Chant and commitment

Another impressive speech at the March For Our Lives was given by 9 year old Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of that incomparable rhetorician, Martin Luther King. In her speech, she gets the crowd to collectively chant a series of phrases, and the way in which she encourages buy in, and hence enthusiasm, is masterful.

She first walks the crowd through the entire text, one phrase at a time. This is important. Nobody can chant with conviction if they are at odds with the message chanted. This is one reason many people (academic, for example) hesitate to join in chanting. The description of the Human Microphone in Chapter 2 of The Ground From Which We Speak discusses this important property of joint speech:  it necessarily entails commitments. While speech done alone can be modified so that the utterer is not held directly responsible for the contents, joint speech commits the utterer. This is why joint speech is the usual form of an oath of allegiance, for example.

Having walked everyone through the text once, Yolanda does it two more times. Now the crowd can join in with vigour, for they are not wary about the text.  Wonderful rhetoric from the young girl!

The power of silence

The commemorative silence typically observed after horrific tragedies may usefully be viewed as an example of joint speech, in which the verbal content has been reduced to a minimum, while the participatory enactment of a common center is greatly amplified. I describe the experience of playing recordings of such events to French audiences in 2016 in Chapter 7 of The Ground From Which We Speak.

A remarkable example was on display at this weekend’s March For Our Lives. Emma Gonzales provided a gut-wrenching performance in which she induced a very large crowd to keep the collective silence for 6 minutes and 20 seconds (The period includes her preliminary speech). I have never seen anything comparable.

Those familiar with meditation may have recognised something. When you sit alone and try to still the mind, you inevitably find intrusive voices arising, that can be distracting. Techniques such as transcendental meditation teach one to observe, but not engage with, such voices. Here, we see a collective analogue. During the silence, a chant arises, spontaneously. It is allowed to float above the joint silence, and it dies down again. This is, in many respects, a collective meditation, and the chant is, of course, the collective voice.

I defy the reader to watch the whole thing. I was in tears.

Children languaging freely

Language is often taken as the hallmark of the human species, and with the emergence of language, the conditions seem to be given for the coöperative and coöordinative activities that found all societies. But the way in which we characterise “language” greatly matters, and the study of joint speech makes it clear that a narrow view of “language” as the passing of encoded messages from speakers to listeners will omit very much that might be of relevance. Languaging is then offered by some as a term to cover a much broader array of behaviours that collectively might be considered responsible for the dramatic change in our species that led to the flourishing of human communities across the globe. Chapter 7 of the Joint Speech book (The Ground From Which We Speak) pursues this topic at length.

For now though, enjoy this example of young children languaging like crazy at the behest of a gifted story teller. He induces them to join in a raucous chorusing of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The children are displaying a propensity shared by all children in all cultures. Chorusing of various kinds is particularly prevalent in primary education and similar contexts, and children do not need to be instructed in how to join in and speak performatively as one. Looking at this, I find it a bit ridiculous to think that we adults believe that we teach children language, where in fact it simply blossoms, naturally, as fruit happens to trees.