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The linguistic analysis of North American Indian songs

  • G. L. Bursill-Hall (a1)


This paper attempts to extend a theory of description for songs belonging to non-literate societies; this theory was first described by R. H. Robins, of the Department of Linguistics of the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London and a former colleague of the late J. R. Firth. The author has tried to develop the theory a little further and has applied it to the analysis of two Haida love songs.



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1 Financial assistance towards this project received from the Canada Council, the University of British Columbia, and the American Council of Learned Societies, is hereby gratefully acknowledged.

2 Sapir, E., “The Phonetics of Haida,” IJAL 2 (1923), pp. 14358 .

3 Firth, J. R., “A Synopsis of Linguistic Theory,” Studies in Linguistic Analysis (1957), p. 8 .

4 For studies by North American scholars, practitioners of theories currently in vogue in North America, who have tried to relate Firth’s work to their own, see Hill, A. A., “Suprasegmentals, prosodies, prosodemes,” Language 37 (1961), pp. 45768 ; Pike, K. L., Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behaviour (Glendale, 195455).

5 Firth, J. R., “Atlantic Linguistics,” Papers in Linguistics (1957), p. 167 .

6 Sapir, E., “Representative Music,” The Musical Quarterly 4 (1918), pp. 16167 ; The Musical Foundations of Verse,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 20 (1921), pp. 21328 .

7 Hockett, C. F., “Componential Analysis of Sierra Popoluca,” IJAL 13 (1947), 25867 . I am indebted to Professor G. H. Fairbanks of Cornell University for drawing this important article to my attention.

8 Firth, J. R., “Sounds and Prosodies,” Papers in Linguistics, p. 128 , and “Modes of Meaning,” Papers in Linguistics, p. 191.

Firth was merely programmatic in his references to the similarities between linguistic and musical analysis; Hockett, on the other hand, suggests much more of an analogy between musical and linguistic analysis and sketches an analytical scheme of language description using features of linguistic and musical description.

It is indeed possible to suggest lines of similarity between musical and linguistic analysis. The harmonic in music can be equated to the distinctive features at the phonological level and morphological features at the grammatical level; the contrapuntal equates to phonotactic and prosodic features in phonology and to syntactic features in grammar, and the contextual is the musical equivalent of the linguistic context of situation and features such as collocations, ordered series, and specific markers—e.g. the E b Major chord of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and the collocations of some of the English words for the months.

9 Firth, , “Modes,” p. 192 .

10 Robins, R. H. and McLeod, Norma, “Five Yurok Songs: A Musical and Textual Analysis,” BSOAS 18 (1956), pp. 592609 ; Robins, R. H. and McLeod, Norma, “A Yurok Song without Words,” BSOAS 20 (1957), pp. 5016 .

11 Robins, and McLeod, , “Five Yurok Songs,” pp. 592605 .

12 Ibid., p. 592.

13 Firth, , “Synopsis,” p. 7 .

14 Firth, , “Modes,” p. 192 ; Firth, J. R., “The Techniques of Semantics,” Papers in Linguistics, pp. 2427 .

15 Sapir stated that his informant, Rev. Dr. P. R. Kelly, was “too much occupied to give me more than a few hours”; Dr. Kelly, who now lives in retirement at Nanaimo, B.C., confirms this, and so far as he can remember, he spent only a couple of afternoons with Sapir.

16 I am indebted to my son, Damian Bursill-Hall, who was responsible for all the musical notation and transcription of these and other Haida songs.

17 Robins and McLeod, “Fire Yurok Songs.”

18 Robins, and McLeod, , “A Yurok Song,” p. 505 .

19 Sapir, E., “Phonetics,” p. 151 .

20 Firth, , “Modes,” p. 190 et seq.

21 Firth, , “Synopsis,” pp. 1516 ; Bursill-Hall, G. L., “The Linguistic Theories of J. R. Firth,” Thought (1960), pp. 24546 ; Bursill-Hall, G. L., “Levels Analysis: J. R. Firth’s Theories of Linguistic Analysis,” JCLA 6 (1960-61), p. 133 ; Halliday, M. A. K., “Categories of the Theory of Grammar,” Word 17 (1961), pp. 27072 .

22 The singer was Mrs. Susan Williams of Skidegate.

23 Robins, and McLeod, , “Five Yurok Songs,” p. 593 .

24 Ibid., pp. 594 et seq.

25 Sapir, , “Phonetics,” p. 154 .

26 Jones, D., An Outline of English Phonetics (London, 1956), p. 31 .

27 Robins, R. H., “Aspects of Prosodic Analysis,” Proceedings of the University of Durham Philosophical Society 1 (1957), 112 ; Bursill-Hall, , “Levels Analysis,” pp. 17173 .

28 Bazell, C. E., Linguistic Form (Istanbul, 1953), pp. 3335 ; Bazell, C. E., “The Fundamental Syntactic Relations,” Časopis pro Moderní Filologii 33 (1950), 915 .

29 These remarks about the grammar of Haida must be regarded as tentative and have been made to illustrate the type of analysis to be made and its place in the description of the songs.

30 Robins, and McLeod, , “Five Yurok Songs,” p. 595 .

31 Bazell, , Linguistic Form, pp. 3536 .

32 Capital letters represent text-music phrases, and the tie-lines link repetitions, thus making of them phrase classes.

33 One version was sung by Mr. Henry Young and Mrs. Susan Williams, both of Skidegate; the other version was sung by Mrs. Victoria Edgars of Masset.

34 Firth, , “Synopsis,” p. 13 ; Simon, , “Two Substantive Complexes in Standard Chinese,” BSOAS 15 (1953), pp. 32755 .

35 Firth, , “Synopsis,” p. 8 .

36 Robins, R. H., “General Linguistics in Great Britain, 1930-1960,” Trends in Modern Linguistics (1962), p. 14 .

The linguistic analysis of North American Indian songs

  • G. L. Bursill-Hall (a1)


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