Where Is Language An Anthropologist s Questions On Language Literature And Performance

by Ruth Finnegan

Author Ruth Finnegan Isbn 978 1472590930 File size 590 8 KB Year 2015 Pages 176 Language English File format PDF Category Languages Ruth Finnegan is an extraordinary scholar of great style and profundity Trace the fields of new literacy studies situated cognition and story telling and you will find the research and writings of Ruth Finnegan So much of her thinking has become embedded in our understandings of language perhaps without us ever knowing her Where is Language is a great intr

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Author : Ruth Finnegan

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Where is Language?

Where is Language?
An Anthropologist’s
Questions on Language,
Literature and
Performance
By Ruth Finnegan

Bloomsbury Academic
An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

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First published 2015
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To the evergreen memory of Gerhardt Baumann who would have liked
and, as is right, argued with this book. We will never forget you.

CONTENTS

Preface
Acknowledgements

ix
x

1 What is the art of language?

1

2 Playing with the heroes of human history

15

3 ‘Artisting the self’: A tale of personal story

27

4 Forget the words …: It’s performance!

53

5 Reclothing the ‘oral’

63

6 Song. What comes first: words, music, or performance? 85
7 Competence and performance: Was Chomsky right
after all?

107

8 Poem and story: The arts of dreaming and waking to
sweet words

115

9 Where is literature?

127

Further reading
Bibliography
Index

143
147
161

PREFACE

What could be greater than linguistic expression for narrating the deep
story of our identities, clothing our emotions in beautiful language, using
the modalities of our bodies to communicate and embellish our words,
formulating the lyrics of songs or our dreams into narrative? And yet, like
‘time’ for Saint Augustine, what, when we come to think of it, is so little
understood?
A host of puzzles face us when we do come to think about it. Do we,
in our Western way, exaggerate the significance of what we term language
– above all, our particular form of language, alphabetic literacy, ‘the tool
of conquest’? Are not other modes as profound, perhaps ‘divine’ as some
would put it, and, above all, is it only a Western cultural trait to see verbalizing as the greatest art of all?
We need a more multiplex, challenging, but more contextually situated
understanding of language, literature and performance. And if the search
involves challenging some accepted stereotypes, this is scarcely too high
a price to pay for a greater understanding, controversial as it may be, of
phenomena so apparently crucial to our humanity.
The present volume represents the fruit of a lifetime’s puzzling over the
subject, reinforced by my desire – need – to set the issues, as far as in me
lie, in some kind of cross-cultural perspective. So I start here, as do most
scholars, anthropologists included (we are not just creatures of fieldwork
or the exotic), from a closely interested reading of the literature, beginning
with the ancient classics, followed by intensive reading and fieldwork
in three continents. The results have also drawn (of course) on primary
evidence, including the field research of both myself and others, interpreted
in the light of the comparative material from throughout the world and the
centuries. The two inform each other.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Some of the ideas (but not necessarily the expression) behind the account
here have, not unnaturally, appeared in other publications before now,
although their conflation and articulation are unique to this volume. So
let me, as is courteous, mention in particular Compétence et Performance,
Karthala; International Journal of Learning; Language Description and
Documentation; Newsletter of British Association for Applied Linguistics;
Oral Tradition; Palavra Cantada: Ensaios sobre Poesia, Música e Voz, 7
Letras; Consumption and Everyday Life, Sage; Technology, Literacy and
the Evolution of Society, Erlbaum; The Art of English: Literary Creativity,
Palgrave Macmillan.
On a more personal level I owe great gratitude to the librarians and
colleagues at my long-time institution the Open University, of which I am
proud to have been a founder member (too many to name individually, but
you know who you are – still so kind even to an old lag like myself). My
thanks too to the unknown readers for the press who not only encouraged
me to persevere but markedly improved the clarity and coherence of this
offering. Of other individuals – again too many to name – let me merely
thank my dear husband David, always beside me, and, in abiding memory,
Gerhardt Baumann to whom this book is dedicated; he would no doubt
have fixed on all its minor inaccuracies (I hope there are not too many) and
any typos that have escaped the excellent Bloomsbury process – but would
nevertheless have welcomed it with his inimitable smile.

1
What is the art of language?

It is common to assume we know what language is and what is needed to
capture and describe it; hence, by implication, what ‘language’ in essence is.
But there are many contending theories, too easily forgotten in the understandable rush to document and describe. These need to be considered at
the outset, above all the performance approach to linguistic action entailed
in pragmatic perspectives, and the issue of how and for whom linguistic
accounts are constructed in the first place.
I too was once confident of what ‘language’ was, where its boundaries lay,
and hence what might count as data for documenting it. But I am no longer
sure. Nor am I clear where information about a given language should be
found, or how, by, and for whom a language should be documented.
My uncertainties are founded in my own puzzles over the many years
that I’ve worked, mainly as an anthropologist, on aspects of unwritten
literature, performance and communication, based both in comparative
reading and fieldwork in Africa and Britain (Finnegan 1967, 1970, 1977,
1988, 1989, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2007). Within that limited experience, I
find that the issues I have confronted are unexpectedly (to me) relevant for
the understanding of the nature of language and how to capture it, whether
in our contemporary world or in the so-called ‘vanishing’ cultures.
What I offer here are some informal reflections, not any pretence of a
scholarly or theoretical disquisition.1 I write not as a specialist linguist nor

1 Given the personal setting of this introductory chapter there are many references to
my own work, unclothed furthermore by the decencies of systematic citations throughout.
But since my personal experience is of course interrelated with changing and contending
approaches to language and communication, let me mention that works I have at various times
found especially illuminating include Austin 1962, Bakhtin 1986, Bauman 1977, Bauman
and Sherzer 1989, Bauman and Briggs 1990, 2003, Clark 1996, Cummings 2010, Dalby
1999/2000, Duranti 2004, Gippert et al. 2006, Hanks 1996, Harris 1987, 1998, Harris and
Wolf 1998, Hodge and Kress 1993, Hymes 1977, Robinson 2006, Tracey 1999, Verschueren
2009, Verschueren and Östman 2009. Some issues touched on here are considered in more
fully referenced framework in Finnegan 2002/14, 2007.

