The Glory of Oratory

Speechmaking may not seem like an art form. Certainly it is not one in the United States, where most speeches are made by politicians using strings of prepackaged slogans and even the president delivers his public addresses like he isn’t sure what the words mean. But in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, oratory as expression is the glue that holds society together, practiced in every public gathering. Skilled, eloquent public speaking is a key ability in tribes whose political worlds consist of tenuous and constantly shifting alliances, always cemented, tested, and spun by speech-making. “Nothing of any consequence can take place without it,” says Bob Connolly, the director of the documentary film Joe Leahy’s Neighbours, which follows a highland tribe through its many ups and downs, most of them attended by speechmaking.

Bride-price ceremonies, funerals, declarations of war, and war compensation negotiations all include oratory.

The quality of the oratory is judged not only by the performance but by the eloquence and invention in the language. Consider this example from anthropologist Andrew Strathern. He quotes a speaker of the Ndika Kelambe clan, which was in a dispute with a neighboring clan over land boundaries. The situation was tense, and the man was trying to express how he felt pressured and nervous by the forces at play: “When the wind blows, it blows up the front apron of a young woman and lifts it so they see her vagina; when the wind blows, the pigeon forgets to hide in the rock and flies out and the hunter catches it. The wind is blowing on us Ndika now.”

Two often-overlapping characteristics are present in much of highland oratory, according to anthropologist Alan Rumsey, who has studied oratory among the Ku Waru people. Orators speaking in el ung (“war talk” or “arrow talk”) use an intonation “especially suited to gaining and holding the floor,” Rumsey writes, their voices alternating between only two pitch levels. Alan Strathern says arrow talk tends to be used at the conclusion of negotiations or the end of an event, and is relatively straightforward in its meaning. Ung eke (“bent speech”) is the more frequently used style, and it is defined by its metaphorical content, which not only makes it possible for people to draw differing conclusions about what is being said, but may actively encourage it.

One of Rumsey’s papers cites an example of ung eke that took place during a discussion of warfare compensation. “When you are going to butcher a pig, underneath you put a bed of condiments [parsley, cress, etc.], you don’t just butcher it on the ground,” the speaker said. “Now as you conduct this affair I’m standing over there. That’s what you’re thinking.”

Listeners’ interpretations varied wildly. Some thought the speaker was saying that compensation should be paid, that all warfare requires it, just as all pig-butchering requires condiments. Others thought the speaker was declaring his own importance, saying that the proper payment of compensation would be impossible if he were not present, comparing himself to greens and compensation to the pig. Still others said the speaker meant that cooked pork should be given as compensation, in addition to money.

Rumsey thinks the shifting meanings of speeches are in accord with the open-ended nature of Ku Waru politics (and a useful tool in a place where violence is common). Strathern says that by deliberately using vague metaphors, a speaker can threaten or insult a listener without the listener being sure that he was, in fact, insulted or threatened. The skillful use of metaphor can leave the person thinking he has been complimented instead.

“The struggle over interpretation is something that can itself determine the chain of events,” Rumsey says. “Testing the waters and being able to discern how things are going is part of the exercise of power. In the absence of inherited offices, it’s more a politics of discernment and influence. Alliances are always more or less transitory, and there can be a dramatic shift in alliance and hostility.”

Speech-making is also tied to the highland tradition of the “big man.” Respected figures within a talapi (group or clan of a tribe) earn prestige largely by coordinating exchange events, conspicuous displays of surplus wealth and sometimes platforms for rivalry. The events traditionally featured live pigs and gold-lipped pearl shells. Today, the pigs are accompanied by cars, money mounted on boards for display, and other contemporary signs of wealth.

The organizer usually gives a speech, emphasizing how hard it was to put the event together and how valuable the gifts are. Speakers from the group receiving the gifts then give their own long speeches expressing their gratitude and pledge to reciprocate.

Underlying this apparently simple framework is an ornate web of social and political relationships: groups, clans, and subclans, and their interrelated exchange obligations to each other. Alliances are cemented and former enemies become precarious friends at such ceremonies, all turning on a well-turned phrase.

The participatory nature of Papua New Guinea tribal politics—with its leaders who come to power by gaining influence, not by birth or ballot—is also practiced through the craft of oratory. “I can’t remember any major event or situation that wasn’t thrashed out by men on their feet, making speeches,” Bob Connolly said. “In our culture we tend to restrict that to our politicians. Out there it’s everyone. I don’t think any culture anywhere has produced such a concentration of people with quite extraordinary oratorical ability.”

—Rebecca Harris is a Cultural Survival intern.

The film Joe Leahy’s Neighbours, featuring several examples of Papua oratory, is available through Documentary Educational Resources at

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