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The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice

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The accomplishments and enduring influence of renowned anthropologist Dell Hymes are showcased in these essays by leading practitioners in the field. Hymes (1927–2009) is arguably best known for his pioneering work in ethnopoetics, a studied approach to Native verbal art that elucidates cultural significance and aesthetic form. As these essays amply demonstrate, nearly six decades later ethnopoetics and Hymes’s focus on narrative inequality and voice provide a still valuable critical lens for current research in anthropology and folklore. Through ethnopoetics, so much can be understood in diverse cultural settings and situations: gleaning the voices of individual Koryak storytellers and aesthetic sensibilities from century-old wax cylinder recordings; understanding the similarities and differences between Apache life stories told 58 years apart; how Navajo punning and an expressive device illuminate the work of a Navajo poet; decolonizing Western Mono and Yokuts stories by bringing to the surface the performances behind the texts written down by scholars long ago; and keenly appreciating the potency of language revitalization projects among First Nations communities in the Yukon and northwestern California. Fascinating and topical, these essays not only honor a legacy but also point the way forward.

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1 Reinventing Ethnopoetics

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LISTENING FOR VOICES

Robert Moore

ASSESSING THE LEGACY of Dell Hymes (1927–2009) in ethnopoetics should entail assessing ethnopoetics more broadly, as a “legacy” in its own right within American cultural and linguistic anthropology since the 1960s. For indeed, ethnopoetics in the broad sense emerged more as a movement than as another subfield of (linguistic) anthropology, and it emerged at the same time and among the same generational cohort that produced Reinventing Anthropology (Hymes 1972), “the ‘anti-textbook’ of anthropology’s then mid-career political Left” (Silverstein 2010, 935). Like Reinventing Anthropology, ethnopoetics—the term was coined in 1968 by Jerome Rothenberg (Quasha 1976, 65)—emerged in the context of a generational struggle between practitioners working in a number of different but overlapping fields of inquiry and expressive practice: academic anthropology, folklore, literary criticism, poetry, and what we now call performance art. Today we are separated from this period by at least two (demographic) generations, hence the need to ask, in the conclusion below, what parts of this legacy are still usable and active for students of narrative and other discourse practices today.

 

2 The Patterning of Style: Indices of Performance through Ethnopoetic Analysis of Century-Old Wax Cylinders

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Alexander D. King

ETHNOPOETICS IS PREDICATED on the understanding that form and content are so intertwined that it is impossible to disentangle one from the other. Ethnopoetic analysis thus requires learning the grammatical structures of a story’s original language in order to carry out the necessary close reading of the text. One cannot approach anything like a full analysis of a story without attempting to understand person marking, the tense-mode-aspect system, or other basic grammatical forms and relations in the language of origin. Franz Boas certainly understood this axiom, as is clear from his insistence on the publication of texts in the original language with interlinear glosses as well as free translations. Dell Hymes moved beyond the crib of Boasian linguistics with an attention to quality translations (1981, 2003). I use translations in the plural because the movements are across several frames simultaneously: from one lexico-grammatical frame to another, from one cultural frame to another, and from an oral frame to a written one. The three translations of code, context, and mode are intertwined, of course, as form and content are inseparable. Commentary and criticism of Hymesian ethnopoetics has tended to dwell on the last frame shift—from speech to written verse organized by threes and fives or twos and fours. Translation is more than just choosing the right words or rendering an exotic tongue into English with the right effect. Hymes’s work demonstrates that translation is both possible and desirable.

 

3 “Grow with That, Walk with That”: Hymes, Dialogicality, and Text Collections

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M. Eleanor Nevins

THIS ESSAY REFLECTS upon Dell Hymes’s contribution to dialogic anthropology and to the interpretation of Americanist text collections. I will show how Hymes’s concerns for communicative relativity, genre, and poetics enable new understandings of dialogic relations hidden in the documentary record of the Americanist tradition and in ethnographic research encounters more broadly. Dennis Tedlock (1979) and Bruce Mannheim have identified dialogism as a way to address what they describe as the “phenomenological critique” of anthropology (Mannheim and Tedlock 1995, 3; cf. Fabian 1971). They find promise in bridging the theoretical concerns of Bakhtin with the Americanist tradition’s documentary practice of transcribing stories, songs, speeches, and other long stretches of indigenous consultants’ speech. While I follow them in these respects, I expand the role they assign to the ethnography of speaking. The latter is limited, in their view, by its reliance on synchronic structure and a static, normative relation of competence drawn between individual and collective.