2

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

as someone with any expertise in documenting languages, but merely about
my experience of becoming increasingly doubtful of my initially confident
assumptions about just where in the great spectrum of human communicating and expression we are to find ‘language’.
My first degree was in Classics – Greek and Latin. At that point I ‘knew’
what language was – or rather, I didn’t need to know because it seemed
self-evident. It was what came in written texts. Written texts were the prime
sources that had come down to us from classical antiquity, transmitted in
the manuscript tradition and with, of course, no audio records of speech.
The texts we read and studied were wonderful and enriching, covering a
wide range of genres: literary, historical, epistolatory, oratorical, lyrical
and much else. Both drawn from and supporting this corpus of texts was
the extensive apparatus of vocabulary, of grammar and of syntax, all
once again encapsulated in writing in the form of dictionaries of words
(usually offering equivalencies in some European language) and accounts
of grammatical and syntactical rules. The written words, organized in the
correct classic formulations – that was ultimately what language was.
This emphasis on the textual and written was not totally unqualified.
Archaeology – the study of material remains – played a part, and some
scholars (like Eduard Fraenkel from Germany) went beyond the printed page
to read aloud a Catullus love poem or (W. B. Stanford from Ireland) engaged
with the acoustic dimensions of Greek lyric meters. There was an established
tradition, though not within the examination curriculum, of live performances of Greek plays or of reading Homer aloud. But the paradigm was
indubitably of the centrality of written text both as the object of what was
studied and the medium in which such study was appropriately expressed.
From this viewpoint, documenting a little-known language (i.e. one
unwritten-about philologically) would entail finding and pinning down
its essential constituent: texts that could be read, analysed and form
the basis for identifying underlying rules. The texts might have to be
snared by transcribing spoken words into writing. But ultimately those
resultant scripts, together with a similar scholarly apparatus as for classical
languages, would form the necessary documentation data. Language was
capturable and realized in the communication technology dominant in the
mid-twentieth century and earlier – writing – and it was ultimately there
that the data could be recognized.

Emerging doubts …
Things began to look different when, as a graduate, I embarked on anthropological studies, followed ineluctably by my first piece of fieldwork. This
was in the early 1960s among a people called the Limba, in northern Sierra
Leone. My focus came to be on their stories and story-telling, an interest

What is the art of language?

3

that followed on well from my enthusiasm for literary texts in my earlier
studies. I was hugely impressed by the many story-telling performances I
experienced there and wanted to make that aspect of Limba culture the
central core for my thesis and subsequent publications.
My initial presupposition was that the way to study these stories – and
most certainly the way to present them in my doctoral dissertation – was to
capture them as written text. That, after all, was surely where their reality
lay, and the medium in which I and other scholars possessed the necessary
analytic tools. There seemed no other proper way to pin them down for
scholarly study.
So some of the stories I transformed, directly, into script by taking them
down from dictation. Many others I recorded on one of the (relatively)
portable tape recorders then available. The obvious next step was to
transcribe from tape into written lines on a page in similar format to the
classical texts I and others were accustomed to.
My thesis could then take the familiar form of introductory background
and analysis followed by the key data: parallel texts in Limba and English
translation. It consequently ran to three large volumes (I still remember
their weight as I lugged the required three copies of each through Oxford
by bicycle, then up the steps to the examinations schools). I assumed – as,
apparently, did my examiners – that the substantive data, the corpus of
texts, had to be there in my presentation.
But there was a problem. I had been greatly struck by the richness and
subtlety of these narrations, and in my thesis tried to convey something of
their artistry. But that had somehow melted away in the stories I presented.
At one point, trying to demonstrate why I was so enthusiastic, I showed
one of the texts to a friend from my classical days, expecting him to be
impressed. He read through and rejoined – politely – ‘Oh yes, another of
those charming African animal tales’, to my mind missing all its wonders.
The point is of course only too obvious, though it took me some time
to appreciate it fully. The reality lay in the performance. It was this that
the written texts had failed to capture. They missed the subtle characterizations, the drama, the way the tellers used volume, pitch, tempo, repetition,
emphasis, dynamics, silence, timbre, onomatopoeia, and a whole plethora
of non-verbal indications to convey humour, pathos, irony, atmosphere
… The written forms could never replicate the ideophones that peppered
the tellings – vivid little mini-images in sound and more than sound. Nor
could unilinear textual layout show the many-voiced interaction and
co-construction by the audience as they joined in songs led by the narrator
or reacted with horror or laughter to key turns in the tale. Nor, either, did
it capture the Limba practice of picking out one among the audience as
the ‘replier’ – a second voice to give special support, prompting, echoing
and, where needed, exaggerated reactions and response. Compressing this
multidimensional and multi-participant performance within the narrow
one-voiced medium of writing was to miss its substance.

4

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

I soon discovered that similar patterns were found elsewhere – obvious
once you look, but for long concealed from me (and others) by the presupposed centrality of written text. The study of oral poetry, performance, and
‘oral literature’ more generally, hammered home the same point. Both in
Africa and further afield, those creating performed literary art deploy not
just writable words but a vast range of non-verbalized auditory devices
of which those conventionally captured in written text, such as rhyme,
alliteration and rhythm, are only a small sample. The wondrously varied
expressive resources of the human voice are exploited for multifarious
delivery modes, varying with genre, situation or performer: spoken, sung,
recited, intoned, shouted, whispered, carried by single or multiple or alternating voices. Not just in faraway places but in the spoken and sung forms
nearer home too, there turned out to be near-infinite combinations of vocal
expression and auditory resources of which most escape from view on the
written page.
I had to conclude, then, that the core lay not in written text after all but
in the performance. And that included the setting, the delivery, and not just
the ‘lead’ speaker but the full range of participants. All this showed up the
contentious nature of my earlier ‘language-as-written-text’ model. This was
reinforced by ongoing trends in the study of verbal expression, not least the
performance-oriented approaches and ethnography of speaking in folklore
and anthropology – stressing performance and process rather than text and
product – as well as more recent developments in linguistic anthropology,
sociolinguistics and performance studies. At the same time interdisciplinary
interests in oral performance and in ‘orality’ more generally were, and are,
flourishing, opening up a new vision of the nature of human communication and expression previously concealed by the focus on the written.
This turned me towards seeing language as ultimately something spoken,
performed, oral. It no longer seemed to be existent essentially in written
text but in active performance and interaction. And if so, language
documentation would have to be approached very differently than from the
familiar written-text perspective. For it would have to focus on audio, not
just written, materials, and to include records and analyses of oral performances and (where relevant) their multiplicity of overlapping participants.
Such data would not only count, but be essential.

