Language within the Sacred Space of Candomblé: Identity Markers and Re-Africanization

Article excerpt

"In the New World black people have actively made their culture." (Sansone, 1999a)


The slave trade in Brazil started earlier and ended later than in any other country in the New World. Consequently, it is the country that received the most slaves from Africa and has also "the greatest concentration of descendants of Africans outside Africa" (Sansone, 1999b:7). That explains the presence of several cultural features of African origin in Brazil.

One of those features is Candomblé, a religion of the African Diaspora that developed in northeastern Brazil in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Just as Voodoo in Haiti or Santeria in Cuba, it was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants and its roots can be traced back to the ancient religions of West, Central and Southwest Africa (Harding, 2000). There are also some Amerindian and Catholic elements that reflect the influence of the society in which Candomblé emerged. In addition, it is a religion that requires initiation, and has some of the characteristics of traditional African religions, such as divination, the offering of sacrifice, trance and possession dance.

Linguistic Africanisms, a term, which refers to, words and expressions of African origin, are used in in-group communication within the sacred space of Candomblé. In these communicative situations ritual language and everyday speech should be interpreted more as vehicles of symbolic expression rather than strictly as linguistic competence (Castro, 2001). It follows from this that the two relevant issues that we will present here are Africanisms as identity markers and re-Africanization.

Re-Africanization means the way Africa, or rather, a projection of Africa, is re-invented for political reasons (Sansone, 1999b), and seen from a linguist's point of view, this creative process can be much more interesting than the capacity to retain African culture through the centuries. The aim of this report is to attempt a preliminary analysis of the data that was recorded in the city of Salvador during my fieldwork. While focusing on the communicative process in the micro-context this approach relates the linguistic structure to the pragmatic functions of the language used within the sociocultural context of Candomblé. It also illustrates the way in which a linguistic variety that is marked by Africanisms functions above all as a marker of identity. The adopted methodological, analytical and theoretical standpoints have been borrowed from linguistic anthropology (see, among others, Duranti, 1997, 2001; Saville-Troike, 1989).

In order to connect the Africanisms used in Candomblé followers' everyday speech with the linguistic attitudes and ideologies to be found in Brazilian society throughout history, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary. In similar cases, linguistic anthropologists often rely on theories and concepts from other disciplines (see Duranti, 2001).


A central hypothesis here is that the Candomblé community offers alternative identities to its members (cf. Álvarez, 2002a). These identities are significant (though not necessarily opposed to other social identities of their carriers) since they often affirm positive qualities of individuals and groups. Most members of Candomblé communities are descendants of enslaved Africans, a fact that is especially true for poor, black women (Siqueira, 1994): i.e. identities that are, to various degrees, stigmatized in Brazilian society. However, individuals find a way to self-actualization by becoming leaders of religious communities in which they acquire alternative identities in a hierarchical socio-religious organization. Their alternative identities are independent of those they may have in the surrounding society.

The positive symbolic values of the religious community affect the individual identities of its members: in interaction, they elaborate an alternative individual identity related to individual deities, and a collective identity related to the group or the Candomblé nation1 to which they belong. …