 

4 “The Validity of Navajo Is in Its Sounds”: On Hymes, Navajo Poetry, Punning, and the Recognition of Voice

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Anthony K. Webster

If we are to understand a fair part of linguistic change, comprehend the use of language in speech and verbal art, take account of all the varied speech play in which a competent speaker may indulge, and to which he can respond, we must study his real and lively sense of appropriate connection between sound and meaning.

—Dell Hymes (1960, 112)

WHILE DELL HYMESS (1981, 1996b, 1998, 2003) conception of ethnopoetics often seemed overly focused on recognition of structuring patterns of discourse and their hierarchical relations (e.g., lines, verses, stanzas, acts), another recurring theme in Hymes’s (1979; 1981, 65–76; 1984, 174–76; 1996a; 1998, 19–20; 2000, 299–300; 2003) ethnopoetic work was his concern with expressive or presentational features of language. This focus was most masterfully and famously taken up in his essay “How to Talk Like a Bear in Takelma” (Hymes 1979, later revised in Hymes 1981).1 But as the epigraph illustrates, a concern with expressive features was presaged by his earlier work on the “nexus between sound and meaning” in English sonnets (Hymes 1960, 111). Implicit and often explicit in this work was a critique of a linguistics discipline overly enamored with reference that ignored or erased such expressive features in linguistic descriptions (and thus promoted a monotelic view of language—see Hymes 2000, 334 and 1968, 362).

 

5 Discursive Discriminations in the Representation of Western Mono and Yokuts Stories: Confronting Narrative Inequality and Listening to Indigenous Voices in Central California

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Paul V. Kroskrity

AT THE HEART of folklore’s interest in oral traditions, traditional narratives provide critical resources for the mutually dependent projects of constructing selves and creating communities. But even though all human groups seem to display a penchant for stories, most also live in a world in which it is abundantly clear that not all stories are equally valued, supported, or permitted. This “narrative inequality,” to use a concept created and championed by Dell Hymes (1996), calls attention to disparities of treatment and to disparate evaluations of stories. Oral versus literate, schooled versus unschooled, standard language versus minority language, and elaborated versus restricted code provide a sample of the dichotomies used not only in the ranking of narratives, but in the stratification of their speakers. As noted by Jan Blommaert (2009, 258), Hymes’s “democratic” and ethnographically based “political” theory of language called for students of language and discourse to use their skills not to hierarchize language users but to offer resources to communities in what Hymes (1996, 60) termed a “mediative” manner that would enable them to better understand and use their linguistic and narrative diversity:

 

6 Discovery and Dialogue in Ethnopoetics

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Richard Bauman

SOMETIME IN THE spring or summer of 1965, while I was working on my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, I received a letter from Alan Dundes—a friend from my earlier days in Bloomington—alerting me that one of his Berkeley colleagues was moving to Penn and that I might be interested in what he had to say. That colleague was Dell Hymes. I was already finished with coursework and moving into dissertation mode, but, acting on Alan’s advice, I went back to take a course that Hymes was offering to his new Penn constituency on the Ethnography of Symbolic Forms. That decision turned out to be a life changer, setting me on an intellectual path I have followed ever since.

At the time Hymes came to Penn, the ethnography of speaking—the line of linguistic anthropology that he was working with his former California colleagues to bring into being (Gumperz and Hymes 1964, 1972)—was still in its formative stages, and I was fortunate to get in on the development of this energizing line of inquiry fairly early (Bauman and Sherzer 1974, 1975). The collaborative engagement of folklorists in this enterprise, based in significant measure on our already established commitment to matters of genre and performance (see Hymes 1972), made the partnership with linguistic anthropologists especially attractive. The early seventies were the developmental heyday of what Robert Moore (this volume) calls ethnopoetics1, in which verbal artistry as a situated and emergent accomplishment was a primary focus. To be sure, ethnopoetics2, devoted to the poetic organization of performed texts, was also a part of this project; witness, for example, the inclusion of Dennis Tedlock’s pioneering article on Zuni ethnopoetics in Toward New Perspectives in Folklore (1972), along with Hymes’s (1972) foundational piece, “The Contribution of Folklore to Sociolinguistic Research.” The two lines of ethnopoetics have continued to develop in tandem, though with some degree of divergence in central focus, emphasis, and outreach to adjacent disciplines. But the richness of the conjunctions between the two and the continuing productiveness of Dell Hymes’s synthetic vision are undeniable. One has only to consider the range of conceptual and analytical frameworks drawn from Hymes’s work by the authors of the foregoing essays and their own various alignments to the full synthetic power of Hymes’s work for corroboration.

