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date: 18 February 2019

Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics)

Abstract and Keywords

This article argues for the continuing importance of ethnopoetics/cultural poetics in the work of linguists and anthropologists. A heuristic definition of ethnopoetics (or cultural poetics) is given as the various traditions of such recurrent patternings of linguistic forms (and the thwarting of such expectations of such patternings). The continuing relevance of a Hymesian-inspired anthropological philology is noted. After framing the discussion of poetry and poetics as both linguistic and ethnographic questions, this article engages questions of linguistic relativity and its relationship to poetics, as well as poetry and poetics as social practices. Examples of parallelism and metaphor are given and discussed both in relation to their poetic form and to their social work. A final extended illustration is given concerning Navajo poetry as an example of a cultural poetics informed by both linguistics and anthropology. It is argued that research on cultural poetics/ethnopoetics encourages patience and reflection.

Keywords: cultural poetics, ethnopoetics, poetry, linguistic relativity, aesthetic, patternings, linguistic forms, linguists, anthropologists

The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.

The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it is mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by their overtones. —Edward Sapir, “The Status of Linguistics as a Science” (Language, 1929: 209)

My general argument, synthesizing linguistic relativism and general poetics, is, as stated at the outset, that poetic language is the locus of the most interesting differences between languages and should be studied together with the poetic imagination of the individual. The open, energizing interaction between these two phenomena—the individual and the linguistic—is at the heart of the general hypothesis.—Paul Friedrich, “Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy: A Reformulation of Sapir’s Position” (The Language Parallax, University of Texas Press, 1986: 53)


The question of poetics should be of central concern to the work of anthropologists and linguists. For it is in poetics that the individual, the imagination, and the linguistic are all deeply intertwined. If we take poetics as recurrent patternings of linguistic forms (and the thwarting of expectations about such patternings), then we can take ethnopoetics (or cultural poetics) as the various traditions of such recurrent patternings of linguistic forms (and, again, the thwarting of such expectations of such patternings). Such recurrent patternings of linguistic forms are, as a long tradition of Americanist anthropologists has noted, a crucial node in appreciating linguistic relativity. By linguistic relativity, I mean apositive vision of the ways that languages facilitate possibilities for us to orient and imagine. No discussion of ethnopoetics can avoid, in my view, a discussion of linguistic relativity. I will take up both issues below.

This article argues for the continuing importance of ethnopoetics/cultural poetics in the work of linguists and anthropologists. A heuristic definition of ethnopoetics (or cultural poetics) is given as the various traditions of such recurrent patternings of linguistic forms (and the thwarting of such expectations of such patternings). The continuing relevance of a Hymesian inspired anthropological philology is noted and exemplified. After framing the discussion of poetry and poetics as both linguistic and ethnographic questions, this article engages questions of linguistic relativity and its relationship to poetics as well as broader concerns with poetry and poetics as social practices. Examples of parallelism and metaphor are given and discussed both in relation to their poetic form and to their social work. A final extended illustration is given concerning Navajo poetry as an example of what a cultural poetics informed by both linguistics and anthropology might look like. In the end, it is argued that research on cultural poetics/ethnopoetics encourages patience and reflection.

From Poetics to Ethnopoetics

While a concern with poetics in the West stretches back to Aristotle’s Poetics (1997), for the purposes of this article, I want to begin by reflecting on the two definitions of the poetic function given by Roman Jakobson (1960). His first definition is that the poetic function focuses on the message over content (1960: 356). His second definition (1960: 358) notes that, “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” This is the way the choices of sounds, lexical items, syntactic structures, and the like are combined to create expressive alignment. It is also the case, following Kenneth Burke (1968), that we should see poetics as both the satisfaction of form and the frustration of form. It should be clear as well that poetics does not reside only in something we might term “poetry.” Paul Friedrich (1979, 1986, and 2006) has argued that poetic language is pervasive in all language use (see also Jakobson 1960). One thinks, for example, of the “lexicalized poetry” in Sui (Stanford 2014; see also Williams 2014), but also the poetics in and of conversations (Friedrich 1986; Woodbury 1995; Silverstein 1997).

Friedrich (1986: 17) goes on to argue, as we saw in the epigraph, that “poetic language … is the locus of the most interesting differences between languages and should be the focus of the study of such differences.” Such a perspective needs to look not just at the differences between languages based on poetic languages, but also look at the ways different languages—different poetic languages—are intermingled; the productive interplay between and across poetic languages. Poetic languages are also the places where languages are combined, through punning, code-switching, and/or code-mixing, and sometimes where such practices are resisted as well (see Zentella 2002; Cavanaugh 2009; Webster 2009).

There is a tradition here that Friedrich is tapping into. It is a tradition that links back to Franz Boas (1966) and Edward Sapir (1921, 1985). It finds potent expression in Boas’s (1966: 58) claim:

When the question arises, for instance, of investigating the poetry of the Indians, no translation can possibly be considered as an adequate substitute for the original. The form of rhythm, the treatment of language, the adjustment of text to music, the imagery, the use of metaphors, and all the numerous problems involved in any thorough investigation of the style of poetry, can be interpreted only by the investigator who has equal command of the ethnographical traits of the tribe and of their language.

