Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Sung and Spoken: An Analysis of Two Different Versions of a Kun-Barlang Love Song

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Sung and Spoken: An Analysis of Two Different Versions of a Kun-Barlang Love Song

Article excerpt

Abstract: In examining a sung version and a spoken version of a Kun-barlang love song text recorded by Alice Moyle in 1962, I outline the context and overall structure of the song, then provide a detailed comparative analysis of the two versions. I draw some preliminary conclusions about the nature of Kun-barlang song language, particularly in relation to the rhythmic setting of words in song texts and the use of vocables as structural markers.


In 1962 Alice Moyle recorded two versions of a Kun-barlang love song text: a sung version and a spoken version (Moyle 1997). (1) The song belongs to a genre of individually owned public love songs in western Arnhem Land, usually referred to by the term kun-borrk. (2) Like other kun-borrk song sets (Garde 2006), Kun-barlang love songs are sung predominantly in everyday language, although they sometimes contain 'song words' or 'spirit language'. (3) The particular song discussed here is in everyday Kun-barlang, which allows for a detailed comparison of the words in the sung and spoken versions. The fact that differences exist between the spoken and sung versions of Aboriginal song texts has been widely recognised by researchers, (4) and provides the potential to compare song language and everyday language. Although this brief comparison of the two versions of the Kun-barlang love song shows that the texts are very similar phonologically and morphosyntactically, detailed comparison of the texts shows differences in the forms of the texts. An examination of these differences provides insights into the way the text is structured and set rhythmically in song.

Like Kuninjku kun-borrk songs (Garde 2006), this Kun-barlang love song text features typical referential ellipsis, but Aboriginal consultants I have worked with identify a narrative with two characters--one man and one woman. (5) The first line is attributed to the man, speaking to the woman, and the rest of the utterances are attributed to the woman, speaking to the man. (6) A brief synopsis of the narrative contained in the song's text is: The man tells the woman to fetch water and grabs her arm. She tells him not to grab her arm and accuses him of not listening and of having no shame. The reason for the woman's utterances is expressed in the penultimate line: 'You're the one who is the wrong skin for me' (7) and she ends dramatically: 'Now I'm going to die, I'll forget about breathing.'

Several different versions of this Kun-barlang love song exist, as shown in Table 1.

I focus on the first two recordings 1 and 2 above, the sung and spoken versions recorded by Alice Moyle in 1962 (Moyle 1997). These two versions provide interesting data because they are both full versions of the song text and the person singing and speaking is the same. There are some problems in comparing the two versions, however, because the spoken version is hyper-articulated, while the sung text displays considerable lenition, characteristic of song. Because of this, I have not analysed the differences in phonetic realisation between the two versions and my transcription of the sung text does not attempt to show different realisations of words, such as vowel quality. (12) Rather, I focus on the differences in form, particularly the addition of vocables and the deletion and substitution of words in the sung version. The first part outlines the context, composers and performers of the song. The second part examines the musical and textual structure followed by a more detailed examination of the rhythmic setting of the words within this structure. This, in turn, is followed by a systematic line-by-line analysis of the song, in which the differences in form between the two versions are highlighted. These observations are drawn together to present preliminary conclusions that will be important for future research.


The Kun-barlang love song analysed here belongs to a genre of individually owned public love songs in western Arnhem Land, referred to in the related Bininj Kun-wok dialects as kun-borrk. …

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