretive practices, both during rituals and after the fact, including those of the researcher, who adds his or her own layer of interpretation (Briggs 1994). In addressing these varied issues, the articles in this special issue apply recent thinking on entextualization and contextualization processes that conceptualizes rituals as highly entextualizable events embedded in streams of ongoing discourse (Bauman and Briggs 1990; Kuipers 1990; Silverstein and Urban 1996). The articles thus link questions of ritual efficacy and meaning to issues of how (and through whom) practices and metadiscourses producing unintelligibility circulate.
The special issue contributors also point out the ways in which ritual performances can unfold along a borderline between accessibility and opacity (Briggs 1995: 207; Fox 1974: 83) in ways that are highly productive of ritual meaning and ritual efficacy. In asking what meanings unintelligible speech conveys or blocks, and for whom, the contributors recognize the link between (un)intelligibility and ritual semiosis more generally, in which unintelligibility can achieve a variety of effects. For example, an utterance’s semantic opacity can focus participant attention on the code itself, thereby rendering messages more mysterious and their content more urgent or potent because they are not completely transparent. Perrino shows how a Senegalese traditional healer regulates discourse accessibility for his client across the phases of a healing ritual so as to position himself as the mediator of potent, unseen spirits. The efficacy of the ethnomedical encounter is, she argues, tied to the ways in which its unfolding events are made more or less accessible to its beneficiary.
Semantic opaqueness can focus attention on the sensory qualities of the voice itself, qualities that can have iconic importance (resembling bird song, spirit talk, charismatic inspiration, etc.) (Briggs 1994; Irvine 1982; Samarin 1972; Wirtz 2005). These iconic values may in turn entail the very presence of some ritual participants (e.g. invisible spirits) and the authority of others (e.g. ritual specialists). The semantic opaqueness of certain speech elements during a ritual can also direct participant attention toward other co-occurring expressive modalities, such as gesture or music, as several of these articles illustrate. Even semantically “empty” forms such as vocables, which seem to hover between speech and song, are not merely stylistic features or genre markers, but can convey much richer social meanings, as Jacobs explores in her article on vocables and ululation used in celebrations in the Levantine Middle East. Jacobs attends to how the form of unintelligible vocalizations gives salience and entextualizability to the utterances they frame. In performances, vocables index a host of rich associations and emotions: joy, sociability, social affinity, and tradition, and yet, despite their acoustic salience in performance, they are generally left out of written texts and so rendered invisible. She argues that vocables have often been overlooked by scholars precisely because of a dominant referentialist language ideology that writes off vocables as meaningless noise (see also Samuels 2004). At the same time, she traces how the genre of m-ha-ha, marked by these distinctive vocables, has entered into increasing global circuits in which its valences of tradition are reinterpreted as Middle Eastern feminine exoticism.
These essays make clear that it would be a mistake to discuss unintellibility in isolation from the conditions that produce it—indeed, Perrino suggests that we miss the point if we see unintellibility simply as a characteristic of certain registers, instead of attending to its context of production. Ritual unintelligibility presents a problematic with repercussions beyond the ritual domain itself. An important additional focus of this collection of papers is to ask how the very notion of (un)intelligibility interacts with principles of intentionality, responsibility, and transparency that underlie Western language ideologies, as recent work has examined (Du Bois 1986, 1992; Hill and Irvine 1993; Kroskrity 2000; Verschueren 1995). Following this vein of research, the contributors to this special issue ask what can be learned by examining contrasting language ideologies. Donzelli, Jacobs, and Michael Lempert are particularly interested in how local theories of meaning both shape what is (un)intelligible and charge such utterances and the linguistic registers they represent with (variously positive or negative) social value, especially within modernist ideologies of language that privilege efficiency and clarity in communication. Lempert, for example, problematizes the “modernist” coupling of denotational transparency, sincerity, and civility that plays out in debates over semantic opaqueness in disciplinary rituals at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Lempert shows that judgments about the unintelligibility of Tibetan Buddhist disciplinary “exhortations” arise out of an emerging, self-consciously modernist Buddhist perspective, in which the Displinarian’s indirection, dissimulation, and brusqueness index outdated, anti-modern, and therefore incomprehensible speech.
Donzelli, like Lempert and Jacobs, examines unintelligible features of ritual registers as the material for metalinguistic pride and prejudice, conditioned by local negotiations of “tradition” and “modernity” in the broader context of modernist and other competing language ideologies. Donzelli focuses on the social distribution of knowledge and authority among Toraja elites and non-elites in upland Sulawesi, as marked by differing patterns of linguistic competence in locally prestigious forms of Toraja versus in the nationally prestigious codes of Indonesian and English. Elites, who command the Toraja ritual register, describe it as poetic and semantically rich and explain away its unintellibility to non-elites as a product of incomplete linguistic competence. Non-elites describe the ritual register not as richly poetic, but as unintelligible, as a product of its intrinsic semantic opaqueness and the insincerity of those who use it, and their complaints serve as what Donzelli calls counterhegemonic discourses of marginality. Toraja non-elites, like modernist Tibetan Buddhists, appeal to an increasingly important modernist language ideology that privileges clarity and sincerity. These articles, in their considerations of the role of “unintelligibles” in discourses of modernity and tradition, authority and marginality, show how social evaluations of unintelligibility contribute to the formation of categories of persons—or “subject formation” in Lempert’s terms.
Ritual unintelligibility, it turns out, not only takes varied forms, but also serves as a resource for achieving equally varied effects, and it deserves our careful analytic attention to render it meaningful. Taken as a whole our articles illustrate how complex and varied the semiotic and metasemiotic production of unintelligibility is and suggest tantalizing directions for future research. The first step is to simply attend to issues of unintelligibility and discourse accessibility. As Jacobs argues, unintelligible utterances are too often ignored in transcription and other written textualizations that emphasize narrow semanticity.
While the articles in this issue focus on unintellibility that is, in various ways, built in to the very structures of ritual performances, there is also a need to attend to more spurious occurrences of unintelligibility, which may also have a wide range of effects, whether intended or not. It is thus our hope that the relatively narrowly construed topic of ritual unintelligibility explored in these pages will stimulate investigation into a much wider range of phenomena in which metalinguistic judgments about comprehensibility and sources of meaning are salient. After all, in a Raymond Williams aphorism that Lempert repeats, ‘a definition of language is always, implicitly or explicitly, a definition of human beings in the world’ (1977:21). And as for the powerful role of “weird” words: Abracadabra and turn the page!
Kristina Wirtz, Department of Anthropology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008
Updated July 5, 2007