San storytellers seem to have inexhaustible sources for their stories and to have endless variations of their tales. But oral persuasion is also an essential part of their culture. Mathias Guenther, in a recent journal article, bases his examination of San rhetoric primarily on the Naro people, but he includes in his analysis many references to the oral culture of the Ju/’hoansi society as well.
Virtually all elderly San people tell stories frequently, he writes, not only to children but also to willing adult listeners. In addition, they talk a great deal. “The !Kung (now known as the Ju/’hoansi) are the most loquacious people I know,” he quotes from Lorna Marshall. One elderly Ju/’hoan woman told the ethnographer Harriet Rosenberg, “We have to talk this way…it’s our custom.”
Guenther’s point is that the talking is really rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion. When women go out together gathering, they talk and gossip, woman to woman, out of range of the men. Then they come back with information they share with the men, such as water sources sighted or evidence of game. Obviously, since they are now a settled, farming society, they do not gather and hunt nearly as much as they used to.
The men talked, while hunting, about issues such as the tracks of wounded animals. The group would follow the suggestions of the man who made the most plausible arguments about what the tracks suggested. The man who had the greatest rhetorical skills—the best reasoning powers, the most persuasive abilities, and the greatest eloquence—would become the leader of the group or perhaps the whole band. Of course, he also had to be respected for his temperament, personality, and good sense in order to assume any leadership role.
The men also talked about their hunting experiences: the fodder for stories among hunters worldwide. Tales of adventures and misadventures—encounters with snakes, thorns, or perhaps just a bout of diarrhea—fed narratives that enlivened life among the people for years afterwards. Strange sightings of animals might feed the story mill too: lions that walk silently past camp at night, for instance.
The storytelling goes beyond just entertainment. It can be used as a social leveling device and a way of restraining feelings of hostility and jealousy. The hunter who has just brought down a large antelope will take a very humble approach to his achievement. He will tell the others it is an insignificant animal, a bag of bones, not worth even butchering. If he would brag and fail to deprecate his kill, his companions wopuld demean his achievement and ridicule his hunting.
Usually, though, the San camp will level the proud feelings of individuals through other, somewhat less obvious means, such as gossip. At times, if the group feels the subject of the gossip needs to know what is being said, they will talk loudly enough for the individual to hear what is going on. Talking may escalate, however, when feelings of irritation turn to anger, and people start talking more and more rapidly and loudly. Heated, but joke-laced, talking with an edge can become dangerous anger that can lead to violence.
The San conversation style is reciprocal. They have a stereotyped speech pattern that can be described as contrapuntal. People echo what has just been said so much that it is hard for an outsider to understand what the original speaker has just been saying.
The stories the San tell are often based on the antics of the trickster god, //Gauwa. Lecher, prankster and moral invert, the trickster tales build up ambivalences about San values that lead listeners to protest and remonstrate, particularly if the tale is especially shocking. The god is flamboyant but ambiguous as he hovers around graves, cares for medicines and diseases, and associates with animals and spirits of the dead. Healers seek contact with the god during their trance-dancing ceremonies. The dancers, while in their trances, may volubly narrate vivid stories of their experiences visiting other worlds and meeting evil forces along their journeys.
At times, a dancer may start to exhort the other people sitting around the circle, shouting at them that they need to argue and battle less. Guenther quotes an oration, recorded by Megan Biesele, spoken by a trance dancer in which he berated the people who were sitting around a fire as he was trying to heal a patient: “He [the patient on whose behalf the curing dance was being held] lies there dying; while you sit above him wrangling and fighting, and arguing and glaring, arguing and glaring and glaring, arguing and glaring ….” Talking, Guenther reasons, can serve as a mechanism for resolving conflicts during the trance healing ritual dances.
Talking in San society thus has two primary functions: entertainment and persuasion. The entertainment function is just that: creative, sociable, and sharing—especially of news and gossip. Talking can be both amusing and expressive on the one hand, and it can serve on the other to manipulate people to further their personal agendas. It can result in smiles and friendly feelings, but at times it can promote an edge of strain and discomfort, depending on the intent.
“Talking, as a culturally defined and structured, semantically acknowledged practice, is thus both integrative and disintegrative in San society,” he writes (p.253). Talking balances and blends both the communalism of the society and the self-interest of the individuals. It serves the individuals as much as it does the group. The talking that the San engage in is a means of personal expression, a way of keeping communication open, a mechanism for resolving conflicts, and an avenue for handling deviant behavior.
Guenther concludes, “Talking is an ongoing process in San social life that stops only at night, when people are asleep” (p.255). Effective talking and oratory bring prestige and influence to an individual. Skill in telling stories and myths allows the San to move beyond the world of spirits and trickster gods into the realm of what he calls “Primal Time.” Talking is an essential aspect of their culture.
Guenther, Mathias. 2006. “N//àe (‘Talking’): The Oral and Rhetorical Base of San Culture.” Journal of Folklore Research 43(3):241-261