Plunging into the ‘oral’
Acknowledging the limitations of a written-text model of language is
hopefully by now scarcely problematic. Audio recordings are nowadays
widely accepted as a regular (though perhaps not universal) part of serious
language documentation. I would like to add two further comments,
however, about the implications.

What is the art of language?

5

First, a qualification. The move away from the written to the ‘oral’
sometimes jumps to the opposite extreme, envisaging the spoken as
somehow the bedrock, natural, traditional, to be set against the artificial
imposition of writing. A seminal Western myth sometimes lurks behind
this, constantly challenged but also constantly recycled. In ways more
fully explored in the next chapter, this posits a fundamental opposition
between two mutually exclusive types of social and cognitive organization:
the one literate, rational, scientific, civilized, Western, modern; the other
communal, emotional, non-scientific, traditional, primitive – and oral. This
has underpinned a trend to mystify ‘orality’ and the ‘oral’ as if something
distinctive and separate: characteristic of a culture belonging prototypically
to the ‘them’ of far away or long ago and one in which writing, even if in
certain respects present, is intrinsically alien (and to be ignored). This is
a set of assumptions I have long found myself struggling against and one
which no doubt also crops up – controversially – in certain approaches to
language documentation.
In other ways, however, the analysis of the oral and performed dimensions of language has, paradoxically, not been taken far enough. The
vocabulary to capture the amazing use of the voice with its huge range of
subtleties is relatively little developed, and the sonic elements of language
are still often sidelined. But if we are to document the auditory practice of
language, then the data to count would need to cover not just rules about
phonetics, word forms or (limited elements of) prosody but its active sonic
realization in such features as, for example, pacing and speed, volume,
pitch, melody, rhythm, onomatopoeia, voice quality, timbre, mood, mix
with other voices and sounds – or silences, distancing, vocalized sounds
like sobs, sighs or laughter … and so much else. Data about tone or
prosody would have to include not just smaller units like words, phrases
or sentences but also the sonic patternings of larger chunks and of speech
genres more widely. It’s true that such elements sometimes get mentioned
under the heading of ‘paralinguistic’ or ‘extralinguistic’ elements, but
in an oral-performance model of language these are not supplementary
extras but intrinsic. A Martian anthropologist might well be puzzled by
a demarcation which included some auditory elements in the delineation
of language but excluded others which can equally form part of both the
conventions and the unique personality communicated through human
vocal utterance.
So though the importance of audio features may now be increasingly
taken for granted in documenting languages, helped by the audio technologies which now facilitate the recording, storage and accessing of such data,
has this yet been fully followed through? Documenting the oral is inevitably
enormously complex; nor, despite the wizardries of modern technology,
have we really developed adequate techniques, vocabularies or perhaps
concepts to fully capture and analyse these inevitably more fleeting and
temporal performed features.

6

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

Small wonder, perhaps, that the written model of language is so extraordinarily persistent, with its implicit suggestion that data doesn’t quite
‘exist’ until it is reduced to, transcribed as, transformed into, or analysed
through the spatial solidity of writing and print. As Hodge and Kress well
put it: ‘The distinctive resources of spoken communication which are not
transcribed are eliminated from linguistic theory’ (1993: 11). Even when we
accept a view of language as sounded and performed, we still too often fall
comfortably back into a model in which the true reality – and the key data
– reside in visually written textualizations rather than vocal enunciation.

Cognitive models
My Limba fieldwork brought me face to face not just with story-telling
performance but also with the active way that Limba speakers used vocal
utterances to do things. This, I gradually discovered, ran counter to a
further implicit model of language that, if only in a vague and muddled
way, I had also had at the back of my mind.
This was a set of somewhat contradictory and elusive assumptions,
which could indeed be split apart but which nevertheless tended to
come together in a kind of general mindset which I’d sum up under the
label of ‘cognitive’. Basically I pictured language as something essentially
mental, rational, decontextualized. Language was to do with mind and
meaning, and its central function was referential. Artistry and rhetoric
were secondary embellishments only to be considered once the core prose
and information-bearing elements were grasped. Language might or might
not constitute an independent rule-governed system existing autonomously
in its own right – I vaguely assumed that it did – but it certainly could be
assumed to have a structure that could be abstracted from the messiness of
context, usage and social action or experience.
Of course I should already have known that this was not the whole
story, both from my own experience and from my encounter with the
multiplicity of classical genres. Even so, I was still somehow steeped in that
set of preconceptions. It had been reinforced in part by the legacy of logical
positivism still influential in my undergraduate years at Oxford (though
tempered by Austin’s lectures on ‘performative utterances’ which were
much to influence me subsequently). More radically, as I came to realize, it
was a continuance of an ideology powerful in Western thought over several
centuries which asserted the rationality of language and its relation to
science, objectivity, civilization, literacy and, ultimately, the achievements
of the West.
In some ways it was a serviceable model for a field situation. My
language learning had indeed initially relied on the presupposition of a
systematic vocabulary and grammar that I could learn independently of

What is the art of language?

