by Thomas Clark
Think of the last time you had a conversation at a busy party (perhaps it’s been a while) and how you somehow managed to carry on over the sound of other voices and loud music. Recent psycholinguistic studies have shown that humans are extremely good at using context to predict words under uncertainty. Language contains enough contextual cues that your brain is able to figure out that your friend was probably complaining about the “dating scene”, not the “mating scene”. As you listen, you are constantly updating
inferences about the most likely intended message, and violations of these expectations cause measurable processing difficulty. The redundancy built into human language is strikingly similar to the error-correcting codes of internet traffic, which use a few redundant bits of information to enable messages to be reconstructed from corrupted data. Common sense and shared knowledge help to further zero in on the intended message. Language is an elaborate dance between ambiguity and informativeness, between the opposing pressures of communicating an intended message faithfully and communicating it efficiently.
A surprising but inevitable conclusion of our information-hungry linguistic abilities is verse. In a pre-technological, pre-writing world, poetic language was the ideal means of information storage and transfer. Compared to ordinary speech, verse adds even more constraining structures such as metre and rhyme that provide informational hints about how to reconstruct missing words. This helps fill in the gaps created by noisy environments and imperfect memories and allows otherwise ordinary people to memorise staggering
amounts of content. Once memorised, they can last decades in mental storage and be shared with an entire crowd of people simultaneously. My grandfather, a WWII veteran and cab driver with no more than a
high school education, memorised hundreds of lines from his favourite poets. Stage actors, too, routinely memorise entire plays worth of dialogue.
While I currently study linguistic phenomena through the lens of cognitive science, the idea of verse as a human universal reminds me of an experience from several years ago in Varanasi, a holy city on the River Ganges and one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth. I travelled there as part of a summer seminar on human cultural universals led by Professor Naphtali Meshel, whose book The Grammar of Sacrifice looked at the “syntax” governing sacrificial rites. In Varanasi, we examined parallels across temple rituals from the Hebrew Bible and the Vedas while drawing inspiration from the Mishnah of the Oral Torah and the Astādhyāyī of the Sanskrit grammarian Pānini. At first, I found the seminar readings arcane and the connections between grammar and ritual tenuous. But as the summer went on, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something deep and true underlying the common human experiences of language, oral traditions, and ritual.
The Sanskrit Astādhyāyī, dating to around 500 BC, was recorded in a set of orally conveyed sutras, whose two hours of recitation are still practiced by students of Sanskrit. It is a towering work of linguistic study that contains layer upon layer of metalanguage and compression. The Astādhyāyī, like everything we studied that summer, existed in a symbiosis between language, verse, and ritual. Sanskrit is a liturgical language. To understand it, one uses Pānini’s sutras, which themselves occupy a space of prestige and holiness, their recitation bookended by prayers. A symbiosis likewise exists between the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish oral tradition of commentaries like the Mishnah. These traditions have been passed down in large part orally, from generation to generation, very much like language itself.
Language is one of the few universals that is found among every human society on Earth. Historically, language is overwhelmingly oral; of the world’s 6000+ languages, only a small minority have written forms. Just a fraction of the approximately 100 billion people to ever walk this earth were literate. Yet all healthy
human children learn to speak, with or without formal education. Language is something we pick up from our environments whether we want to or not, a wholly intangible faculty that propagates from brain to brain. The language instinct is so robust that not even the lack of hearing can stifle it — estimates put the number of sign languages in the world at around 200, and these languages have poetry and “manual” traditions just as much as spoken languages have their oral traditions.
Every society has poetry, and it’s no coincidence that the most sacred words in a language, like divine revelations and origin myths, are often passed down in verse. Unlike the digital information storage of today, which is virtually unlimited, storing data in an oral tradition is effortful and space is precious. Memory cannot be wasted on frivolities, and whatever is passed down conveys a presumption of its own importance. The recitation of verse is sacralised, like the handling of ancient scrolls or the copying of illuminated parchments. Those with special knowledge of the words — the priests, shamans, and elders — also wield ritual power and occupy a special role in societal hierarchies.
Since oral traditions tend towards sacredness, there is no bright line between oral traditions and rituals. Both can operate as pedagogic tools that pass ideas from generation to generation in preliterate societies; in the days before photographs, a ritual was worth a thousand words, compressing entire cosmologies into a
rubric of actions and chants. The orthodoxy of religious texts and beliefs are buttressed by the orthopraxy of ritual. As we watched a Vedic ritual in Varanasi, the focused nervousness I saw in one of the younger celebrants was familiar from my days as an altar boy assisting the priest with sacred vessels and incense. It’s the feeling of not wanting to stumble because every action matters. Through repetition, the hands of the ritualist eventually attain the practiced ease and economy of motion I observed in the tea ceremonies I attended as a child in Japan, where the kimono-clad celebrant would conduct the entire ceremony without a single spilt drop or errant sound.
Though rituals are often derided as unscientific forms of magical thinking, it is practically impossible to excise ritual from one’s life. Ritualistic thinking may have played an important evolutionary role in our species’ history. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes a universal set of “moral foundations” in his book
The Righteous Mind. One of the basic foundations is Sanctity / Degradation, a cognitive sense stemming from the need to distinguish clean from unclean. Across virtually all cultures, we show reverence to totems and relics, experience visceral disgust towards putrefaction and incest, and perform ritual purification before
prayers (though these ablutions may be called asperges in Catholicism, wudu in Islam, or temizu in Shinto). It shouldn’t be a surprise that rituals crop up in entirely non-religious contexts, from an athlete’s “lucky socks” to the words spoken at a graduation ceremony.
I understand the modern scepticism towards superstition and excessive ritualism, especially when rituals involve harm or exclusion, but I think they have value. Rituals can offer solace in life’s most bitter moments, and they can cultivate mindfulness in the motions of daily life. For this reason, most 21st-century Japanese people will still clasp their hands and say itadakimasu before meals and burn a stick of incense at the shrine they visit a few times a year. Perhaps for the same reason, breathing exercises and yoga are booming among Western millennials. Even a lapsed Catholic may still instinctively dip their fingers in the holy water font and trace the sign of the cross when entering the quiet of a church.
Rituals convey meaning by directing attention, cuing us verbally and corporeally to what bygone generations deemed important. Modern life can sometimes seem denuded of sanctity. By outsourcing our memory to digital devices, we may have reduced our dependency on verse and other ritualised forms of collective memory. But just as our language quickly adapted to the advent of writing and the Internet, I expect rituals to adapt to the technological age. Human civilisation and experience are built on the symbiosis of language, oral tradition, and ritual. It will not be easy to pry them apart.
THOMAS HIKARU CLARK is studying for a Master's in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Cambridge and hosts the Modus Mirandi podcast. He is working to conquer his fear of stinging insects and linguistic paradoxes.
Art by Izzy Fergusson.