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PERFORMANCE ANALYSIS: ETHNOPOETICS

Performance analysis involves the search for regularities in the delivery of highly stylized narratives, like folk tales, sermons, and political speeches. Ethnopoetics is performance analysis applied to oral literature.

In 1977, Dell Hymes reported that ‘‘the narratives of the Chinookan peoples of Oregon and Washington can be shown to be organized in terms of lines, verses, stanzas, scenes, and what many call acts.’’ Hymes felt that this discovery might be relevant to many indigenous languages of the Americas (1977:431). That turned out to be an understatement.

Chinookan is a family of American Indian languages from the northwest coast of North America. Shoalwater Chinook and Kathlamet Chinook are two mutually unintelligible languages (related in the way French and Spanish are both Romance languages), but Franz Boas had run into an informant who was fluent in both Shoalwater and Kathlamet and had collected texts in both languages between 1890 and 1894. Hymes examined those texts as well as texts from Clackamas Chinook (collected in 1930 and 1931 by Melville Jacobs) and in Wasco-Wishram Chinook (collected by Sapir in 1905, by Hymes in the 1950s, and by Michael Silverstein in the 1960s and 1970s).

What Hymes found was that features of Chinook that might have seemed idiosyncratic to the speakers of those three Chinook languages—Shoalwater, Kathlamet, and Clackamas Chinook—were actually ‘‘part of a common fabric of performance style,’’ so that the three languages ‘‘share a common form of poetic organization” (Hymes 1977:431) (box 18.2).

BOX 18.2

A THEORY OF ETHNOPOETICS

Hymes's discovery was truly important. It made clear once and for all that Native American texts have something to contribute to a general theory of poetics and literature. Hymes discovered the existence of verses, by recognizing repetition within a block of text. ''Covariation between form and meaning,'' said Hymes, ''between units with a recurrent Chinookan pattern of narrative organization, is the key'' (1977:438).

In some texts, Hymes found recurrent linguistic elements that made the task easy. Linguists who have worked with precisely recorded texts in Native American languages have noticed the recurrence of elements like ''Now,'' ''Then,'' ''Now then,'' and ''Now again'' at the beginning of sentences. These kinds of things often signal the separation of verses. The trick is to recognize them and the method is to look for ''abstract features that co-occur with the use of initial particle pairs in the narratives'' of other speakers who use initial particle pairs. The method, then, is a form of controlled comparison (1977:439).

In a series of articles and books (1976, 1977, 1980a, 1980b, 1981), Hymes showed that most Native American texts of narrative performance (going back to the early texts collected by Boas and his students and continuing in today’s narrative performance by American Indians as well) are organized into verses and stanzas that are aggregated into groups of either fives and threes or fours and twos. Boas and his students organized the narratives of American Indians into lines.

According to Virginia Hymes, this hid from view ‘‘a vast world of poetry waiting to be released by those of us with some knowledge of the languages’’ (1987:65). Dell Hymes’s method, according to Virginia Hymes, involves ‘‘working back and forth between content and form, between organization at the level of the whole narrative and at the level of the details of lines within a single verse or even words within a line’’ (1987:67-68). Gradually, an analysis emerges that reflects the analyst’s understanding of the larger narrative tradition and of the particular narrator.

This emergent analysis doesn’t happen miraculously. It is, Virginia Hymes reminds us, only through close work with many narratives by many narrators that you develop an understanding of the narrative devices that people use in a particular language and the many ways they use those little devices (1987).

But all this depends on having texts—lots of them, like those that Boas and his students left us—marked for features like voice quality, loudness, pausing, intonation, stress, and nonphonemic vowel length (Hymes 1977:452-53).

 
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