It is this tradition that Sherzer (1990: 18) taps into when he discusses “the poeticization of grammar.” Sherzer (1990: 18) defines this as the use of “an element or feature of grammar either losing its grammatical function as it takes on a poetic function or adding a poetic function to its already existing referential and grammatical function.” Such a process of the poeticization of grammar would, most likely, be language- and discursive- community-specific. It is also related to what linguist Anthony Woodbury (1998: 238) terms “form-dependent expression.” For Woodbury (1998: 238), form-dependent expressions entail that, “in any situation where the arbitrary patterns of a lexicogrammatical code are harnessed to constitute, shape, or model communicative purpose or content, expression is crucially dependent on form.” This is the way that linguistic forms are interwoven through use in social practices. There is a feedback loop here, though. As such form-dependent expressions are repeatedly used, they accrue felt connections that make them feel as if they are nonarbitrary. They are, following Friedrich (1979: 44), relatively nonarbitrary. As Sherzer (1987: 296) argues, language “is motivated from the point of view of the meaningfulness and appropriateness that individuals feel about their language as it is used in actual social and cultural contexts.”

This tradition also finds expression in the work of Dell Hymes (1981, 1996, and 2003) and Dennis Tedlock (1983) concerning ethnopoetics. At its most basic, ethnopoetics is the study of the ways that narratives are structured into “lines” and are thus poetic (Hymes 1981). Lines fit both of Jakobson’s definitions of the poetic function. First, the creation of lines calls attention to the form over the content. Second, such structured units as the line are the sites for the playing out of the paradigmatic axis on the syntagmatic axis. Rhyme, in some English-language poetry, creates lines and is also the playing out of phonological choices on a distributional axis. These are traditions of recurrent patternings and, as such, they have histories. Navajo poets, for example, are less concerned with rhyme than are many English-language poets (Webster 2009). However, because of the influence of English poetry on Navajo poets, there are some poems that use rhyme in Navajo English-language poems. Vee Browne (2000: 30, 32), for example, has experimented with limericks in both English and Navajo. Poetic forms travel. One thinks, too, of Dylan Thomas’s use of cynghanedd and villanelles in English-language poetry.

As a method and theory of analysis of verbal art, much work in ethnopoetics over the last several decades has combined what has often been called a Hymesian approach (based on the patterned use of discourse particles) with the approach used by Tedlock (based on the prosody and pause structuring of actual performance). The distinction made between Hymes’s and Tedlock’s approaches was and continues to be misleading, because it ignores the complexity of both. Hymes (2003, 36), for his part, famously—quoting Kenneth Burke—urged that linguistic anthropologists and linguists “use all there is to use” when it came to the analysis of verbal artistic traditions. Work by William Bright (1984), Sally McLendon (1977), Paul Kroskrity (1985, 1993), Joel Sherzer (1982, 1987, 1990), Geoffrey Kimball (2010), and Anthony Woodbury (1985, 1987) has shown that the perspectives of Hymes and Tedlock might be usefully combined to attend to the whole of the expressive resources of a narrator or community. Indeed, as Woodbury (1985, 1987) has argued, the interaction between various ways of poetically organizing verbal art can be communicatively and aesthetically meaningful. More recent work by Kuniyoshi Kataoka (2012) has suggested including bodily gestures and comportment in a multimodal ethnopoetics (see also Farnell 2002).

However, ethnopoetics should be concerned with more than simply poetic lines (see Moore 2013 for a history of the term). Ethnopoetics has been concerned with individual creativity and the careful attention to linguistic details (see Hymes 1981; Tedlock 1983; Johnstone 1996). As Donald Bahr (1986: 171) notes, “ethnopoetics should be more than the study of technique … it should include meaning and use.” Friedrich (2006) and Jan Blommaert (2006) have offered useful evaluations of ethnopoetics. As Blommaert (2006: 259) writes, “ethnopoetic work is one way of addressing the main issue in ethnography: to describe (and reconstruct) languages not in the sense of stable, closed and internally homogeneous units characterizing mankind … but as ordered complexes of genres, styles, registers and forms of use.” Such a perspective must engage individual poets, but also the languages they use and the connections they make. Related to that, as Blommaert (2006: 266) adds, “ultimately, what ethnopoetics does is to show voice, to visualize the particular ways—often deviant from hegemonic norms—in which subjects produce meaning.” I see the recognition of voice as central to a concern with ethnopoetics (see Kroskrity and Webster 2015). As Friedrich (2006: 228) notes in his own review of ethnopoetics, “ethnopoetics tends to relativize knowledge, to recognize its subtlety.”

