What is language and verbal lore?

What is language and verbal lore?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about language and verbal lore with help from scholars J.L. Austin and Richard Bauman, author Frank Herbert, Swedish performers Emma Åslund and Åsa Larsson, and others. I'm also exploring the use of language and verbal lore in storycraft and providing you with an exercise on the topic. Settle in, friends! I squeezed a discussion of conspiracy theories into my newsletter schedule last month, so this is nearly a double edition.

How Folklorists Understand Language and Verbal Lore

In this edition of the newsletter, I'll be introducing you to a bit of performance theory as it relates to language and verbal lore, but I promise not to make it "chewy," as my performance theory professor might have said. Let's begin with a list of folkloric texts that may be categorized under this month's genre heading. Most of these are common types of human expression that don't need to be defined, but I'll provide explanatory notes where I think they might be helpful:

  • Blason Populaire (These are stereotypes that may take the form of football chants, jokes, proverbs, and other kinds of verbal lore that depict an in-group in a positive way at the expense of an out-group, or vice versa.)
  • Blessings, Graces, and Prayers
  • Boasts and Toasts
  • Calls to Animals
  • Chants and Rhymes
  • Dialectical Language (These may include idioms, occupational terms, regional pronunciations of words, regional names for animals and plants, etc.)
  • Gestures and Hand Signals
  • Greetings and Leave-Takings
  • Insults, Retorts, and Taunts
  • Jokes
  • Riddles and Word Games
  • Mnemonics
  • Nicknames for Animals, People, and Places
  • Oaths and Promises
  • Proverbs (Halpert and Halpert 1971)

When folklorists analyze language and verbal lore, we look at both the text and context together. There are good reasons for this, and I'll discuss a few of them by way of example. In How to Do Things With Words, language scholar J.L. Austin argues that a grammatical performative case exists in situations when making a statement constitutes taking an action (Austin 1962). This sort of thing happens when we take oaths or make promises, so I'll use the Oath of Canadian Citizenship to explore it a little further. Here's the oath:

I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.

So far, we only have the text of the oath. However, we don't yet have an equally important component of oath-taking, its context. Austin argues that four conditions must be met for making a statement to constitute taking an action, and these will help us contextualize the Oath of Canadian Citizenship:

  1. "There must be an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, the procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances" (Austin 1962, 26).
  2. "The particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked" (Austin 1962, 34).
  3. "The procedure must be executed by all participants correctly" (Austin 1962, 36).
  4. "The procedure must be executed by all participants completely" (Austin 1962, 36).

The Oath of Canadian Citizenship must be taken at a public citizenship ceremony except in extenuating circumstances, and the act of taking the oath confers Canadian citizenship. This gives us the conventional procedure, the conventional effect, and the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances. With few exceptions, people who take the oath must be 14 years of age or older, and they must meet the requirements for citizenship. This gives us the appropriate persons and circumstances for the procedure involved. Finally, the oath must be spoken correctly and completely, and the presiding official must ensure that this has happened (Government of Canada 2013). A person who doesn't speak the oath correctly and completely hasn't taken it because the text of the oath matters. At the same time, a 13 year-old girl who speaks the oath correctly and completely on a beach in South Africa hasn't taken it because the context of the oath matters. Finally, because both text and context matter to language and verbal lore, there is a strong performance element to this folklore genre. When we boast, tell a joke, or make a promise, we set up an interpretive framework that tells our audiences something more is happening beyond the literal meaning of our words. We perform for them, which places them in a position to evaluate our performances (Bauman 1977, 9-10).

In truth, folklorists use these understandings of text, context, and performance to evaluate many kinds of folklore, but writers can use them to include language and verbal lore that makes a meaningful contribution to their stories. I'll write more about that below, but for now, let's look at two examples of the genre at work in fiction.

How Language and Verbal Lore Have Been Used in Fiction Writing

Blessings, Graces, and Prayers

Blessings, graces, and prayers may be categorized as language and verbal lore, and that's where I've placed them for the purposes of this discussion. However, they may also be categorized as examples of belief when they're expressions of faith, creed, doctrine, or teaching, and they may be categorized as customs when they're employed to mark specific occasions, such as births or deaths. As I've mentioned before, folklore genres are slippery that way.