7

the pressures of spoken situations. There was a short missionary-compiled
Limba dictionary, a couple of translated gospels, and two short articles
based on data from an overseas Limba visitor, elicited and analysed by a
linguist (Jack Berry) then at the School of Oriental and African Studies in
London, all of which I found hugely helpful.
This all fitted both my preconceptions about the systematized and
meaning-carrying nature of language and where to find data about it, and
my conviction that meaning could be conveyed cross-culturally and out of
context. Language as the repository of thought offered the potential for
its ‘translation’, a channel by which minds could be brought into contact
across space and time. It was through language that Limba stories could
be transported to others as text – something which I indeed aspired to do
through my verbal translations.
My aim was not to document language as such, whether that of Limba
speakers or any others. But if it had been, I would doubtless have started
from the assumption that the core data would be found in the information-carrying forms, in ‘plain prose’ sentences and the logical structure
underlying them; also that I would have to produce clear translations and
word-for-word equivalences to enable the direct transference of meaning
from this lesser-known culture into some accessible European language.
Greater experience of Limba life somewhat undermined that set of
preconceptions. I could not really miss the way Limba speakers used
speaking as organized action and performance rather than, or as well as,
for conveying meaning. They used language to do things rather than just
describe them: to recognize and forge relationships, ratify contracts, issue
orders, assert a position, strike an attitude, show off as performer.
Further, in some interchanges, and even in some Limba stories, the
cognitive ‘content’ as it were – the meaning I had assumed I could transfer
– was not after all the only, or in some cases even apparently the most
important, element. I think, for example, of one ridiculous short story I
recorded about a fictional character called Daba, an incorrigible snuff-taker.
All that happened in it was that Daba went round the local chiefs badgering
them to give him vast quantities of snuff, then finally overreached himself
by taking a huge sniff and falling down dead: nothing to it really. And
yet this was hugely successful with the audience, who were rolling with
merriment. It was told by one of the most admired local tellers and was
among the liveliest narrations I encountered, subtle as well as hilarious. Its
success lay not in its plot but in the teller’s brilliant performance and the
audience’s active co-creation and singing as Daba sniffed and sniffed again,
also in the narrator’s skill in exploiting their shared knowledge of local
personalities, satirized as Daba goes the round of the chiefs, and of the
ludicrous way some people carry on, held up to mockery in Daba’s absurdly
extreme personality.
I had also rather assumed that in focusing on stories, I had managed
to select a core linguistic genre: narrative, close to ‘ordinary speech’ and

8

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

thus somehow basic in a way that their songs and more overtly ‘artistic’
behaviour were not. I tacitly congratulated myself on that, feeling it took
me direct into something primary about their language. But I came to
acknowledge that story-telling was no more nor less ‘natural’ than any
other genre. It too had its own speech conventions. Nor was there anything
special about either narrative or (so-called) ‘prose’ that gave them any more
seminal or objective status than anything else. All cultures, I had to accept,
recognize a variety of ‘speech genres’, as Bakhtin (1986) famously had it,
each with their own poetics.
Not that everything about a cognitive view of language seemed wrong.
But both from fieldwork experience and more comparative work on
literacy and communication media more generally, I became doubtful
how far that set of preconceptions could adequately illuminate either
the Limba experience or human culture as it was realized in practice.
And if so, the data necessary for documenting a language would seem to
involve not primarily matters to do with ‘its’ abstract linguistic system,
translateable cognitive meaning or supposedly ‘primary’ forms such as
narrative or conversation, but data from and about the full range of
recognized genres. It would have to cover the near-unending and diverse
ways people used and enacted language: for art, action, reflection, play or
whatever.
An impossible project? But might aiming at anything less risk invoking a
seriously incomplete model of language?

Where are the boundaries?
And amid all those puzzles, I have also become unclear how to divide
language from other (but are they other?) modes of human expression. One
uncertainty still dogging me is the relation between music and language.
Some cases are perhaps clearly one or the other, but where, if anywhere,
does the line come?
Take intonation. I originally assumed that this was to do with individual
words or sentences and, as such, a relatively accepted, if limited, dimension
in some (perhaps not all) approaches to language. Thus, in the Limba stories
I recorded, I took it that intonation was effective in particular phrases and
how they were delivered, but not of much interest in the narration more
widely. But I changed my mind when, unexpectedly, I was played an audio
recording of a Mossi story from some hundreds of miles away, in a very
different West African language. I knew no Mossi, so listened to the sounds.
I was amazed to hear familiar intonational and rhythmic patterning in long
passages of the telling. It could have been a Limba performance. I had not
noticed before how part of the characterization of the genre was its sonic
shaping.

What is the art of language?

9

A similar point applies in the comparative study of oral poetry. Not only
are there many varieties of rhythmically and sonically patterned delivery,
delineating both particular generic conventions and unique performance
attributes, but some poems are performed in a way that means they could
equally well be described either as ‘sung poetry’ or as ‘vocal music’ – or,
indeed, as ‘song’. In these performed genres, enacted by single or multiple
voices, sometimes instrumentally embellished too, should I really be
endeavouring to separate ‘linguistic’ from ‘musical’ elements, and if so
how? The same applied in the urban music-making I studied in both Fiji
and England – tearing apart the ‘song texts’ (as, like many other scholars, I
often found myself doing … ) was in practice to mangle the songs’ reality.
It is true that in some cultural contexts a music/language division seems
self-evident. In the European high art song tradition of ‘text-setting’, words
and music are indeed in a sense separated, then artificially, as it were – or
at any rate, by artifice – brought together. But it has in fact been urged
for some time that the apparent distinction between language and music
would be better represented as a continuum rather than dichotomy (for the
relatively few analyses of this issue see List 1963 and, more recently, Feld
and Fox 1994, Banti and Giannatasio 2004, Finnegan 2006). In practice it
is near impossible to drive a clear wedge between the multifarious modes of
vocal expression: speaking, intoning, chanting, recitative, melodic singing,
and so much else. Ethnocentric too, given that the classifications of different
cultures vary. Even in Western experience the classical Greek mousiké originally had a different coverage from the modern ‘music’, for it encompassed
what we would now differentiate as music, poetry and dance, while the
medieval musica covered spoken as well as sung performance, with little
idea, apparently, of words and music as ‘separate expressive media that one
could choose to unify or not’ (Treitler 2003: 47).
Indeed, even in modern times can one really divide up the music and the
language of vocal performance, whether T. S. Eliot declaiming his poetry,
Edith Sitwell chanting her Façade, a fine reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
or a contemporary rap or dub performance? All these resonate through the
sounding voice as people deploy an unending wealth of sonic resources in
their vocal utterances.
So should the melodic and rhythmic qualities of performed vocal utterances – what some might separate out as ‘music’ – be appropriate data for
language documentation? How far to include them depends on where and
whether we are prepared to draw a boundary between music and language
– and that, it seems, is far from unambiguous or culturally neutral.
Problems about boundaries do not just relate to audition, as is sometimes
assumed from too enthusiastically embracing the concept of ‘oral’/‘orality’.
As I learnt from watching Limba narrators, performers can also draw strikingly on visual resources. Not just in Limba contexts – the setting which
first most directly alerted me – but, I now realize, in communication more
generally, people make use of gesture, facial expression, eye glances, bodily



Where is Language?