Anthropological Philology: A Chiricahua Apache Example

I want to acknowledge, through an example, Hymes’s (1965a, 1965b) early vision of anthropological philology—later, Hymes (1981) would subsume it under the term ethnopoetics—and the kinds of insights that it can yield (see also the articles in Kroskrity and Webster 2015). Perhaps the most famous examples of Hymes’s (1981) anthropological philology in the service of ethnopoetics are his discussions of the use of the voiceless lateral in Takelma and how one might go about talking like a bear and the alternation between the prefixes wa-, a-, Ø- in Clackamas narratives concerning Grizzly Bears. In these examples, one sees the power of careful attention to linguistic details in revealing the poetic artistry of Native American narrators. Woodbury (1993), Pamela Bunte (2002), and Kroskrity (2010) have also explored the use of grammatical forms in narratives that reveal the poetic achievements of given narrators. Here is an example by Samuel E. Kenoi of a Coyote narrative he told in Chiricahua Apache to Harry Hoijer in the 1930s. As much work on ethnopoetics has suggested, there are organizing principles to this narrative. Most obviously is Kenoi’s use of the narrative enclitic –ná’a “so they say,” which tends to occur at the end of every clause outside of quoted speech. Following Hymes (1981), I have elsewhere termed this a line-marking device (Webster 1999; see also Nevins 2013). In Sherzer’s (1990: 18) terms, the use of the narrative enclitic as a line-marking device is part of the poeticization of grammar. Lines are numbered flush right and begin at the 23rd line of the narrative. Note also the use of the initial particles nágu “then” and dá’ághát’éndah “in spite of that,” which seem to organize the narrative into larger units or verses—again following Hymes’s (1981) terminology. In fact, Kenoi has a nice bit of symmetry in this scene with the pairings of nágu and dá’ághát’éndah with a statement by the son and the response by the mother. Verses are indicated by indentation beneath the first line of each verse, and each subsequent line is also indented. Quoted materials constitute a line here. Exclamation points are from Hoijer’s text. Here is the segment of the narrative “Coyote Marries His Own Daughter” (I have reformatted the text based on line and verse structure as described in Webster 1999 and 2012a; the orthography has also been updated to better align with the current orthography on the Mescalero Apache Reservation):

  • Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics)

(Hoijer 1938: 25; edited by Webster after Webster 1999: 141–142)

  • Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics)

(from Hoijer 1938: 25, edited by Webster after Webster 1999: 142)

Briefly, this incident comes after Coyote has feigned that he is dead so that he can then disguise himself and marry his own daughter. His son sees his father, Coyote (who remains nameless in this scene), jump from the tree and alerts his mother. The mother chastises the son for speaking about his father and, likely, for not using the appropriate fourth-person marking and other circumlocutions that were expected when talking about the recently deceased (see Opler 1941: 475–476; Hoijer 1946). Indeed, the son’s use of shitaa “my father” would be an inappropriate use of the first-person shi- if his father were truly dead. By not using Coyote’s name, but rather the kinship term –taa “father” (lines 26, 28, and 32), Kenoi highlights Coyote’s kin status here and also indicates that the son no longer believes his father dead and thus speaks of him directly. The mother, in line 30, uses the indefinite ‘i- “one” to talk about Coyote in her response and thus speaks appropriately according to her belief that he is dead.

There is a great deal more that could be said about this short scene, but here I want to focus on Kenoi’s alternation of the yi- and bi- on the verb of speaking –ndi in the preceding example. Yi- and bi- are both third-person object prefixes in Chiricahua Apache (see Webster 2006). As I have discussed elsewhere (Webster 2006, 2012a), in the narratives told by Kenoi, Coyote consistently takes the bi- form on verbs of speaking, and this indicates his narrative importance. Other characters tend to take the yi- form, and this indicates their relative lack of narrative importance (the stories are about the travels of Coyote, not the travels of rock or rock lizard). Though, other characters can be elevated in relative importance when they are successfully conning Coyote and thus take the bi- form (see Webster 2006: 156–158). Importantly, Kenoi does not demote Coyote at such narrative moments; instead, both characters take the bi- form. The action in Kenoi’s Coyote narratives is in the verbal exchanges between the characters (Webster 1999).

With that background, notice that the son takes the bi- form in the preceding example on verbs of speaking (lines 29 and 30), and the mother takes the yi- form (lines 27 and 31) (they are bolded in the preceding text). Following Chad Thompson (1996: 97), we can suggest that, “the bi-marked object [is] understood as more important in the discourse than the subject of the clause, contrary to usual circumstances.” Thus, while the mother is the yi-marked object in this scene, the son is the bi-marked object, and his importance in the narrative scene is elevated. Kenoi has elevated the son’s importance in this scene and made him the focus of this stretch of discourse. It is the son’s words that need to be heeded and paid attention to here. The audience should pay attention to what the son is saying—and, ultimately, the son is telling his mother the truth about his father. Had the mother listened to the son, Coyote would not have so easily been able to fool both her and his daughter. It is a wonderfully subtle poetic moment in Kenoi’s narrative and one that can be understood only by careful attention to linguistic details. This was one of the important lessons of Hymesian (1981: 2003) ethnopoetics.

Poetry and Aesthetics

Poetry, it seems to me as a useful heuristic, should be understood as a part of ongoing sets of aesthetic traditions, acts of distinction, and values. These are recognizable genres of expression (either in the ways they actively align, reject, or refigure received traditions of use). Poetry is here an ethnographic question. Poetic forms may give shape to poetry, but, poetic forms may be used in expressions not deemed poetry (I like Ike is Jakobson’s [1960] famous example). The question of what makes one expression poetry and another not, may have less to do with questions of poetic form, and more with social and aesthetic values. Simply looking for poetic features does not tell us whether or not a given stretch of discourse is considered poetry. Important here are considerations of local aesthetics or aesthetic ideologies (Kroskrity 2012a; Rumsey 2001, 2006; Bahr, Paul, and Vincent 1997; Kimball 1993) as well as more detailed ethnographies of poetry as social practice (Caton 1990; Leavitt 1997; Abu Lughod 1999; Miller 2007; Cavanaugh 2009; Webster 2015). Poetry can, of course, be oral or written, or some combination of the two (or, in the case of sign-language poetry, it can be signed or video-recorded [see Bauman, Nelson and Rose 2006]). As Dennis Tedlock (2012) has noted for Mayan glyphic poetry, the medium can facilitate possibilities for poetic form (what he calls a tradition of graphic poetry). Here one thinks, as well, of the concrete poetry of Navajo poet John (2007: 43), which attempts to replicate rug-weaving patterns.

