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This week’s module topic of language and discrimination has perhaps never been described more eloquently than it was by African American author Toni Morrison in her 1993 lecture for the Nobel Prize in literature. In the speech, Morrison skillfully uses multiple layered narratives to explore the power of storytelling, the heritage of the past, and the relationship between language and discrimination.
As one of the foremost American novelists of the 20th century, Morrison (1931-2019) was a master of the narrative form. But scholarship across disciplines has shown that narratives play a central role in all human cultures, allowing us to relate experiences but also structuring our memory and thought. They are a mode of engagement with the everyday and are always in the process of being produced. Narratives are stories that emplot events in a detailed, usually in chronological order or other structured progression. Stories can be formal or informal, can occur across different forms of talk and written forms of language, and virtually all cultures have multiple narrative types (historical, myth, personal, etc) and named genres (fairy tales, testimony, romantic comedy, etc). In societies where the oral tradition is strong, storytellers are important individuals who may be revered as repositories of knowledge.
Studies of verbal art by linguistic anthropologists have shown some characteristics of are common across languages. Narrative genres often involved the use of a frame to open and/or close the story such as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after”. Narratives also have an organizational structure which can be episodic and can be marked by things like pauses, grammatical particles, stylized voice shifts, quoted speech, special registers, and other paralinguistic features such as stress, pitch, volume or intonation. These and other devices can be employed by a storyteller to increase the dramatic effect of the story. The storyteller does not do all of this alone, however. The interaction between storyteller and audience is critical and both are required for narrative production. Like so many forms of communication we have studied this semester, narrative production is intersubjective, meaning that it is negotiated between multiple participants (“co-constructed”) in interaction. If you think about various speech genres like lying, gossiping, or negotiating, all of them require multiple participants. Because one participant does most of the communicating, it may seem less obvious that storytelling also requires multiple participant roles, but it does.
Russian literary critic Mikhael Bakhtin (1895-1975) explored this and similar ideas in novels and other literary forms. For Bakhtin, all discourse is inherently dialogic in the sense that it is both informed by previous discourse and informs future discourse. In other words, everything anybody ever says always exists in response to things that have been said before and in anticipation of things that will be said in response. According to Bakhtin, language is inherently social, dynamic and relational. Other speakers and other words are always part of our own.
For Bakhtin, novels contain the co-presence of multiple voices, a trait he referred to as polyvocality. Bakhtin referred to the quality of having distinct forms within a single work–such as the speech of characters, a narrator, the author of a novel– as heteroglossia. Bakhtin wrote, “Authorial speech, the speeches of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of characters, are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia can enter the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of their links and interrelationships” (1981: 263). For Bakhtin, the novel was the literary genre that was most heteroglossic. But Bakhtin’s claims were not limited to the novel or even to literature and he frequently generalized his observations to the nature of communication itself. This is no doubt one reason why his theories have had such a large impact beyond literary studies, including on linguistic anthropology. Bakhtin also emphasized certain uses of language maximized the dialogic nature of words while other uses that attempted to limit or restrict their polyvocality.
First listen to Toni Morrison read her lecture on acceptance of the Nobel Prize in literature. You can hear her read it with captions here:
The lecture contains Morrison’s thoughts on narrative, the power of stories, authorship, and the nature of language itself. Much of her lecture focuses on social injustice and the political uses and abuses of language, thus it fits well with our current module on Language, Ideology, and Discrimination. The lecture is very dense and probably includes at least some terms you are not familiar with. You may want to listen to it a second time or read through the lecture with this transcription (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/).
Once you feel you have a good understanding of the meanings and message of Morrison’s lecture, read Elinor Ochs’ article “Narrative Lessons.” (uploaded) In this article, linguistic anthropologist Ochs looks at the different aspects of narratives, particularly narratives of personal experience. When you have read Ochs’ “Narrative Lessons” essay, write a 400 word response paper answering the following questions:
What does Morrison mean when she says “language”? How would characterize her ideology of language? What metaphors does she use to describe the nature of language and why? Identify a specific quote about language from the speech that speaks to you and discuss it’s meaning.
What voices does Morrison speak with in her speech? How does her speech exemplify Ochs narrative lessons and Bakhtin’s ideas about language?
Your paper should be typed, double-spaced, and a minimum of 500 words long.