Where is Language?
An Anthropologist’s
Questions on Language,
Literature and
Performance
By Ruth Finnegan

Bloomsbury Academic
An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Bloomsbury Academic
An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

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BLOOMSBURY and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
First published 2015
© Ruth Finnegan, 2015
Ruth Finnegan has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988,
to be identified as Author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any
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To the evergreen memory of Gerhardt Baumann who would have liked
and, as is right, argued with this book. We will never forget you.

CONTENTS

Preface
Acknowledgements

ix
x

1 What is the art of language?

1

2 Playing with the heroes of human history

15

3 ‘Artisting the self’: A tale of personal story

27

4 Forget the words …: It’s performance!

53

5 Reclothing the ‘oral’

63

6 Song. What comes first: words, music, or performance? 85
7 Competence and performance: Was Chomsky right
after all?

107

8 Poem and story: The arts of dreaming and waking to
sweet words

115

9 Where is literature?

127

Further reading
Bibliography
Index

143
147
161

PREFACE

What could be greater than linguistic expression for narrating the deep
story of our identities, clothing our emotions in beautiful language, using
the modalities of our bodies to communicate and embellish our words,
formulating the lyrics of songs or our dreams into narrative? And yet, like
‘time’ for Saint Augustine, what, when we come to think of it, is so little
understood?
A host of puzzles face us when we do come to think about it. Do we,
in our Western way, exaggerate the significance of what we term language
– above all, our particular form of language, alphabetic literacy, ‘the tool
of conquest’? Are not other modes as profound, perhaps ‘divine’ as some
would put it, and, above all, is it only a Western cultural trait to see verbalizing as the greatest art of all?
We need a more multiplex, challenging, but more contextually situated
understanding of language, literature and performance. And if the search
involves challenging some accepted stereotypes, this is scarcely too high
a price to pay for a greater understanding, controversial as it may be, of
phenomena so apparently crucial to our humanity.
The present volume represents the fruit of a lifetime’s puzzling over the
subject, reinforced by my desire – need – to set the issues, as far as in me
lie, in some kind of cross-cultural perspective. So I start here, as do most
scholars, anthropologists included (we are not just creatures of fieldwork
or the exotic), from a closely interested reading of the literature, beginning
with the ancient classics, followed by intensive reading and fieldwork
in three continents. The results have also drawn (of course) on primary
evidence, including the field research of both myself and others, interpreted
in the light of the comparative material from throughout the world and the
centuries. The two inform each other.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Some of the ideas (but not necessarily the expression) behind the account
here have, not unnaturally, appeared in other publications before now,
although their conflation and articulation are unique to this volume. So
let me, as is courteous, mention in particular Compétence et Performance,
Karthala; International Journal of Learning; Language Description and
Documentation; Newsletter of British Association for Applied Linguistics;
Oral Tradition; Palavra Cantada: Ensaios sobre Poesia, Música e Voz, 7
Letras; Consumption and Everyday Life, Sage; Technology, Literacy and
the Evolution of Society, Erlbaum; The Art of English: Literary Creativity,
Palgrave Macmillan.
On a more personal level I owe great gratitude to the librarians and
colleagues at my long-time institution the Open University, of which I am
proud to have been a founder member (too many to name individually, but
you know who you are – still so kind even to an old lag like myself). My
thanks too to the unknown readers for the press who not only encouraged
me to persevere but markedly improved the clarity and coherence of this
offering. Of other individuals – again too many to name – let me merely
thank my dear husband David, always beside me, and, in abiding memory,
Gerhardt Baumann to whom this book is dedicated; he would no doubt
have fixed on all its minor inaccuracies (I hope there are not too many) and
any typos that have escaped the excellent Bloomsbury process – but would
nevertheless have welcomed it with his inimitable smile.

1
What is the art of language?

It is common to assume we know what language is and what is needed to
capture and describe it; hence, by implication, what ‘language’ in essence is.
But there are many contending theories, too easily forgotten in the understandable rush to document and describe. These need to be considered at
the outset, above all the performance approach to linguistic action entailed
in pragmatic perspectives, and the issue of how and for whom linguistic
accounts are constructed in the first place.
I too was once confident of what ‘language’ was, where its boundaries lay,
and hence what might count as data for documenting it. But I am no longer
sure. Nor am I clear where information about a given language should be
found, or how, by, and for whom a language should be documented.
My uncertainties are founded in my own puzzles over the many years
that I’ve worked, mainly as an anthropologist, on aspects of unwritten
literature, performance and communication, based both in comparative
reading and fieldwork in Africa and Britain (Finnegan 1967, 1970, 1977,
1988, 1989, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2007). Within that limited experience, I
find that the issues I have confronted are unexpectedly (to me) relevant for
the understanding of the nature of language and how to capture it, whether
in our contemporary world or in the so-called ‘vanishing’ cultures.
What I offer here are some informal reflections, not any pretence of a
scholarly or theoretical disquisition.1 I write not as a specialist linguist nor

1 Given the personal setting of this introductory chapter there are many references to
my own work, unclothed furthermore by the decencies of systematic citations throughout.
But since my personal experience is of course interrelated with changing and contending
approaches to language and communication, let me mention that works I have at various times
found especially illuminating include Austin 1962, Bakhtin 1986, Bauman 1977, Bauman
and Sherzer 1989, Bauman and Briggs 1990, 2003, Clark 1996, Cummings 2010, Dalby
1999/2000, Duranti 2004, Gippert et al. 2006, Hanks 1996, Harris 1987, 1998, Harris and
Wolf 1998, Hodge and Kress 1993, Hymes 1977, Robinson 2006, Tracey 1999, Verschueren
2009, Verschueren and Östman 2009. Some issues touched on here are considered in more
fully referenced framework in Finnegan 2002/14, 2007.