 

7 The Poetics of Language Revitalization: Text, Performance, and Change

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ETHNOPOETIC PATHWAYS

Gerald L. Carr and Barbra Meek

The term performance has reference to the realization of known traditional material, but the emphasis is on the constitution of a social event, quite likely with emergent properties. . . . Two latter considerations will be essential—the performance as situated in a context [and] the performance as emergent, as unfolding or arising within that context.

—Dell Hymes ([1975] 1981, 81)

COLLECTING TEXTS FROM Native American cultures has been a central part of American anthropology since its Boasian beginnings. The Americanist tradition, as this program has been called by Regna Darnell and others (see Valentine and Darnell 1999), differentiated itself from its British counterpart by emphasizing, among other things, the necessity of creating texts (Malinowski’s [1935] emphasis on collecting texts being a notable exception). This textualizing tradition targeted Native American/First Nation cultures; its adherents were urged on to “salvage ethnography” by the belief that indigenous peoples would soon succumb to the colonizing forces of the US and Canadian governments. Texts—including mythological narratives, life histories, and elicited linguistic paradigms—would provide materials for the documentation of both the culture and the language of the vanishing tribes. But it was not just for archiving the peculiarities of soon-to-be extinct cultures that texts were to be collected. (En)textualizing practices reflect the Americanists’ theoretical focus on studying language and culture together. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Boas and his students amassed a huge number of texts, many of which would be subjected to new analytical tools by later anthropologists.

 

8 Translating Oral Literature in Indigenous Societies: Ethnic Aesthetic Performances in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings

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Sean Patrick O’Neill

IN MANY WAYS, the process of translation is one of the most fundamental concerns within the field of anthropology (Becker 1995; Rubel and Rosman 2003). Even at the outset, one must question the extent to which translation is possible when passing—as anthropologists so often do—between distant and often unrelated languages and cultures. What happens to words and other elements of discourse as they are lifted from one social context and placed in another language, far from the living subjects who once animated these utterances? When it comes to writing up these encounters, every anthropologist is faced with the daunting task of representing these remote worlds of experience in “plain English” or some kind of academic jargon as we attempt to recreate field interactions in new contexts, for audiences who may not share the same cultural background or even speak the same language as the original consultants. Thus, in a deep and abiding way, one wonders how much is lost in the process of translation once the anthropologist departs from the original language and the context of shared life experiences.

 

9 Ethnopoetics and Ideologies of Poetic Truth

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David W. Samuels

I HOLD TWO objectives for the present essay. First, I want to think about the fate of poetic forms in the context of cultural, historical, and spiritual upheaval. My discussion of this fate is based in materials from the Lutheran missionary enterprise on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona, especially the work of the Uplegger family, missionaries in San Carlos from Woodrow Wilson’s administration through Ronald Reagan’s.1 My second objective is to explore the ethical argument implied in the framework of Dell Hymes’s approach to ethnopoetics. The link between these two discussions, in my view, lies in the ways that notions of poetry and notions of truth are caught up in the ethics of both the missionary and the ethnopoetic enterprise. If I may put it briefly at the outset, on the one hand, Lutheran discourses on the truth-value of missionary statements about salvation never escape questions of the poetic and rhetorical forms in which those purported truths are cast. By the same token, Hymesian engagement with poetic form as a culturally coherent expressive presentation of the meaningful world implies a reality-producing force to the appropriately performed utterance.2

 

10 Contested Mobilities: On the Politics and Ethnopoetics of Circulation

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Charles L. Briggs

LIKE FRANZ BOAS and Edward Sapir, Dell Hymes connected linguistic anthropology with social/cultural anthropology. The terms he coined and the perspectives he advanced drew on wider anthropological perspectives, thus bringing linguistic anthropologists into larger conversations and enabling work in linguistic anthropology to gain greater visibility among colleagues with different subdisciplinary allegiances. I would argue that this is precisely the move that has long fostered new spurts of creativity within the subdiscipline and greater visibility for linguistic anthropologists. Work on performance inaugurated in the 1970s by Hymes (1981) and Richard Bauman (1977) energized not only anthropology but also linguistics, communication, and literary studies; the cross-fertilization between linguistic anthropology and folkloristics at this juncture was crucial, as has been true at other points as well. Ideologies of language (Kroskrity 2000; Schieffelin et al. 1998) suddenly transported linguistic anthropology from the relative doldrums of the 1980s to a period when new positions opened up and anthropologists came to see that linguistic anthropologists had a great deal to offer to studies on such topics as colonialism (Hanks 2010; Irvine 2001; Keane 2007), media anthropology (Spitulnik 2002), and more. A crucial feature of these points of intersection is that they did not simply “borrow” from adjacent fields but critically revised concepts in social/cultural anthropology as well as assumptions underpinning linguistic anthropology.

 

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