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

By Paul V. Kroskrity; Anthony K. Webster | Go to book overview

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

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 HYMES’S (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) ethno poetic 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).

Inspired by Hymes’s ethno poetic analysis of expressive and presentational features, this essay takes as its point of departure a poem written in Navajo by contemporary Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim; the poem uses the velar fricative [x] as an expressive feature that indicates an affective stance toward the actions and actors in the poem. This affective

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