2

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

as someone with any expertise in documenting languages, but merely about
my experience of becoming increasingly doubtful of my initially confident
assumptions about just where in the great spectrum of human communicating and expression we are to find ‘language’.
My first degree was in Classics – Greek and Latin. At that point I ‘knew’
what language was – or rather, I didn’t need to know because it seemed
self-evident. It was what came in written texts. Written texts were the prime
sources that had come down to us from classical antiquity, transmitted in
the manuscript tradition and with, of course, no audio records of speech.
The texts we read and studied were wonderful and enriching, covering a
wide range of genres: literary, historical, epistolatory, oratorical, lyrical
and much else. Both drawn from and supporting this corpus of texts was
the extensive apparatus of vocabulary, of grammar and of syntax, all
once again encapsulated in writing in the form of dictionaries of words
(usually offering equivalencies in some European language) and accounts
of grammatical and syntactical rules. The written words, organized in the
correct classic formulations – that was ultimately what language was.
This emphasis on the textual and written was not totally unqualified.
Archaeology – the study of material remains – played a part, and some
scholars (like Eduard Fraenkel from Germany) went beyond the printed page
to read aloud a Catullus love poem or (W. B. Stanford from Ireland) engaged
with the acoustic dimensions of Greek lyric meters. There was an established
tradition, though not within the examination curriculum, of live performances of Greek plays or of reading Homer aloud. But the paradigm was
indubitably of the centrality of written text both as the object of what was
studied and the medium in which such study was appropriately expressed.
From this viewpoint, documenting a little-known language (i.e. one
unwritten-about philologically) would entail finding and pinning down
its essential constituent: texts that could be read, analysed and form
the basis for identifying underlying rules. The texts might have to be
snared by transcribing spoken words into writing. But ultimately those
resultant scripts, together with a similar scholarly apparatus as for classical
languages, would form the necessary documentation data. Language was
capturable and realized in the communication technology dominant in the
mid-twentieth century and earlier – writing – and it was ultimately there
that the data could be recognized.

Emerging doubts …
Things began to look different when, as a graduate, I embarked on anthropological studies, followed ineluctably by my first piece of fieldwork. This
was in the early 1960s among a people called the Limba, in northern Sierra
Leone. My focus came to be on their stories and story-telling, an interest

What is the art of language?

3

that followed on well from my enthusiasm for literary texts in my earlier
studies. I was hugely impressed by the many story-telling performances I
experienced there and wanted to make that aspect of Limba culture the
central core for my thesis and subsequent publications.
My initial presupposition was that the way to study these stories – and
most certainly the way to present them in my doctoral dissertation – was to
capture them as written text. That, after all, was surely where their reality
lay, and the medium in which I and other scholars possessed the necessary
analytic tools. There seemed no other proper way to pin them down for
scholarly study.
So some of the stories I transformed, directly, into script by taking them
down from dictation. Many others I recorded on one of the (relatively)
portable tape recorders then available. The obvious next step was to
transcribe from tape into written lines on a page in similar format to the
classical texts I and others were accustomed to.
My thesis could then take the familiar form of introductory background
and analysis followed by the key data: parallel texts in Limba and English
translation. It consequently ran to three large volumes (I still remember
their weight as I lugged the required three copies of each through Oxford
by bicycle, then up the steps to the examinations schools). I assumed – as,
apparently, did my examiners – that the substantive data, the corpus of
texts, had to be there in my presentation.
But there was a problem. I had been greatly struck by the richness and
subtlety of these narrations, and in my thesis tried to convey something of
their artistry. But that had somehow melted away in the stories I presented.
At one point, trying to demonstrate why I was so enthusiastic, I showed
one of the texts to a friend from my classical days, expecting him to be
impressed. He read through and rejoined – politely – ‘Oh yes, another of
those charming African animal tales’, to my mind missing all its wonders.
The point is of course only too obvious, though it took me some time
to appreciate it fully. The reality lay in the performance. It was this that
the written texts had failed to capture. They missed the subtle characterizations, the drama, the way the tellers used volume, pitch, tempo, repetition,
emphasis, dynamics, silence, timbre, onomatopoeia, and a whole plethora
of non-verbal indications to convey humour, pathos, irony, atmosphere
… The written forms could never replicate the ideophones that peppered
the tellings – vivid little mini-images in sound and more than sound. Nor
could unilinear textual layout show the many-voiced interaction and
co-construction by the audience as they joined in songs led by the narrator
or reacted with horror or laughter to key turns in the tale. Nor, either, did
it capture the Limba practice of picking out one among the audience as
the ‘replier’ – a second voice to give special support, prompting, echoing
and, where needed, exaggerated reactions and response. Compressing this
multidimensional and multi-participant performance within the narrow
one-voiced medium of writing was to miss its substance.

4

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

I soon discovered that similar patterns were found elsewhere – obvious
once you look, but for long concealed from me (and others) by the presupposed centrality of written text. The study of oral poetry, performance, and
‘oral literature’ more generally, hammered home the same point. Both in
Africa and further afield, those creating performed literary art deploy not
just writable words but a vast range of non-verbalized auditory devices
of which those conventionally captured in written text, such as rhyme,
alliteration and rhythm, are only a small sample. The wondrously varied
expressive resources of the human voice are exploited for multifarious
delivery modes, varying with genre, situation or performer: spoken, sung,
recited, intoned, shouted, whispered, carried by single or multiple or alternating voices. Not just in faraway places but in the spoken and sung forms
nearer home too, there turned out to be near-infinite combinations of vocal
expression and auditory resources of which most escape from view on the
written page.
I had to conclude, then, that the core lay not in written text after all but
in the performance. And that included the setting, the delivery, and not just
the ‘lead’ speaker but the full range of participants. All this showed up the
contentious nature of my earlier ‘language-as-written-text’ model. This was
reinforced by ongoing trends in the study of verbal expression, not least the
performance-oriented approaches and ethnography of speaking in folklore
and anthropology – stressing performance and process rather than text and
product – as well as more recent developments in linguistic anthropology,
sociolinguistics and performance studies. At the same time interdisciplinary
interests in oral performance and in ‘orality’ more generally were, and are,
flourishing, opening up a new vision of the nature of human communication and expression previously concealed by the focus on the written.
This turned me towards seeing language as ultimately something spoken,
performed, oral. It no longer seemed to be existent essentially in written
text but in active performance and interaction. And if so, language
documentation would have to be approached very differently than from the
familiar written-text perspective. For it would have to focus on audio, not
just written, materials, and to include records and analyses of oral performances and (where relevant) their multiplicity of overlapping participants.
Such data would not only count, but be essential.

