Authoritative Speech in the Himalayan Region

Conference: Authoritative Speech in the Himalayan Region

25 – 26 November 2011, Maison Suger, Paris

(16-18 rue Suger)

organized by Marie Lecomte-Tilouine and Anne de Sales

This conference aims at exploring the social and political dimensions of linguistic interactions in the Himalayan region. Our point of departure is Pierre Bourdieu’s framework  according to which a linguistic community is the outcome of political processes; consequently any position within a given community is bound to involve power relations expressed in the linguistic interactions of its members. Speech acts should therefore be understood as signs of authority intended to be believed or even obeyed. These power relations are most clearly revealed in the case of performative statements: the efficacy of these statements depends on the speaker’s social function, which has to match his or her speech act, something that has often been neglected by followers of Austin’s seminal work. According to Bourdieu it is always the function of a group’s  spokesperson that is invested with authority, rather than the individual who fulfils that function. The power of the spoken word comes from the “symbolic capital” that the group confers on its spokesperson. Acts of authority are “authorised” and through this process of “social magic” the spokesperson produces the group as much as the group produces its spokesperson.

We suggest that this theoretical framework may facilitate a new comparative approach to the numerous oral traditions of the Himalayan region that have not been studied this way so far, partly because of their great diversity. However, if Bourdieu’s attempt is inspiring, at the same time it needs to be reconsidered in the light of the social reality of the area under scrutiny. In Nepal, the great linguistic diversity and the traditions of hierarchical caste society can still be regarded as important alongside characteristic processes of centralisation, nation-building, and the emergence of a class society. These phenomena mean that it is unlikely that there be a single language of legitimacy. Within this complex society, various spokespersons are recognised either as especially competent speakers or the specialists of particular oral traditions. However, their social status varies greatly and their speech is not always addressed to their own group: shamans, for example, officiate for all, regardless of ethnicity; the Damai bards or the Gaine minstrels who are situated at the bottom of the caste hierarchy perform for their high-caste patrons; revolutionary leaders profess values that are contrary to those of the high castes from which most of them come. Could it nonetheless be that their narrative practices allow us to interpret them as spokespersons of a specific group addressing other groups? What is the authority of a speech based on, when the spokesperson of a group does not belong to that group?

Comparative questions such as these, concerning the various oral skills or forms in the Himalaya, their social dimensions, the sources of their legitimacy, and the various techniques by which their ends are achieved, can only be answered through a collective scholarly endeavour. The conditions of enunciation (where and when do performances take place, what are the events that trigger the performance?) must be explored as well as the roles of the speakers in their respective groups and in society at large. What are the oral techniques that are used in order to mobilise people, convince them, and make them obey or believe in the speaker’s speech? Several language registers, specific vocabularies and temporalities, scansion, gestures, narrative motifs, and various representations of reality must be investigated. Affect, fascination, rapture but also humour, farcical episodes and derision are many of the effects that speakers may have on their audience. Finally these techniques convey certain values such as authenticity, heroism, antiquity or scientific authority, which must be explained in relation to the power relations that structure society. These questions are especially interesting at a time when Himalayan societies in general and Nepalese society in particular are going through an epochal reorganisation.

This conference is a preliminary research project that should allow a great number of classic works on Himalayan oral traditions to be revisited and reassessed around common questions. Several European specialists of these oral traditions have expressed their willingness to collaborate in a joint project and this conference will offer the opportunity to prepare the ground for further collaborative and international investigations in this perspective.



Friday 25th November

Chair person: Michael Hutt, SOAS, London

9:50-10:15 Introduction Anne de Sales and Marie Lecomte-Tilouine

10:15-11:00Gregory G. Maskarinec (University of Hawai’i): Nepalese Shaman Mantras: Does knowing and knowing how to use mantras confer intrinsic authority and provide “Symbolic Capital” to define the social function of individuals who use them?

11:00-11:45Arik Moran (University of Haifa): Authoritative Speech in Himachal pradesh

11:45-12:00 break

12:00-12:45 John Leavitt (Université de Montréal): Who Do the Gods Speak For? Central Himalayan Divine Speech as Evocation and Injunction

Lunch break

14:30-15:15 William  Sax (SAI, Heidelberg): The Language of the Gods: Oracular Speech in Garhwal

15:15-16:00Daniela Berti (CNRS, Villejuif): Oral Dialogues and legal Records in Shimla District Court (Himachal Pradesh)
16:00:-16:30 Coffee break

16:30-17:15 Barbara Berardi-Tadié (EHESS, Paris): «Raising the Voices»: Production and Circulation of Discourses in Nepali Associations

 17:15-18:00Pustak Raj Ghimire (Oxford University): Authority, Status, and Caste markers in Everyday Village Conversations (eastern Nepal)

18:00-18:15 break

18:15-19:00 Marie Lecomte-Tilouine (CNRS, Villejuif): From the bottom to the top and vice versa: Alterocentrism in Nepal’s oral traditions

Saturday 26th November

Chair person: CK Lal, editorialist, Nepal

9:30-10:15 Charles Ramble (EPHE, Paris): The babbling lark and the dragon that defines the seasons: recipes for powerful speech in the Tibetan oratorical tradition

10:15-11:00 Christian Jahoda (University of Vienna): A Comparative perspective on oral traditions in Western Tibet (Spiti, Purang)

11 :00-11 :30  coffee break

11:30-12:15 Mireille Mazard (University of Regina): « God and the CCP Protected Me » : Persuasion and Authority on China’s Tibeto-Burman Frontier

12:15-13:00 Franck Bernède (CNRS, Villejuif): Authoritative Speech in Newar Music

13:00-14:45 Lunch break

14:45-15:15Martin Gaenszle (University of Vienna): Meaning and intention in Rai divinatory discourse

15:15-16:00Judith Pettigrew  (University of Limmerick): Contested Authority: Who Speaks for the Tamu-mai?

16:00-16:30 Break

 16: 30-17:15 Mark Turin (University of Yale): Performative Plurilingualism and Competitive Codeswitching : the Register of the Thangmi Shaman

17:15-18:00 Anne de Sales (CNRS, Nanterre): Persuasion and violence in shamanic speech

18:00-18:15 short break

Final remarks by the two chair persons and general discussion

Perspectives for the future of the Himalayan Oral Traditions Network


Financial support:

  Région Ile-de-France


   Centre d’Etudes Himalayennes (UPR 299, CNRS, Villejuif)




Ecole doctorale MCSPP (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre) /

Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative (UMR 7186, CNRS)


ANR JustIndia.




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