A Single Word Brings to Life: The Maro Ritual in Tana Toraja (Indonesia)

Author: 
Coville, Elizabeth
Year: 
1988

     Compelling moral truths are frequently compressed into such statements as the cryptic couplet . . . that gives this study its title. It is articulated in what to the Toraja of the central highlands of South Sulawesi (Indonesia) is known as 'high speech' (basa tinggi), a style of speaking which is considered sacred, beautiful, and obscure. The purpose of my study is to explore the relationship between a people's conceptualization of language and language use (illustrated in part by this couplet) and their use of language. . . . A theoretical issue addressed in this study is the ordered nature of ritual speech, its meaning in relation to the social context, and its ability to change in relation to changes in that social context"; the focus is on the Maro ritual. At the outset of the study, "I . . . set forth the theoretical issues to be discussed in this study of ritual, a study which tries to deal with the relationship between the formalization of ritual and its power. I interpret ritual language as simultaneously speaking about (making reference to) and bespeaking (showing or indexing) Toraja reality. The study is divided into three parts. After the introduction of the theoretical, ethnographic, and methodological issues," it provides "the historical and social context, discussing the ritual calendar, patterns of exchange, and concepts of the person." The final part of the study "deals with the folk model or actors'/speakers' understandings of the power of their language. Taking into account both the social context and the folk model of speech, we are able to show how the Maro ritual bespeaks a changing social world.

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