Aesthetic considerations need to be investigated and not imputed. In my work with Navajo poets, for example, “strong poems” were said to inspire reflection by being both highly descriptive and highly ambiguous. Working with the Koasati, Geoffrey Kimball (1993) was able to discern aesthetic criteria for the ethnopoetics of narratives. They included the use of parallelism (especially when an action is partially restated in the subsequent line), the use of quoted speech, “the use of long lines to highlight important semantic content in the narrative,” and, finally, “clarity of language” (Kimball 1993: 7). Among the Arizona Tewa, Paul Kroskrity (2012a: 162–164) found the multimodal poetic criteria for good stories to involve the following: (1) péé;yu’u tú “story words” (especially the abundant use of the evidential ba “so they say”); (2) the use of archaic words; (3) stylized facial expressions; (4) paralinguistic and prosodic voice effects that often imitate the voices of characters; (5) use of khaw’ or thematic songs; and (6) “Carrying it hither … which can be paraphrased as situating the narrative for the present audience.” Among the Ku Waru, Alan Rumsey (2001) reports a poetic aesthetic involving a tight metrical structuring that is meant to “overwhelm” the listener; he contrasts this with a Kaluli poetic aesthetic described by Steven Feld (1984) as “lift-up-over-sounding” that coordinates and layers voices. Rumsey suggests that these contrasting poetic forms may relate to local ideologies about power and social life. Here is it is useful to note that what works (aesthetically) for one group may not work for another group—and, of course, aesthetic and poetic sensibilities can and do change and/or perdure over time and space (see, for example, Rosaldo 1984; Tedlock 2010; Hull and Carrasco 2012; Kroskrity 2012b; Falconi 2013). More needs to be done on comparing the poetic practices of poeoples who are linguistically related, in geographic proximity, or who interact to varying degrees (see Kroskrity 1998; O’Neill 2008; Hofling 2012; Webster 2012c).

The danger of imputing universal poetic and aesthetic standards has been described recently by Kroskrity (2013: 154) for Western Mono and Yokut verbal art and the ways that such poetic forms were often seen as negatives or the lack of “English prose conventions.” Early anthropologists and linguists found Western Mono and Yokut verbal art to be wanting, because it lacked a “richness of expression” and explanation and was too prone to “repetition” (Kroskrity 2013: 153). They failed to attend to the poetic accomplishments as understood by Western Mono and Yokut and thus erased those aesthetic and poetic sensibilities. As Dell Hymes (1981, 1987) has noted, many times, such poetic discriminations were based not on the source-language original, but rather on translations by linguists and anthropologists. Whole poetic traditions were evaluated (and dismissed) on the quality of the translations. Recent ethnographically informed ethnopoetics has suggested the ways that questions of voice and narrative inequality can be addressed by attending to texts collected by previous generations of scholars (see Blommaert 2009; Collins 2009; and Kroskrity and Webster 2015).

Parallelism: From Lexical To Sonic

One key poetic feature is parallelism. Such forms of parallelism may include repetition with variation of sounds (phonological parallelism), lexical items, grammatical structures, and/or macro-parallelism of the kind described by Greg Urban (1986). Here is an example in Ku Waru (a language of Papua New Guinea) recorded by Alan Rumsey (2007: 262) from a Tom Yaya Kange (long metered narrative). In it we find both lexical parallelism (or what Rumsey calls substantive parallelism), where words are repeated, and grammatical parallelism, where grammatical structures are repeated (I have bolded the lexical parallelism and underlined the grammatical parallelism). Here is the beginning of a Tom Yaya Kange by Engel Kep:

  1. 1. kalkala ab-a tanga a

  • ‘the woman was Kalkagla Tanga’

  1. 2. wi kupi yi tala a

  • ‘the man was Kupi Tagla’

  1. 3. pekir yaya nyirim e

  • ‘“they all know I sleep here,” she said.’

  1. 4. molkur yaya nyirim e

  • ‘“they all know I stay here,” he said.’

Typical examples of phonological parallelism involve rhyme, alliteration, and meter (whether based on syllables or, as in many poetic forms in Japanese, on moras). More subtle forms include the Welsh poetic tradition of cynghanedd or “harmony” (Hopwood 2004: 1). The following excerpt by Alan Llwyd is an example of cynghanedd groes “Criss-cross Harmony” (see Hopwood 2004: 31, 36, 103). This line has seven syllables, and that length is the most common syllable length for a line of cynghanedd groes (but they can be shorter or longer) (Hopwood 2004: 32; see also Evans 2010: 182–183). Notice that the consonant sounds echo across the caesura (indicated with /) and are intimately connected to the placement of stress (indicated here underneath with “—“ and on the penultimate syllable). The consonants and the stress are parallel on either side of the caesura (consonants after the final unstressed syllable need not be the same).

 Roedd eira / ar y dderwen

 r dd—r / r dd—–r

 There was snow on the oak tree

Notice that the English translation fails to capture the play of sounds in the Welsh original. I will return to the importance of this observation later, when I discuss Navajo poetry and linguistic relativity.