Plunging into the ‘oral’
Acknowledging the limitations of a written-text model of language is
hopefully by now scarcely problematic. Audio recordings are nowadays
widely accepted as a regular (though perhaps not universal) part of serious
language documentation. I would like to add two further comments,
however, about the implications.

What is the art of language?

5

First, a qualification. The move away from the written to the ‘oral’
sometimes jumps to the opposite extreme, envisaging the spoken as
somehow the bedrock, natural, traditional, to be set against the artificial
imposition of writing. A seminal Western myth sometimes lurks behind
this, constantly challenged but also constantly recycled. In ways more
fully explored in the next chapter, this posits a fundamental opposition
between two mutually exclusive types of social and cognitive organization:
the one literate, rational, scientific, civilized, Western, modern; the other
communal, emotional, non-scientific, traditional, primitive – and oral. This
has underpinned a trend to mystify ‘orality’ and the ‘oral’ as if something
distinctive and separate: characteristic of a culture belonging prototypically
to the ‘them’ of far away or long ago and one in which writing, even if in
certain respects present, is intrinsically alien (and to be ignored). This is
a set of assumptions I have long found myself struggling against and one
which no doubt also crops up – controversially – in certain approaches to
language documentation.
In other ways, however, the analysis of the oral and performed dimensions of language has, paradoxically, not been taken far enough. The
vocabulary to capture the amazing use of the voice with its huge range of
subtleties is relatively little developed, and the sonic elements of language
are still often sidelined. But if we are to document the auditory practice of
language, then the data to count would need to cover not just rules about
phonetics, word forms or (limited elements of) prosody but its active sonic
realization in such features as, for example, pacing and speed, volume,
pitch, melody, rhythm, onomatopoeia, voice quality, timbre, mood, mix
with other voices and sounds – or silences, distancing, vocalized sounds
like sobs, sighs or laughter … and so much else. Data about tone or
prosody would have to include not just smaller units like words, phrases
or sentences but also the sonic patternings of larger chunks and of speech
genres more widely. It’s true that such elements sometimes get mentioned
under the heading of ‘paralinguistic’ or ‘extralinguistic’ elements, but
in an oral-performance model of language these are not supplementary
extras but intrinsic. A Martian anthropologist might well be puzzled by
a demarcation which included some auditory elements in the delineation
of language but excluded others which can equally form part of both the
conventions and the unique personality communicated through human
vocal utterance.
So though the importance of audio features may now be increasingly
taken for granted in documenting languages, helped by the audio technologies which now facilitate the recording, storage and accessing of such data,
has this yet been fully followed through? Documenting the oral is inevitably
enormously complex; nor, despite the wizardries of modern technology,
have we really developed adequate techniques, vocabularies or perhaps
concepts to fully capture and analyse these inevitably more fleeting and
temporal performed features.

6

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

Small wonder, perhaps, that the written model of language is so extraordinarily persistent, with its implicit suggestion that data doesn’t quite
‘exist’ until it is reduced to, transcribed as, transformed into, or analysed
through the spatial solidity of writing and print. As Hodge and Kress well
put it: ‘The distinctive resources of spoken communication which are not
transcribed are eliminated from linguistic theory’ (1993: 11). Even when we
accept a view of language as sounded and performed, we still too often fall
comfortably back into a model in which the true reality – and the key data
– reside in visually written textualizations rather than vocal enunciation.

Cognitive models
My Limba fieldwork brought me face to face not just with story-telling
performance but also with the active way that Limba speakers used vocal
utterances to do things. This, I gradually discovered, ran counter to a
further implicit model of language that, if only in a vague and muddled
way, I had also had at the back of my mind.
This was a set of somewhat contradictory and elusive assumptions,
which could indeed be split apart but which nevertheless tended to
come together in a kind of general mindset which I’d sum up under the
label of ‘cognitive’. Basically I pictured language as something essentially
mental, rational, decontextualized. Language was to do with mind and
meaning, and its central function was referential. Artistry and rhetoric
were secondary embellishments only to be considered once the core prose
and information-bearing elements were grasped. Language might or might
not constitute an independent rule-governed system existing autonomously
in its own right – I vaguely assumed that it did – but it certainly could be
assumed to have a structure that could be abstracted from the messiness of
context, usage and social action or experience.
Of course I should already have known that this was not the whole
story, both from my own experience and from my encounter with the
multiplicity of classical genres. Even so, I was still somehow steeped in that
set of preconceptions. It had been reinforced in part by the legacy of logical
positivism still influential in my undergraduate years at Oxford (though
tempered by Austin’s lectures on ‘performative utterances’ which were
much to influence me subsequently). More radically, as I came to realize, it
was a continuance of an ideology powerful in Western thought over several
centuries which asserted the rationality of language and its relation to
science, objectivity, civilization, literacy and, ultimately, the achievements
of the West.
In some ways it was a serviceable model for a field situation. My
language learning had indeed initially relied on the presupposition of a
systematic vocabulary and grammar that I could learn independently of

What is the art of language?

