Sunday, October 18, 2009

Weddings, speech acts and symbolism

My kids participated in a wedding over last weekend. It was great fun, we got dressed up, and they got the honor of walking down the aisle. They took it so seriously, and they did a lovely job.

Weddings are fascinating from an anthropological and linguistic point of view, too. They represent a complete change of state, but not one that can be physically measured. The change is entirely intangible, but changes everything about the way society treats the married couple. The way they are referred to by others, the way they speak to one another, the kinds of expectations that are held for them by family and friends, the kinds of rights granted to them by law, etc.

At the center of the ceremony is a sequence of speech acts. I may write more about them in another post, but for now if you're curious, you can go look them up, along with John Searle, a pragmaticist who worked with them quite a bit. Effectively, speech acts (also called illocutionary acts) are actions that are done by being said: requests, invitations, refusals. By saying it, you've done it. The speech acts of marrying include the vows: "I do," "I, XXX, take you, YYY...etc." and the pronouncement of the marriage by the celebrant. "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

The entire change of state, and all of the changes of behavior that follow, hinge upon this sequence of acts. As a result of this, there have been a good many story plots that depend for their suspense upon this sequence of speech acts, particularly upon the arrival of the good guy to save the girl before the critical sequence of speech acts is finished. A speech act of great import, like marrying, must also be associated with certain conditions of time, place, and person. The person making the pronouncement of marriage must be ordained with this power by the church and/or the state, or the whole act falls through (insert more story plots here). The bride and groom must meet certain requirements, such as not being currently married to anyone else, or not having anyone in the congregation object at the point in the ceremony where that is possible, or, depending on where you're getting married, being one male and one female (insert many more story plots here).

Of course, if you're working with a setting in the sf/f genre, then elements of this can be changed. If there is a wedding, ask who's involved and how they're qualified to be involved. What the requirements are for participation by a bride and groom, and by a celebrant. What kinds of speech acts might be involved, and whether they would be the same or different - and whether there would be more of them, or fewer. You can also reconsider the details of this change of state in terms of how society recognizes it, and what its impact is on the people involved. Is it a love marriage? Is it most important to the couple or to their families? Or to the society as a whole? What is considered natural and wholesome about it? Is there anything that might be considered unnatural or unwholesome yet not destroy the validity of the marriage speech acts themselves?

Weddings are also full of symbolism of all kinds. The order in which things are done suggests value placed on each participant. A little girl, if she becomes junior bridesmaid, would be first of the bridesmaids to come to the front of the church; but if she becomes the flower girl, she's the last of them, because her job is to strew the path of the bride with flower petals. The flower petals suggest freshness and beauty, and springtime, which is a time of fertility. There's color symbolism in the white dress of the bride. There are the rings, which have no beginning and no end and symbolize the connection between the two people being married.

In the wedding we attended, there were elements added from Filipino culture. The couple had "sponsors," or people they knew who were there to support the marriage. At a certain point in the ceremony, both bride and groom were covered with a veil, then encircled with a white cord symbolizing their connection, and once those had been removed, the celebrant poured a handful of coins into the groom's hands, and he poured them into the bride's (she thereafter handed them to one of the bridesmaids). The coins were to symbolize their good fortune in the future.

In our wedding, there was an Australian element - not in the ceremony, but at the reception where we had one fruitcake and one American style wedding cake. I've seen photos of Indian weddings, and the clothing and other parts of the ceremony are entirely different. Japanese weddings have lots of different parts, and each part has a particular appropriate costume. The Shinto tradition has the bride wearing a beautiful white kimono with a hood that goes over her immaculately styled hair. Japanese brides will often wear an American style wedding dress at a different point in the day as well.

There are the speeches, too. But the best man's humorous speech at the wedding reception in America or Australia isn't at all like the long series of formal speeches in a Japanese wedding, all of which are executed in front of a gold folding screen.

I'm not saying everyone should go out and write wedding stories. But memories of weddings can be relevant in some stories, and wedding symbolism can percolate outward through different cultural practices, and of course as I said above, the way married people are treated differs vastly from the way unmarried people are treated. I hope this post can give you some ideas not only for weddings themselves but for ways to diversify the symbolism in your stories.

I'll end this post by extending my heartiest congratulations to our lovely Sheryl and her new husband Robert. Many thanks for including us in your special day.