Related to poems that forefront the phonic shape of the utterance are “ideophone” poems (for a general overview of the relationship between ideophony and poetry, see Lahti, Barrett, and Webster 2014). Below are examples from the Gbaya and English poetry of Dogobadomo and K’iche’ poetry of Humberto Ak’abal. Notice again the use of parallelism in these poems (often in the reduplication or triplication of the ideophonic form). Here is the poem by the poet Dogobadomo (I have followed the formatting from Noss):

  • Gidimmm
  •  Fɛ́-fɛ-fɛ́ɛ́      
  •  Kíláŋ-ki-kíláŋ
  •  Sélélé
  •  Ŋmabįįį
  •  They were taking counsel

                              (Noss 2001: 267)

The first five lines of the poem are composed of ideophones. The first line represents the sounds of people gathering together quietly. The second line evokes the sounds of “soft consultation … like the sound of soft breezes blowing” (Noss 2001: 267). The third line creates the impression of a more disjointed and forceful discussion. The fourth line evokes, then, silence. The last ideophone evokes the sound of people scattering in an orderly fashion. As Philip Noss (2001: 267) notes, “the poet’s conclusion makes it clear that this was a solemn communal gathering for taking counsel. The ideophones portray and successively reinforce the sense of decorum and dignity that characterizes the council meeting.” As Noss (2001: 267) further notes, other ideophones would have created different understandings of the council meeting.

Here is Ak’abal’s Tormenta “storm” (I have followed Barrett’s presentational format here):Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics)

(Barrett 2014: 413–414)

As Rusty Barrett (2014: 414) notes about this poem and similar poems by Ak’abal:

These sound poems evoke the view of ideophones as “pure expression” both in being detached from their natural grammatical context and in attempting to reproduce specific acoustic phenomena (thunderstorms, marimba music, animal noises, etc). However, these sound poems are part of a broader project by Ak’abal to highlight linguistic differences between Spanish and K’iche’. Although Ak’abal usually writes simultaneously in English and Spanish and publishes his work in bilingual editions, these sound poems are never translated into Spanish (but often have Spanish titles).

Poetry and Ethnography

Poetry, as Barrett makes clear, does not exist outside of social and cultural realities; the goal of cultural poetics is to explore the two as always intertwined. Questions of word choice or even the language of the poetry are often informed by social values or, following Jillian Cavanaugh (2009), social aesthetics (see also Webster 2009). In the poetry described by Ana Celia Zentella (2002), for example, much aesthetic delight is taken from the intertwining of Spanish and English. On the other hand, in the Bergamasco poetry described by Jillian Cavanaugh (2009), bivalent forms between Bergamasco and Italian are downplayed, while archaic Bergamasco forms are much valued. Again, such differences need to be understood within broader historical and sociocultural milieus as well as the language ideologies that inform such choices. Poets, too, after all, are both creative individuals and socialized language users imbricated in wider social, political, cultural, and historical fields (see, for example, Balzer 1997 and Faudree 2015).

Note too that the understanding of a poem is also a social and situated acts and these need to be ethnographically investigated. The poem that I want to look at now comes from Rex Lee Jim’s (1995) all-Navajo collection saad. The volume was published by Jim’s alma mater, Princeton University, through its The Princeton Collections of Western Americana. It is important to note that the book is written almost entirely in Navajo (including page numbers and introductory materials). Saad glosses into English as “word, language.” This is an example of what Gladys Reichard (1944: 38) called “linguistic synecdoche,” where “the designation of a whole and a part” is accomplished “by the same term.” As Reichard notes, linguistic synecdoche is a relatively common feature of the Navajo language and is used in Navajo verbal art. Reichard (1944: 38) makes this point as a part of a broader critique of reliance by would-be translators of Navajo verbal art on a fidelity to “literalness.” Jim is not just a poet, but also a Beauty Way singer and a politician (most recently he was Vice President of the Navajo Nation). Here is a poem that seems to seduce Navajo consultants I have worked with into reading it as an ideophone poem:

  • éh
  • tsidił ga’
  • da’diłdił
  • yiits’a’

                             (Jim 1995: dízdiin dóó bi’ąą tseebíí)

The poem can be morphologically analyzed as follows (INTRJ = Interjection; EMPH = emphatic particularizer; DIST = Distributive; CAUS = Causative):

  • Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics)

And I have translated the poem as follows:

  • oh
  • these stick dice
  • rebounding, rebounding
  • it sounds

But one Navajo consultant I have worked with translated the poem as:

  • oh
  • bang
  • bang, bang
  • it sounds

How did this happen? First, my consultant was quite literate in Navajo and so, what happens here should not be seen as a reflection of some lack of familiarity with written Navajo. Instead, I would suggest that the verb of sounding yiits’a’, which often follows ideophonic expressions, seduced my consultant into hearing the work as a poem composed of ideophones. When my consultant first read the poem aloud, he pronounced the key forms as follows: tsidił ga’ and da’diłdił. However, after he read the final line, he went back and pronounced those forms as ts’idil ga’ and da’ dil dil. My consultant read line two as ts’idil and as tsidił. He settled on reading it as the first form. That form is analyzable as ts’i-, a thematic prefix having to do with sounds and the ideophone dil “rumble, stomp, bang.” The third line he translates dil dil as “bang, bang”—again treating this as the sound symbolic form dil and here reduplicated. It appears that my consultant went back and reread these forms the way he did because he had been seduced by yiits’a’ into hearing this poem as full of ideophones. The verb of sounding yiits’a’ reframed this work as an ideophone poem for my consultant. My point here is that ts’idil and tsidił and da’diłdił and da’ dil dil are potential puns in Navajo and that the final line (yiits’a’) encourages or seduces the listener or reader to hear or understand the poem as composed of ideophones (see the next section on the aesthetic of punning in Navajo poetics). So, while it could be argued that there are no ideophones in this poem, yiits’a’ seduced my consultant into hearing ideophones. My consultant’s translation makes sense based on the way the poem is framed and the sonic resonances across forms in Navajo. It also makes sense, as I discuss elsewhere (Webster n.d.), when one considers the mythic origins of the stick dice game. Attending to the in-the-moment context of translation here, I might add, does not remove the misunderstanding (which turns out to be productive), but rather shows how the very context encouraged the misunderstanding of this poem (see Fabian 1995; Webster n.d.). Such examples of mondegreens (Wright 1953) based on phonological iconicity suggest the intertwined relations between linguistic form, the creative individual, and the imagination.


Another key poetic feature—long noted in Western literary traditions—is metaphor (see Rosaldo 1972; Sapir and Crocker 1977; Fernandez 1991; Idstrӧm and Piirainen 2012). Though, as Paul Friedrich (1991) has noted, we need not be overly enamored with metaphor as the only or master trope. As Keith Basso (1976) has famously shown, we need to understand as well metaphor within its cultural interpretive milieu and with the kinds of social work metaphors can do (see also Lovick 2012). Thus, for example, the use of the Western Apache metaphor doolé ‘ichi’kíí ‘at’éé “butterflies are girls” as a “wise word” suggests particular ways to understand this metaphor and the negative social behavior it evokes (that they chase around after each other and act crazy and mindlessly) (Basso 1976: 105–106). Yet metaphor—when properly contextualized—is crucial in many poetic traditions and is also valued as poetry—aesthetically pleasing and well-formed utterances. Among the Kuna, as described by Sherzer (1990: 77), metaphors are “not … a static set of lexical replacements,” but rather, “constitute an active system of semantic relationships.” For example, Sherzer describes a complex metaphor relating poles to trees to chiefs by Muristo Peréz (at the time, the first chief of the island Mulatuppu) in the counseling of a new chief. In so doing, Peréz is able to comment creatively on the kind of person (as understood through the tree metaphor) he wants the new chief to be (an isper tree and not an ikwa tree). Metaphors are developed and used within specific contexts; here, again, the skills of the ethnographer and the linguist are needed.

Poetics and Linguistic Relativity: A Navajo Example

I want to conclude this article by looking closely at another poem in Navajo, both from a linguistic and an ethnographic perspective (using, that is, the skills of a linguistic anthropologist). This is the kind of perspective I have in mind for ethnopoetics/cultural poetics. In sketching this out, I want to suggest what a vision of linguistic relativity intertwined with sensitivity to poetics might look or sound like (see also O’Neill 2008; Leavitt 2011). I also want to speak to the importance of understanding the social and cultural context of such poetry. This perspective is influenced by foundational work by Hymes (1981), Sherzer (1987), and Friedrich (1979, 1986). The example comes from my fifteen-year engagement with Navajo poets and poetry (see Webster 2009, 2015). First, though, by linguistic relativity, I mean a positive perspective on the ways in which languages facilitate possibilities for us to orient and imagine. This is not a version overly enamored with constraints and determinings. Here I am informed by the opening quote by Sapir and linking questions of linguistic relativity with poetry. This has been a perspective that has been ignored in attempts to test a putative “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” (see Lucy 1992 and Leavitt 2011 for reviews). This research often, though not exclusively, took a words-for-things approach to the question of the relationship between “language” and “thought” (see Lucy 1992). For example, color terminology research, one of the great foci of such perspectives, isolated color terms from the whole life of a language. We become focused on tátł’id “green, algae, stinky water” in isolation from its sound symbolic evocation of farting (tł’id, tł’id) or the ways that the form, because of its sound symbolic evocation, became, for a time, less used “in polite conversation” with linguists and other outsiders (Ervin 1961: 239; Webster 2012b). Or, for that matter, the way that tł’id is sometimes playfully used as a term for automobile (tł’idí “the one that farts”) (see Peterson and Webster 2013: 109). Harry Hoijer’s (1951) discussion of Navajo and linguistic relativity was focused on semantic categories—an emphasis on motion in the verb structure—and not on their poetic potentials.

One way that languages facilitate possibilities for us to orient and imagine is through the resonances of sounds across a poem and outward to words not said in the poem but that haunt the sounds of the poem. Navajos that I know sometimes call this aesthetic saad aheełt’éégo diits’a’ “words that resemble each other through sound” or, shortened, punning. I cannot, of course, do this work on Navajo alone. My sound sensibilities about Navajo are limited. The analysis that follows is based on conversations with Navajo consultants about the sound associations in a particular poem (though I have worked through a number of such poems over the years with a variety of Navajo consultants). Many Navajos that I worked with were quick to point out resonances between and among words and morphemes and consonant clusters. Will such sound associations align among all Navajo speakers? No. Speakers, through use, build felt attachments to linguistic forms (see Webster 2010). No two speakers build exactly the same felt attachments to linguistic forms. And, over time, associations change.

