From the power of words to the power of rhetoric: nonsense, pseudo-nonsense words, archaisms and artificially constructed compounds in Greek oral charms

Pp. 7-22

  • Haralampos Passalis
Keywords: oral charms, oral/written tradition, nonsense words, pseudo words, artificially constructed compounds, sound patterns, power of words, rhetoric


Meaningless words, archaisms, glosses, neologisms as well as artificially constructed compounds often appear in charms. More specifi cally, the category of meaningless words (abracadabra, voces magicae, onomata Barbara, nonsense words, gibberish) has been considered as the most distinctive characteristic of verbal magic, and, as such, it has always constituted one of the most popular objects of study. Researchers have attempted to interpret the function of nonsignification, lack of meaning and referentiality in the inherent power of the sound of these words, in the special intonation of their performance, but also, in their implicative weight, namely in their connection to another type of referentiality, that of the so-called traditional referentiality, which connects these words to a wider context, whose power they evoke. However, most approaches to the special register of charms, with very few exceptions, have been based on texts of anterior periods, as well as on texts belonging to the written tradition of the genre. What happens, however, in the case of oral tradition, in the case, that is, of those charms that presuppose and require an oral performance and transmission? What is the frequency of occurrence of such words, what are the special characteristics of the register used in charms and in what ways does it differ from that of everyday speech? Furthermore, on the basis of which particular rules and criteria are these words formed and what function or purpose do they serve? These are the issues that the present study proposes to address, based on the examination of oral Greek charms, shifting its focus of attention from the alleged power of sound to the power of a rhetoric which accounts for the formation and explains the function of the specifi c register of oral charms.