The mind-boggling rapid speech of auctioneers has wowed many audiences, leading most to ask, why do they talk like that? Is it required? And how did the style come around? Here we will serve to answer those questions whilst exploring the surprisingly deep history of the strange technique.
The fast-paced speaking that you hear at an auction house is known as ‘the chant’, it isn’t nearly as complex as it sounds to the untrained ear. Unlike other fast speaking practices, namely Hip-Hop music, each word isn’t fleshed out precisely for understanding. Instead, the chant utilizes filler words, or half words to compact a short sentence, this gives the illusion of rapid speech. The jumbled words are put together in an artistic way, forming rhythmic patterns constructed to intensify the atmosphere of the auction. It’s a psychological technique that adds suspense and even anxiety for those on the brink of a win or loss. The chant amuses some, but for bidders, it urges them, the speed, volume, and urgency all work together as a call to action, for auctioneers and the auctions they represent, it is a profitable skill to behold.
‘The chant’ is an almost exclusively American practice and its roots go way back to before the country’s Civil War. Auction houses became abundant in Virginia as tobacco of different qualities and quantities were auctioned off. Buyers would bid on a variety of tobacco products for later distribution, the tobacco for sale would have been previously inspected and the bidder would trust that the description of quality was correct. Through the years, this system would be temperamental, varying in results from one time to another. This led to a call for better and more professional inspections, elevating the overall quality of auction houses altogether. With a more trustworthy system of inspection, more confidence was earned by the industry. It is thought that it was at this time that ‘the chant’ was invented and employed, a higher demand brought forth more product, more bidders, and inevitably, more money. The auctioneers cultivated a new method that would be profitable, swift, effective, and would stand the test of time.
During the Civil War, ‘the chant’ was thought to have further evolved as the seized property was auctioned off to the highest bidders. ‘The confiscation act of the Union government’ saw loads of property stripped from the ‘Rebels’, this included houses, barns, workshops, and even cotton fields. As the Union pushed deeper into enemy territory, the property for sale became astonishingly abundant and saw many wealthy folks, more than happy to part ways with their money for these lands. This tumultuous period of seizing land and selling it on as fast as possible would help aid the Union, but also provide its wealthy citizens with possibly profitable land, a win-win. Auctioneers would have no doubt built and expanded on the chant during this period, it was a time that a call for action was indeed necessary.
Once adequate with the chant, like most other practices, the auctioneer will develop their personal style, using different filler words, different tempos, and a unique rhythm. The whole process is largely musical and shares many cross-over skills, such as breath-control, cadence, and rhythmic timing. The musical element of it doesn’t seem to be by accident, it is said that music is one of the quickest artforms to have an effect on the human mind, such control of the psyche would prove powerful in a house designed to sell at intensively high speeds.
In modern times the chant is still fondly celebrated, all across the U.S, and now even the world, competitions are held. There are regional championships as well as the world championship which see hordes of auctioneers compete and crowds of fans attend. In its own right, the chant has become an enigma, it’s a cultural phenomenon that has grown, developed, and lasted a few hundred years with no signs of slowing down, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Auctioneers with a real talent for utilizing the chant can earn up to one-hundred-thousand U.S dollars per year, a decent income, now, in the age of technology, this has prompted auctioneers and chant enthusiasts to create YouTube channels to teach the skill. For those more academically inclined, there are schools throughout America whose sole purpose is to teach the skill of auctioneering, which most likely includes more in-depth principles of the chant and also, its antiquity.