7

the pressures of spoken situations. There was a short missionary-compiled
Limba dictionary, a couple of translated gospels, and two short articles
based on data from an overseas Limba visitor, elicited and analysed by a
linguist (Jack Berry) then at the School of Oriental and African Studies in
London, all of which I found hugely helpful.
This all fitted both my preconceptions about the systematized and
meaning-carrying nature of language and where to find data about it, and
my conviction that meaning could be conveyed cross-culturally and out of
context. Language as the repository of thought offered the potential for
its ‘translation’, a channel by which minds could be brought into contact
across space and time. It was through language that Limba stories could
be transported to others as text – something which I indeed aspired to do
through my verbal translations.
My aim was not to document language as such, whether that of Limba
speakers or any others. But if it had been, I would doubtless have started
from the assumption that the core data would be found in the information-carrying forms, in ‘plain prose’ sentences and the logical structure
underlying them; also that I would have to produce clear translations and
word-for-word equivalences to enable the direct transference of meaning
from this lesser-known culture into some accessible European language.
Greater experience of Limba life somewhat undermined that set of
preconceptions. I could not really miss the way Limba speakers used
speaking as organized action and performance rather than, or as well as,
for conveying meaning. They used language to do things rather than just
describe them: to recognize and forge relationships, ratify contracts, issue
orders, assert a position, strike an attitude, show off as performer.
Further, in some interchanges, and even in some Limba stories, the
cognitive ‘content’ as it were – the meaning I had assumed I could transfer
– was not after all the only, or in some cases even apparently the most
important, element. I think, for example, of one ridiculous short story I
recorded about a fictional character called Daba, an incorrigible snuff-taker.
All that happened in it was that Daba went round the local chiefs badgering
them to give him vast quantities of snuff, then finally overreached himself
by taking a huge sniff and falling down dead: nothing to it really. And
yet this was hugely successful with the audience, who were rolling with
merriment. It was told by one of the most admired local tellers and was
among the liveliest narrations I encountered, subtle as well as hilarious. Its
success lay not in its plot but in the teller’s brilliant performance and the
audience’s active co-creation and singing as Daba sniffed and sniffed again,
also in the narrator’s skill in exploiting their shared knowledge of local
personalities, satirized as Daba goes the round of the chiefs, and of the
ludicrous way some people carry on, held up to mockery in Daba’s absurdly
extreme personality.
I had also rather assumed that in focusing on stories, I had managed
to select a core linguistic genre: narrative, close to ‘ordinary speech’ and

8

WHERE IS LANGUAGE?

thus somehow basic in a way that their songs and more overtly ‘artistic’
behaviour were not. I tacitly congratulated myself on that, feeling it took
me direct into something primary about their language. But I came to
acknowledge that story-telling was no more nor less ‘natural’ than any
other genre. It too had its own speech conventions. Nor was there anything
special about either narrative or (so-called) ‘prose’ that gave them any more
seminal or objective status than anything else. All cultures, I had to accept,
recognize a variety of ‘speech genres’, as Bakhtin (1986) famously had it,
each with their own poetics.
Not that everything about a cognitive view of language seemed wrong.
But both from fieldwork experience and more comparative work on
literacy and communication media more generally, I became doubtful
how far that set of preconceptions could adequately illuminate either
the Limba experience or human culture as it was realized in practice.
And if so, the data necessary for documenting a language would seem to
involve not primarily matters to do with ‘its’ abstract linguistic system,
translateable cognitive meaning or supposedly ‘primary’ forms such as
narrative or conversation, but data from and about the full range of
recognized genres. It would have to cover the near-unending and diverse
ways people used and enacted language: for art, action, reflection, play or
whatever.
An impossible project? But might aiming at anything less risk invoking a
seriously incomplete model of language?

Where are the boundaries?
And amid all those puzzles, I have also become unclear how to divide
language from other (but are they other?) modes of human expression. One
uncertainty still dogging me is the relation between music and language.
Some cases are perhaps clearly one or the other, but where, if anywhere,
does the line come?
Take intonation. I originally assumed that this was to do with individual
words or sentences and, as such, a relatively accepted, if limited, dimension
in some (perhaps not all) approaches to language. Thus, in the Limba stories
I recorded, I took it that intonation was effective in particular phrases and
how they were delivered, but not of much interest in the narration more
widely. But I changed my mind when, unexpectedly, I was played an audio
recording of a Mossi story from some hundreds of miles away, in a very
different West African language. I knew no Mossi, so listened to the sounds.
I was amazed to hear familiar intonational and rhythmic patterning in long
passages of the telling. It could have been a Limba performance. I had not
noticed before how part of the characterization of the genre was its sonic
shaping.

What is the art of language?

9

A similar point applies in the comparative study of oral poetry. Not only
are there many varieties of rhythmically and sonically patterned delivery,
delineating both particular generic conventions and unique performance
attributes, but some poems are performed in a way that means they could
equally well be described either as ‘sung poetry’ or as ‘vocal music’ – or,
indeed, as ‘song’. In these performed genres, enacted by single or multiple
voices, sometimes instrumentally embellished too, should I really be
endeavouring to separate ‘linguistic’ from ‘musical’ elements, and if so
how? The same applied in the urban music-making I studied in both Fiji
and England – tearing apart the ‘song texts’ (as, like many other scholars, I
often found myself doing … ) was in practice to mangle the songs’ reality.
It is true that in some cultural contexts a music/language division seems
self-evident. In the European high art song tradition of ‘text-setting’, words
and music are indeed in a sense separated, then artificially, as it were – or
at any rate, by artifice – brought together. But it has in fact been urged
for some time that the apparent distinction between language and music
would be better represented as a continuum rather than dichotomy (for the
relatively few analyses of this issue see List 1963 and, more recently, Feld
and Fox 1994, Banti and Giannatasio 2004, Finnegan 2006). In practice it
is near impossible to drive a clear wedge between the multifarious modes of
vocal expression: speaking, intoning, chanting, recitative, melodic singing,
and so much else. Ethnocentric too, given that the classifications of different
cultures vary. Even in Western experience the classical Greek mousiké originally had a different coverage from the modern ‘music’, for it encompassed
what we would now differentiate as music, poetry and dance, while the
medieval musica covered spoken as well as sung performance, with little
idea, apparently, of words and music as ‘separate expressive media that one
could choose to unify or not’ (Treitler 2003: 47).
Indeed, even in modern times can one really divide up the music and the
language of vocal performance, whether T. S. Eliot declaiming his poetry,
Edith Sitwell chanting her Façade, a fine reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
or a contemporary rap or dub performance? All these resonate through the
sounding voice as people deploy an unending wealth of sonic resources in
their vocal utterances.
So should the melodic and rhythmic qualities of performed vocal utterances – what some might separate out as ‘music’ – be appropriate data for
language documentation? How far to include them depends on where and
whether we are prepared to draw a boundary between music and language
– and that, it seems, is far from unambiguous or culturally neutral.
Problems about boundaries do not just relate to audition, as is sometimes
assumed from too enthusiastically embracing the concept of ‘oral’/‘orality’.
As I learnt from watching Limba narrators, performers can also draw strikingly on visual resources. Not just in Limba contexts – the setting which
first most directly alerted me – but, I now realize, in communication more
generally, people make use of gesture, facial expression, eye glances, bodily

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