The Spoken Word

People are linked in a geographical and temporal frame by the oral tradition, with messages being transmitted across time and space by word of mouth or the drums. Each tribe contains a griot, an oral historian, who is a living record of the people’s heritage. The spoken word is revered. Words take on a quality of life when they are uttered by the speaker. In the act of Nommo, the speaker literally breathes life into a word. Nothing exists, including newborn babies, until a name has been uttered with the breath of life. When words are spoken, the listener is expected to acknowledge receiving the message by re- sponding to the speaker. This is known as the call-response. The speaker sends out a message or a call, and the listener makes a response indicating that he or she has heard the message. The speaker and the listener operate within a shared psycholinguistic space affirming each other’s presence.

Time is marked off by a series of events that have been shared with oth- ers in the past or are occurring in the present. Thus, when an African talks about time in the past tense, reference points are likely to be established by events such as a daughter’s marriage or a son’s birth, events that were shared with others. When an African is trying to make arrangements about meeting someone in the immediate future, a specific time, such as three o’clock, is avoided. The person is more likely to say, “I will meet you after I finish milking the cows.” The primary time frames in African languages are past and present.

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