In West Africa, the Dogon people of Mali believe that the African concept of Nommo, the power of the spoken word, carries an energy that produces all life and influences everything from destiny to the naming of children. By human utterance or through the spoken word, human beings can invoke a kind of spiritual power. Nommo, the generative power of the spoken word, is the force that gives life to everything. It is present everywhere, and it brings into existence all that is seen and unseen. Furthermore, the Dogon believe that humans have power over the word and thereby can direct the life force. All human creation and natural phenomena emanate from the productive power of the word, that is, Nommo, which is a life force. Nothing happens in human society without Nommo. It is like magic in one way, but that is not strange to the Dogon because, in the thinking of the Dogon, all magic is ultimately Word magic. This is true whether the Word is manifested in incantations, blessings, or curses. In fact, if the Word did not exist, all forces would be suspended, there would be no procreation, and, therefore, there would be no life.
Although the concept of Nommo is most identified with the Dogon, it can be found in the African classical texts, with the same idea of using words to impart energy; to change forms, shapes, and conditions; and to make work easier. One could see this in the classical idea of opening the mouth of the gods; by employing certain chants and incantations, a priest was able to activate the deity. For the ancient Egyptians, Hu-sia, like Nommo, was the power of the spoken Word. Both concepts, Nommo and Hu-sia, are linked to the ethical principle Maat (truth, righteousness, justice, order, harmony, balance, and reciprocity) in its manifestation as the defender against chaos. Maat provided the ancient Egyptians with a value system by which to live, and the particular speech of the priests opened the spiritual mysteries to the people. The ancient Egyptians believed that the nature of Hu-sia was to bring about understanding and enlightening, brilliant utterances that created and sustained community; thus, it was the precursor to the later idea of Nommo found in the Dogon spiritual system.
Nommo may have different manifestations as utterances depending on the source of the word. Common, ordinary speech is not the same as specialized, informed, and sacred speech. Because all words that are spoken have power, ordinary speech is also dynamic and creative. Situations are transformed by the spoken word. Inasmuch as the creator is the source of all words, however, Nommo is originally “one with god.” As such, it is a spiritual form; once humans express the spoken word, they are using portions of the god's energy.
Speaking with power is creative and transformative. This is why the Dogon believe that to command things with Words is to practice magic. The power of the speaker can determine how fascinated, energized, and galvanized an audience will be, but even more the person who is speaking the Word, that is, practicing Nommo, is at the transformative core of any oratorical discourse. In the sense of speaking before audiences, Nommo is remarkably present in powerful utterances that are based on the Maatic principles.
Morality is the prime consideration for African oratory and public discourse. The power of Nommo appears to be in proportion to the moral character of a speaker, not just the person's oratorical skill. Thus, in an oratorical situation, it is imperative for the speaker to use creativity to present the word within the character of ethical discourse.
Ultimately, spiritual harmony is the objective of human utterance within the African world-view. The attainment of harmony is the aim of all participants when the community is called together for a common cause. Nommo, through the spoken Word, is a powerful instrument that is evident in numerous ways. It addresses profound life circumstances. Furthermore, the spoken Word creates human relationships that bring about social transformations. The Word, in an African sense, is the sacred force of life and creates reality for African people. The preeminence of Nommo is a defining cultural characteristic of African people.
Although it is true that African culture has created both written and spoken language, beginning with the origin of writing around 3500 BC and spoken language, of course, long before history, the fact that Nommo has remained an important concept in African culture is related to the productive force of speech. The philosophers among the Dogon believe that each word is an addition to the universe, and by adding to the totality of the universe the word changes the nature of our existences. No word that goes out of a person's mouth can be considered useless, because it is, by the physical act of being spoken and creating breath that enters the universe, transformative.
Only the Word that is spoken can actively engage the human being in a personal manner, and this generative action of Nommo constitutes a new relationship between a speaker and a listener.
Naming in African culture is also a social area in which the concept of Nommo or the power of the Word is ever present. Naming is an essential characteristic of African philosophy and religion, and nothing can exist without being called by a name. Nommo, the Spoken Word, is primary to an understanding of the family and community and is at the base of all naming. What we cannot conceive does not exist. Every human thought expressed becomes reality; in other words, it is spoken into being. Once we name it, it moves into existence. The power of Nommo through naming creates life. Additionally, without naming, life would be static; there would be no possibility of social development or growth and no integration into human society. Naming, for Africans, is significant because it identifies who they are and where they hope to ascend. African naming ceremonies are sacred, and each time parents name a child they are commenting on the life path of that child, how that child will see him- or herself, and their hopes for the future of African people. The name goes with the child as a symbol as he or she navigates through life.
In Africa and elsewhere that Africans are present, every boy and girl is given a name with some significance. Names are important because many believe they may affect a person's behavior. This is the first act of religion and the point at which a newborn child becomes a real member of the community. Giving a child a name by calling it out aloud makes the child an accepted part of the society. Many Africans believe that giving a child a name has a psychological effect on her or him. Names are descriptions for the totality of a person. But it is in the Nommo practice, the announcing aloud of the name, that the transformative energy is released.



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Further Reading

  • Alkebulan, A. A. (2002). The Essence of Spoken Soul: Language and Spirituality for Africans in the United States. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of African American Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.
  • Asante, M. K. (1998). The Afrocentric Idea (Rev. & exp. ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Jahn, J. (1990). Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. New York: Grove Press.