Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America

Article excerpt

Robert Bringhurst, Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America (Winnipeg: Voice of Rupert's Land, 2004). 56pp. Paper. $12. ISBN 0-9210-9817-0.

Robert Bringhurst, the celebrated Canadian poet, typographer, linguist and expert in Native American culture, takes an unashamedly anti-poststructuralist line in his 2002 Belcourt Lecture. Now expanded and published in booklet form, the address ostensibly focuses on form and meaning in indigenous North American oral narratives. Theoretically, however, Bringhurst challenges a number of linguistic, cultural and ethnopoetic assumptions. By setting up a model of language, prosody and narrative that draws on biological paradigms, he deftly reintroduces notions of 'the natural' and of global humanity into the study of cultural difference. His case for revising the scope of linguistics as a discipline is neatly put, as is his claim for re-establishing the intimate bonds between language and literature in Native Studies. Nonetheless, the lecture's basic conclusion - 'What is speaking . . . is not just a person and a culture but humanity' (p. 49) - has been misappropriated in the past to the detriment of native cultures in a way that Bringhurst himself critiques early in the piece.

The argument begins with an analysis of the ulterior motives behind early approaches to Native American languages and stories. By mapping native words (and hence native epistemologies) onto Indo-European linguistic grids and by sanitising and correcting stories through translation, missionaries and governments could control and manage Native American cultures, filtering these to European audiences as comprehensible. …