This particular example from fiction is my favourite and one I've used as an actual prayer from time to time. It's the Litany Against Fear from the classic science fiction novel Dune, written by Frank Herbert. The prayer originates with the fictional Bene Gesserit sisterhood, of which Paul Atreides' mother is a member. When the Reverend Mother of the sisterhood tests Paul's humanity by subjecting his hand to a pain induction box, Paul recites the litany to prevent himself from pulling his hand away. Here's the prayer and its context in the novel:

Curiosity reduced Paul’s fear to a manageable level. He heard truth in the old woman’s voice, no denying it. If his mother stood guard out there... if this were truly a test.... And whatever it was, he knew himself caught in it, trapped by that hand at his neck: the gom jabbar. He recalled the response from the Litany against Fear as his mother had taught him out of the Bene Gesserit rite.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

He felt calmness return, said: “Get on with it, old woman.”

“Old woman!” she snapped. “You’ve courage, and that can’t be denied. Well, we shall see, sirra.” She bent close, lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “You will feel pain in this hand within the box. Pain. But! Withdraw the hand and I’ll touch your neck with my gom jabbar—the death so swift it’s like the fall of the headsman’s axe. Withdraw your hand and the gom jabbar takes you. Understand?” (Herbert 2003, 18)

The Litany Against Fear isn't a prayer to a supernatural being but rather a means of encouraging strength and resilience in a time of crisis. It also doesn't originate in a religious order but in a secular one, and it has been orally transmitted from mother to son. So you might employ fictional prayers as a means for your characters to connect with their gods or with their inner resources. You might make them part of a spiritual or a cultural practice. You might create a history of oral or textual transmission for them. Finally, you might step outside these constructs to create blessings, graces, or prayers that exist in imaginative contexts, fulfill unique purposes, and are transmitted using unusual methods you develop in your writing.

Here's how writer and director David Lynch depicted this scene from Dune in his 1984 film adaptation.

Animal Calls

Let's look at a completely different example of language and verbal lore in fiction, this one derived from "kulning," a Swedish vocal technique historically cultivated and employed by women who cared for grazing animals in the mountains during the summer, far away from the homestead's arable land. Kulning produces a high, clear, directed sound capable of traveling long distances to call animals in from the pasture, and it is at once haunting, powerful, and effective (Rosenberg 2014, 100).

Because I'm a singer, and because my voice teacher often encourages me to explore my upper range, I've done a bit of digital digging and want to take you on a sonic journey with me that departs from Swedish vocal tradition and arrives at our fictional destination. We'll start with a 1954 recording of kulning performed by Emma Åslund and deposited in the Swedish song archive Musikverket. Click here to go to the archive, and then click on the media track to listen.

Wasn't that beautiful? Now let's travel into the present and watch Swedish songwriter and singer Åsa Larsson perform the technique to call cows and entice a wild swan.

Have you figured out the fictional context yet? In the next clip, all will be revealed, but let me offer a short introduction first. As we've already heard and seen, kulning is a technique used to call animals home from a mountain pasture. But in the following fictional context, the technique is repurposed to call a character out to the mountains, where her true purpose awaits.

Now we come to our destination, Elsa's signature ballad in Frozen 2, "Into the Unknown," sung by Idina Menzel with help from Aurora's kulning. Think on Emma Åslund's and Åsa Larsson's voices as you listen to it.

Here the text (broadly speaking) of the animal call is the high-pitched voice of a woman. The context changes from what might be the homestead of a Swedish woman, to a pasture and lakeside where a Swedish singer is calling to cows and swans, to the interpretive singing of a Norwegian artist in a church, to an animated film. In all cases, the singer sets up an interpretive framework that tells us she's doing more than just making high-pitched sounds. She's performing, and we're invited into that performance space to rub shoulders with cows, swans, and queens with magical powers.

Now let's look at ways you might use language and verbal lore in your own fiction.

How Language and Verbal Lore Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

With your list of language and verbal lore, your writing might be enriched in significant ways. Blason populaire might be invented for rival football teams competing in a playoff. Blessings, graces, or prayers might become central to a ritual. Farther afield, a call that repels alien animal predators might be written into a science fiction story. Greetings or leave-takings might take the form of insults, retorts, or taunts. Jokes, riddles, and word games might be the primary form of communication in a culture.

With your knowledge of text, context, and performance, you might write a character who tells jokes that make sense in his home country but fall flat among his friends in another country. You might invent word games a teacher uses to instruct young children, who themselves find the games hilarious. Or you might put a proverb into an older character's repertoire of verbal wisdom that he finds valuable but his grandson doesn't understand. Language and verbal lore is a huge playing field, and it's a place where you can bring valuable nuance to your work.

An Exercise in Writing with Language and Verbal Lore

In this exercise, I'll provide you with a short list of language and verbal lore types that can also be categorized as folk customs. Your assignment is to write an example of the folklore type for use in your own fiction and then write a custom associated with it. Here's the list:

  • Blessings, Graces, and Prayers
  • Boasts and Toasts
  • Greetings and Leave-Takings
  • Oaths and Promises

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of child lore.