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

By López, Laura Alvarez | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

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

López, Laura Alvarez, Ibero-americana

"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. One of the ways in which the individuals elaborate this alternative and positive identity is by actualizing behavioral patterns and linguistic codes of African origin, the command of which an initiated member of the community is expected to have.

By using an initiating (or alternative) name of African origin, or by addressing a person as manieto or ialorisha, they use language to mark ethno-religious identity. Mameto means that the person you're talking to is a woman, that she belongs to the Angola nation of Candomblé and that she is a priestess, indicating that she has been initiated for at least seven years, and that it is the person's alternative identity within Candomblé. lalorishá represents the same concept within the Ketu nation.


Not every expression that seems to be an Africanism has African origin and even if words are African, they have not necessarily been preserved and transmitted by oral tradition from generation to generation.

Since the seventies, social and attitudinal change in Brazil has given black people more possibilities to social mobility. We have also seen that Afro-Brazilian culture and religion have been officially recognized and that ethnical consciousness has increased. As a result of these changes a destigmatization and a re-Africanization of Afro-Brazilian culture has arisen, especially in the city of Salvador (Sansone, 1999b).

One of the ways of re-Africanizing language is to introduce modern Africanisms from modern Yoruba. the official language of Nigeria. Another way is to present words that are not of African origin, but are used within Candomblé, as if they were African (cf. Álvarez, 2000b).

Re-Africanization is akin to Yorubaization, and it seems to be the same in various places of the New World, not only in Brazil. One may ask the question why just Yoruba? That is where we need to look at the macrocontext. One reason is that Yoruba speakers came to Bahia quite late, from 1770 to 1850 according to Verger (1987:9). a fact that could explain why so many Yoruba expressions have been preserved. Moreover, it was during this period that the mighty Oyo kingdom fell apart and many of its inhabitants were enslaved.2 In contrast with other African Languages Yoruba had an early start as a written language in that by 1850 it was already written; this may have given it some prestige (see Castro, 2001). Furthermore. Lorand Matory (2002) points out the amazing ways in which cultures of Africa and the Americas have shaped each other. According to him, the introduction of standard Yoruba by missionaries3 who elaborated the language and translated the Bible in 1900 is one of the foundations of the Yoruba identity that emerged in Africa only after the dispersion of its Yoruba speaking peoples in the New World. This identity was then reinterpreted in the African-inspired religions of Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad, and the United States. Besides, people kept contact with Africa, some of them went to Lagos (see Castro, 1965). and in the beginning of the nineteenth century, religious leaders started returning to their roots and legitimate their faith by means of rituals that they conducted mostly with the help of priests from Nigeria (Dantas, 1988; see also Lorand Matory, 2002).

In addition to this, most research about Candomblé in Salvador has been done in three or four prestigious temples of the Ketu nation (again, of Yoruba tradition). Strangely enough, those are said to be more African and therefore more authentic and have gained even more prestige through the work of several researchers (Capone 1999).

In 1959, UNESCO and the Brazilian Government founded a Center for Afro-Oriental studies in Salvador, and several researchers joined this center that promoted exchanges with African universities. The motivation for this was primarily that the Brazilian Government wanted to increase contacts with the newly independent African countries that had great potential as markets (see Capone, 1999). In 1961, Yoruba courses started to be offered in this center and that has continued until today.4 My impression, after having attended the course during one term, is that most people go there in order to learn the language of their gods.

We have seen some of the reasons why Yoruba has more prestige than other African languages in Brazil (and, maybe, in the New World in general). It can also be observed that people have access to the material that can give them some input of new words and expressions from modern Yoruba or even inspire them to adopt Yoruba orthography5 for words that have been already incorporated into Brazilian (or Bahian) vernacular Portuguese.


Candomblé communities have offered an alternative space where members have been able to elaborate and affirm a positive individual and collective alternative identity (see Harding, 2000). My personal interpretation is that descendants of enslaved Africans have been discriminated against in Brazil (see Ferreira, 2000), and that individuals who do not possess a positive social identity will strive towards it (Giles, 1977). Furthermore, the alternative identities mentioned here are elaborated in interaction and were articulated on the basis of a cultural tradition that can affirm the individual and collective identities of members of a group that has been made to feel inferior by another group.

Added to this, re-Africanization can be seen as having been triggered by a change of attitude in the sociopolitical context in which the interaction takes place. And here linguistic attitudes are being included. As a consequence of this change, the negative attributions developed into a positive self-image and the various groups are using history, myth and language to recreate community and collective identification. One of the functions of the inclusion of differentiating linguistic markers in interaction is to mark the speaker's identity. By choosing a linguistic variety, the speaker is accepting, valuing and actualizing his/her cultural heritage and affirming his/her identity. By re-Africanizing language, the individual accomplishes the same thing. That is what I would call a creative process, and it is definitely a way of actively "making" one's culture.


1 Both Castro ( 1981 ) and Costa Lima ( 1976) discuss the concept of Candomblé nation.

2 Oyo is a state in Nigeria having a town of the same name. Here, Yoruba ranks first among states where Yoruba speaking people are prevalent. Oyo is also a Yoruba dialect.

3 Samuel Crowther, a former slave, was the most important name among those missionaries. He wrote the first grammar and dtctionnary of Yoruba language.

4 It was also discovered that the diffusion of Yoruba has had a parallel in the U.S. "The movement to study Yoruba in the United States began in the 1960s, predominantly as part of U.S. foreign policy initiatives to spread awareness of previously untaught or rarely taught languages. Through the 1970s, Yoruba was generally taught on a tutorial basis to graduate students in the social sciences who were interested in research or Peace Corps work in Yorubaland. By the 1980s, many U.S. universities started offering Yoruba as a regular course, and about 20 currently have a Yoruba program. (...) Furthermore, African-Americans often study Yoruba out of interest in their own heritage, since many of the slaves brought to North America during the 18th and 19th centuries came from Yoruba-speaking areas." (Councilnet. Language in the Spotlight. Online (2002-11-27) - http://www.councilnet. org/pages/CNet_Spotlight.html.

5 The Roman alphabet is used, but some extra diacritics indicate additional sounds.



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[Author Affiliation]

Laura Álvarez López is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies. She is working within an interdisciplinary project on Interaction, Identity and Language Structure that covers research on the African influence on Brazilian Portuguese. Her recent publications include: "Vein talar yoruba i Brasilien? Afrikanismer som identitetsmarkorer", SUS Working Papers IV: 2 (2002); Forthcoming, is "Ideologies y actitudes lingüísticas en Brasil: lingüística y estudios afrobrasileños en el siglo XX", forthcoming in Adas del VIl Taller International de Africania en el Caribe 'Ortiz Lachatañeré'. April 8-11 2003.

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