Chanting is an important linguistic act that is part of many secular and religious practices throughout the world. Many political rallies, sporting events, collective religious services, and private religious devotions involve some form of chanting. In general, chanting is distinct from other speech activities by having a unique rhythmic structure, by having distinctive stress and intonation patterns, and by being limited in significance to specific social situations.
The primary purpose of chants, in most cases, is to put the mind beyond words and into an altered state of consciousness in order to, for example, achieve enlightenment, to personally experience God, or to enter into the spirit world. Chanting such as this may be done alone or in a group. Anyone who has ever repeated the same word over and over again has noticed that any repeated word, or string of words, eventually seems to become strange and meaningless. Chanting like this can be found in Buddhist meditation, Christian devotions, shamanistic rituals, and in other religious contexts. Since chanting like this seeks to affect the individual—even if done in a group—its orientation is toward the self, or ego.
In other cases, while the consciousness of the participants may still be altered, the ultimate purpose of the chanting is to express group solidarity and cohesiveness. Here, the chanting attempts to create oneness and unity in a group, so, its orientation is toward the assembly, or community. Liturgies and rituals in many different corporate religious practices use chanting as a way to bring participants into the ritual space and to define the community and everyone’s place in it.
Chanting that is oriented toward the community may be part of a larger complex sociolinguistic ritual. For example, in the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the deacons, congregation, and the priest responsively chant for most of the time between the recitation of the Orthodox Creed and communion. This chanting is led by the priest. The deacons and the congregation must respond by chanting in the same language used by the priest. In Egypt, the languages used in the liturgy are Arabic, Coptic, and a little Greek. In Coptic Churches in the United States, the languages used are Arabic, Coptic, English, and a little Greek. The chanting is rhythmic, and the beat is maintained by deacons, who play the cymbals and triangle. The overall effect after only a short time is to induce an altered state of consciousness, in which the participants are drawn into the community of believers and prepared spiritually for the communion.
Communally oriented chanting like that of the Coptic Orthodox Church is meaningful, however, only when the community is gathered and the social roles of priest, deacon, and congregation are all represented. Chanting not only alters the consciousness of the participant but also acts to key different frames and, by so doing, defines the event, act, role, and genre of every event, action, and person in the Coptic liturgy. In this sense, chanting is a powerful sign that keys, or signals, the meaning of various symbols and symbolic acts in the liturgy. The action of a priest walking in a circle around the altar on a weekday, when there is no liturgy, has a different meaning than the same priest walking around the altar during the liturgy against a background of liturgical chant.
The use of chants is not restricted to religious settings. Chanting is also part of many secular activities, such as sporting events and political protests. Such chanting can be done to the point where it alters consciousness, but more frequently in these kinds of contexts, it is done to communicate idea and/or build emotional consensus in a group.
Throughout history, humans have explored many ways to extend the boundaries of linguistic thought and experience: alcohol, hallucinogenic drugs, folk riddling, fasting, exposure, and self-mortification, to name a few. Many instances of chanting can be viewed in a similar way, as an attempt to extend human cognitive experience. The fact that chanting, in some form, is nearly universal across cultures is not surprising. Language is also present across all cultures. So, similar linguistic boundaries are placed on all of humanity. Chanting, whether performed for personal enlightenment or to strengthen the bonds of community, is an effort to go beyond words to get to a transcendent awareness and/or feeling.
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