This is another poem by Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim from saad (see Mitchell and Webster 2011; Webster 2013). The translation was done in consultation with my longtime collaborator Blackhorse Mitchell (writer, poet, singer, educator, Wind Way singer, humorist, etc.). Like all translations, this translation is both exuberant (putting in too much) and deficient (leaving out too much) (see Becker 1995).

  •  na’ashchxiidí
  •  bíchxįįh
  •  ní’deeshchxidgo
  •  ni’iihchxįįh
  •  chxąą’ bee
  •  nániichxaad

                    (Jim 1995: 38)

  •  The badger’s
  •  nose
  •  stretched round
  •  shitting
  •  with shit
  •  is full

I’ll leave aside a discussion of the morphology of the Navajo and of the complexities of translation or the role of na’ashch(x)iidí in Navajo mythic narratives, and note, instead, Jim’s use of intensification of form through the repetition of the key sound –chx- in the poem. Now the consonant cluster –chx- is an optional form both in writing and in spoken Navajo (all the words can and do occur without the velar fricative [x]). The insertion of the velar fricative [x] here is done as an expressive device indicating an affective stance of pejorative, augmentative, and/or depreciative. It’s not just shit, it’s really nasty shit—the kind, as Mitchell explained to me, that really fills up the toilet. It’s not just a nose, but a huge and hideous snout. It’s also the case that people who use the velar fricative too much are sometimes associated with raving or lacking control. Mitchell recognized the use of the velar fricative as an expressive device almost immediately.

Yet, for Mitchell (and some other Navajos that I talked with about this poem), what was most evocative was the repetition of the consonant cluster –chx-. So what was it that this particular consonant cluster was doing? I would suggest, based again on conversations with Mitchell over several years and with other Navajos, that the expressive use of -x- in this poem resonates or echoes with the -x- that is normally found in expressions like Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics) “it is ugly, disorderly, out of control” or hóchxǫ’ “ugly, out of control, disorderly.” Such things that lack control, according to some Navajos, are things that need to be returned to order or control or beauty or Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics). Briefly, among some Navajos there is an important moral distinction between Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics). “beauty, order, harmony, control” and hóchxǫ’ “ugly, disorderly, lacking control.” Much ritual in Navajo is concerned with returning things that are hóchxǫ’ to Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics). In this poem, Jim not only repeats the sound -x- throughout, but in fact creates a consonantal rhyme by way of the repetition of the consonant cluster -chx-. This is the very consonant cluster found in the verb stem –chxǫ’, meaning roughly and incompletely “ugly.” For Mitchell the repetition of the consonant cluster –chx-, evokes hóchxǫ’ and suggests a way to interpret this poem. Jim’s use of the velar fricative is, then, a richly layered and textured poetic accomplishment in Navajo.

While Mitchell stressed to me that each listener of this poem would get “a different image, a different picture” from the piece and that Jim was “creating a descriptive picture” in the work, Mitchell did note that, for him, the poem suggested that “we don’t think about what we are doing, we don’t know what we become.” Na’ashchxiidí is not behaving in a proper manner, and, according to Mitchell, the -x- seems to add to the view that na’ashchxiidí does not “think about what it is doing,” both because of its work as an expressive device, but also because it is used in combination with –ch- and thus resonates with hóchxǫ’. For Mitchell, this poem seems to suggest that some people are not paying attention to what they are doing to themselves; they are out of control and, as such, need to be restored to Cultural Poetics (Ethnopoetics). The imaginative possibilities evoked, provoked, and convoked through sound in Navajo-language poetry are lost in English-language translations. As, I would add, are the resonances from English into Navajo. Though, as interlingual puns remind us, new associations can be inspired and evoked. The sounds of a language matter in our imaginative acts of interpretations of poetry (as well as in other forms of verbal art). Why else care about a sun of York? Or, for that matter, the creativity in and imaginative acts of mondegreens, as we saw earlier in the seduction of ideophony?

Does such an example prove linguistic relativity? I think that is the wrong way to think about the question. And, quite frankly, I’m not overly concerned with proving linguistic relativity here. I’m more interested in suggesting the implications of such imaginative acts and how they are interwoven with the sounds of a language. What it does suggest, then, is that the sounds of a language—the sounds of words or parts of words—can and do inspire acts of imagination. It also takes seriously the poetry in Navajo by Jim and of the imaginative interpretation of that poetry by Mitchell (among others). It takes seriously Navajo as something important and not merely English in disguise. It is to acknowledge, then, that, “it is in verbally playful and artistic discourse that we find language turned on to its fullest potential and power, possibilities inherent in grammar made salient, potentials actualized” (Sherzer 1987: 296–297).

Furthermore, the use of saad aheełt’éégo diits’a’ or punning in Jim’s poetry resonates with a Navajo ethos of t’áá bí bee bóholnííh (it’s up to her/him to decide). As Louise Lamphere (1977: 38–41) notes, this ethos is an expression of Navajo views on autonomy. Individuals have the right to make their own decisions. Puns, like the “indirect” forms of requests described by Lamphere (1977: 57), reinforce an individual’s autonomy by relying on “ambiguity.” In form, then, they do not force a singular interpretation, but rather act as an invitation to imaginative processes. As some Navajos have indicated to me, overly explaining something assumes that the listener does not have the proper mental capacity to discern something on their own. It is an infringement on the autonomy of the listener. Puns are both displays of verbal dexterity, and invitations for imaginative processes by the listener/reader.

