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By Stanley J. Tambiah

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Sample text

From his, as well as the audience's, point of view, the spells have power by virtue of their secrecy and their capacity to communicate with demons and thereby influence their actions. However, mantra do not fall outside the requirements of language as a system of communication, and their literal intelligibility to humans is not the critical factor in understanding their logic. What I have indicated in this example is that a single Sinhalese ritual progresses from spells which summon the demons to invocation and supplication of the gods and demons, proceeds to myths in verse form which are sung and dramatized, and concludes with a spell which uses the language of command and exorcism.

Theories of Magical Language Malinowski's views on language can be roughly divided into two related theories, one pertaining to what he called an "ethnographic theory of language" in general, and the other to the language of magic in particular. The chief feature of his general theory was the pragmatic character of language. He viewed language as a vehicle not so much for expressing ideas, concepts, or categories as for achieving practical effects. We recognize in this stand a self-conscious attack on the mentalistic theories of language current in his time, such as those held by Sweet and Sapir (1921).

It was the same histrionic talent that led him to dwell on the problem of meaningless words and the "coefficient of weirdness" in magical language. In fact his translation was excellent, and he concluded that the "coefficient of intelligibility" in the spells was high. His strategy of teasing the credulous reader and taking him on a circuitous and repetitious route, strewn with his sins of commission and omission, was adopted so that in the end a dramatic answer could be produced, which was that magical language was eminently intelligible.

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