The Study of Language Use in Oceania
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 15: 149-162 (Volume publication date October 1986)
K A Watson-Gegeo
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

This was a relatively short review (around 10 pages). It’s more of a bare bone directory of where to go for more. I would be interested in the studies that examined “the communicative aspects of music and chant, where songs and chants are carefully coded messages, have important functional relationships to spoken language, are significant instantiations of social hierarchy, or provide a forum for dispute.” Using song and chant in these ways resonates with my experience growing up in the Mississippi Delta and recent experiences in Southern California. I think specifically of women singing in unison or back and forth or in sequence. In the Delta my experience was with black women; in Southern California my experience has been mostly with women with Mexican heritage. The experience feels the same. Sometimes the singing works as a secret communication in that the song may have an in-group defined meaning that fits the current situation. It can be a way of complaining and commiserating about a bad or unfair work environment though the lyrics might not offer an immediate clue. It can be a communication between the women as to their feelings about the current task, about the day, about relationships, or about a particular life period. It can be a way of gossiping openly as, again, the group members understand the song to be indicative of a certain type of person or behavior. Down South, the songs were often religious in nature and also often call and response songs… sometimes reduced to humming or nonverbal chanting. I’ve never actively participated in this type of singing in a significant way (too young at one point and too shy at later points), but I do find it comforting. Perhaps I will one day look for studies on communication through song in the United States; it’s not high on the list at the moment.

I will try this week to return to the practice of choosing the next articles in groups of five as I have found myself more and more leaving the decision until later in the week than is comfortable. Generally speaking I’m looking for ways to rededicate myself to perhaps have a stronger finish to my year of self-study.

With sweetness from all the ages,