Finally, there is a sense among some Navajos that the creativity and strength found in contemporary poetry written and performed in Navajo is to be understood as a refinding of prior utterances and forms—forms and utterances that were “put down” by the deities for Navajos to use. Like sacred mountains, the Navajo language is part of a larger category of diné bá niilyáii “things that were created/placed down for the Navajo.” In this view, the Navajo language is a “living language” or saad niilyá to be treated with respect (see Peterson and Webster 2013). “Poems,” as Jim explained to me, “grow just like people and in that situation the language becomes a way to explore, to discover, to create, to celebrate, and ultimately to live.” This is, I might add, not to say that Jim claims to consciously come up with all of the aforementioned associations as he writes. As Jim explained to me in February, 2001 (RLJ = Rex Lee Jim; AKW = Anthony K. Webster):

RLJ: Do I think through all these things I’m talking about when I write? Absolutely not.          [laughter] It’s more than enough to keep me from writing.

AKW: When do they come to you? After you’ve written it?

RLJ: When you ask me the questions. [laughter] No, I think they are all at play at a certain level that you’re not aware of, but later on when you written it, you think about it, “yeah, I know and this is why I’m doing it” and then you say, “oh okay, to make it a little bit more satirical, or bit more strong, or more political, or whatever, and then I’m going change this word so it connect with this specific, this other set of stories.”

Poetry—like all language—is not just, then, about the world, it is of the world; and being of the world, it holds the possibility to change the world. And for those who are willing and able to listen, this poem suggests a strong moral statement about how one may have become disorderly, out of control, or, in a word, hóchxǫ’ in their actions and thoughts. The strength of this poem is in the ways that it can evoke recognition of what “we have become.” And, perhaps, it can begin the twin and twined processes of restoration and of beauty.


A focus on cultural poetics/ethnopoetics is a meditative approach to the relationship between language, culture, the individual, and the imagination. As W.H. Auden (1990) once suggested, “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think.” In an impatient now, such research demands patience. What are needed for such an approach are the skills of both the linguist and the anthropologist. “A dash of poetry is helpful, too” (Hymes 1987: 20). What are also needed are ethnographies concerned with placing poetics and poetry within broader social, cultural, and historical fields. So, too, the question of linguistic relativity and poetics needs to be engaged thoughtfully and from the intertwined perspective of linguistics and anthropology. What are not needed, but are still too common, are studies that deal only with poetry in translation and make claims about Navajo or Mayan or Kuna or Clackamas poetry and poetics based on those translations (of varying quality).


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Webster, Anthony K. 2012b. “‘Don’t Talk About It’: Navajo Poets and Their Ordeals of Language.” Journal of Anthropological Research. 68(3): 399–414.Find this resource:

Webster, Anthony K. 2012c. “Southern Athapaskan Quotative Evidentials: A Discourse Areal Typology.” In From the Land of the Ever Winter to the American Southwest: Athapaskan Migrations, Mobility, and Ethnogenesis. (ed. Deni J. Seymour). Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. 286–302.Find this resource:

Webster, Anthony K. 2013. “‘The validity of Navajo is in its sounds:’ On Hymes, Navajo Poetry, Punning, and the Recognition of Voice.” Journal of Folklore Research. 50(1–3): 117–144.Find this resource:

Webster, Anthony K. 2015. Intimate Grammars: An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Find this resource:

Webster, Anthony K. N.d. “‘So it’s got three meanings dil dil:’ Seductive ideophony and the sounds of Navajo poetry.” To appear Canadian Journal of Linguistics.Find this resource:

Williams, Jeffrey (ed). 2014. The Aesthetics of Grammar: Sound and Meaning in the Languages of Mainland Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.Find this resource:

Woodbury, Anthony. 1985. “The Function of Rhetorical Structure: A Study of Central Alaskan Yupik Eskimo Discourse.” Language in Society. 14: 153–190.Find this resource:

Woodbury, Anthony. 1987. “Rhetorical Structure in a Central Alaskan Yupik Eskimo Traditional Narrative.” In Native American Discourse: Poetics and Rhetoric (eds. Joel Sherzer and Anthony Woodbury). Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 176– 239.Find this resource:

Woodbury, Anthony. 1993. “A Defense of the Proposition, ‘When a language dies a culture dies.’” Texas Linguistic Forum. 33: 101–129.Find this resource:

Woodbury, Anthony. 1995. “The Poetics and Rhetoric of Conversational Overlap in a Sample of Yup’ik Men’s House Speech.” Texas Linguistic Forum. 36: 77–97.Find this resource:

Woodbury, Anthony. 1998. “Documenting Rhetorical, Aesthetic, and Expressive Loss in Language Shift.” In Endangered Languages (eds. Grenoble, Lenore and Whaley, Lindsay). Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 234–258.Find this resource:

Wright, Sylvia. 1953. “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” Harper’s Magazine. 209(1254): 48–51.Find this resource:

Zentella, Ana Celia. 2002. “Latin@ Languages and Identities,” in Latinos: Remaking America (eds. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Mariela Páez). Berkeley: University of California Press. 321–338.Find this resource: