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How to become a Kisii folktale: Generic features of moralizing narratives among the Gusii people of Kenya



Talk presented at the Language, Interaction, & Social Organization Symposium (LISO) special session on Interaction & Culture Across Languages: Perspectives from Field Linguistics, April 8, 2016, University of California, Santa Barbara.
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... The task of determining the moral of the story is left to the listener. Moreover, Gusii storytellers go to great lengths to minimize their own role in the narrative performance through a process of self-erasure, going so far as to personify and embody the story itself, beginning each telling with the call and response sequence, 'May I, Story, come?', to which the audience replies, 'Story, come.' (Hieber 2016). ...
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It is well known that the act of invoking a genre is fundamentally one of social action: speakers perform texts with specific social ends in mind, drawing on intertextual connections to imbue their performance with social meaning (Basso, 1996; Bauman, 2004; Briggs & Bauman, 1992; Hodges, 2015). But when a particular genre consists of or includes musical signs in addition to linguistic ones, the question becomes, ‘What does music add to the social act? Why mix the two modalities, and why switch between them?’ This paper describes the use of short songs in a particular moralizing genre of narratives called ‘folktales’ in Kisii, a Bantu language of southwestern Kenya, and shows how these musical performances not only play a role in the socializing function that these narratives have, but are in fact central to how the narrator accomplishes social action through the genre. Because the moral messages of these folktales are never supposed to be told explicitly, Kisii narrators must use indirect means of conveying the proper stances that listeners are meant to have towards events and characters in the narrative. By having characters within the narrative sing emotionally expressive songs, narrators avoid explicit moralizing by either themselves or the characters, while simultaneously layering the text with an implicit social metacommentary. In this way, the switch from linguistic to musical signs becomes the most central component of the text-as-social-action.
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