[KS] presentation of a book

antonetta.bruno at tiscali.it antonetta.bruno at tiscali.it
Tue Dec 3 06:43:08 EST 2002

Dear All,

I would like to draw your attention to my book The Gate of Words: Language
in the Rituals of Korean Shamans, which recently was published by the CNWS
Research School for Asian, African and Amerindian Studies of Leiden

When between 1987 and 1999 I observed rituals of Korean shamans, I wanted to
find out what actually transpires during a ritual. How exactly, I wondered,
do the shamans manage to turn it into an event that provides satisfaction to
their clients, making the rituals efficacious. My approach was to obtain a
reading of Korean shamanic rituals and divination practised by shamans by
focusing on the varieties of language (both ritual language and ordinary
language) used in these contexts, relating the speech behaviour of the
participants to their actions. I explored such speech behaviour by applying
linguistic tools like Speech Act Theory and through the analysis of speech
direction and the switching of speech levels, devoting particular attention
to the strategic usage of speech direction and switching phenomena, within
both symmetric and asymmetric relationships, and to apparent inconsistencies
with other grammatical features. Early on I decided to extend the domain of
investigation to the moments when the participants engaged in chatting, for
instance during pauses in a ritual (the ‘informal’ parts of the ritual), and
not to confine my research only to the settings that may be narrowly defined
as ‘religious’ (the ‘formal’ parts of the ritual). In my book I show how the
informal parts function as bridges between the different levels of
understanding that the various participants have with respect to the ritual.
They also expose the strategy used by shamans in order to make their words
and actions meaningful, and clarify the procedure of the
re-contextualization in divine oracles (kongsu) by the shaman of fragments
of speech acts that earlier were de-contextualized from informal verbal
Although the variety of registers of language used in rituals is important,
I have devoted special attention to the register of kongsu because of its
crucial function in the actions of the shamans and its particular
significance to the participants. Acquiring the ability to deliver kongsu –
in the words of the shamans themselves, ‘opening the Gate of Words’ – is in
the final analysis what makes a shaman a true shaman, a religious
practitioner able to serve and attract clients. My examination of the
linguistic features used in kongsu also sheds light on the frequent
switching of identity of the shaman, sometimes even within one single
phrase, and on the transmission of the traditional knowledge regarding such
procedures to fledgling shamans. It is also relevant to our understanding of
the nature of possession in Korea; linguistic features proved to be a useful
basis to define the altered state of consciousness that occurs among Korean
In the end I realized that in the complex communicative event that is a
shamanic ritual the shaman, using both verbal and non-verbal language, makes
the ritual efficacious by personalizing kongsu and transforming the
emotional world of the participants. This drove me to the conclusion that
emotion is a determinant factor for the success of a ritual and a yardstick
to measure whether it has been efficacious.

Antonetta L. Bruno, The Gate of Words: Language in the Rituals of Korean
Shamans, Leiden: CNWS (2002), pp. X+212, ISBN 90-5789-079-8. Price: 25
Euros, plus handling charge (e-mail orders: J.Jansen at let.leidenuniv.nl).

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