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Text & Talk

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies

Ed. by Sarangi, Srikant

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Making sense of unintelligible messages in divine communication

*Address for correspondence: Anthropology Department, Moore Hall, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008, USA

Citation Information: Text & Talk - An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse Communication Studies. Volume 27, Issue 4, Pages 435–462, ISSN (Online) 1860-7349, ISSN (Print) 1860-7330, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/TEXT.2007.019, August 2007

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A high level of unintelligibility in ritual utterances would seem to inhibit their meaningfulness to participants, but I argue that the opposite is the case when deities called oricha descend to possess and speak to humans in Santería ceremonies. My analysis of how an oricha's message to a ritual participant is delivered, interpreted, and received illustrates how the oricha's ambiguous and semantically opaque utterances are rendered into a specific message that reveals a secret and ‘proves’ the divine origin of the message. I also argue that the oricha's use of particular esoteric registers does not make the message particularly unintelligible, despite a widespread metapragmatic characterization of their ritual register, Lucumí, as semantically opaque and in need of ‘translation’. Rather, the markers of unintelligibility deployed by the oricha function to highlight the message's divine authorship, urgency, and importance. They also trigger a participation framework in which the metapragmatic frame of ‘unintelligibility’ and the meaning of the message are co-constructed by speaker and audience. That is, the oricha's speech is rendered unintelligible at the same time that it is interpreted into a meaningful divine message.

Keywords: ritual speech; religious language; unintelligibility; participation structure; Santería; spirit possession

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Matt Tomlinson
The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2012, Volume 23, Number 3, Page 274

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