Studying Language Through Folklore

By: Dr. M. Maniruzzaman

The general studies of the varied aspects of social life that interest us to a substantial extent include folkloristics, sociolinguistics, sociology, social and cultural anthropology, ethnology and ethnography. Though these studies are known and established as different subjects of learning or disciplines, it is not always possible to make a clear distinction between them. They are even found to be overlapping and inter-dependent in many respects. This factor encourages the present writer to examine how the subject-matter and/or medium of one social science can contribute to the study of another social science. For the convenience of the current investigation, the researcher has narrowed down the area and zeroed in on folklore and sociolinguistics.
That is, the present paper purports to be an endeavour to investigate and ascertain the relevance of the study of the language of folklore to sociolinguistics since folklore is embodied and composed in, and manifested and transmitted by means of spoken language and sociolinguists discover and determine the relations of language to society. To explore the issue in question, the researcher first elucidates the role of language in folklore and then ascertains the aspects of language studied in sociolinguistics. Finally, the relevance of the study of the language of folklore to sociolinguistics has been established and exhibited.

Language and folklore
Folklore being constituted of the customs, beliefs, attitudes, life style, joys, sorrows, entertainments, events, states, habits, traditions, and so forth of a particular group of people or community manifests itself as myths, legends, proverbs, riddles, tales, poetry, and other forms of artistic expression and passes down through the oral tradition. Hence, speech, a primary and productive skill of the language used by a specific community, performs a very significant part in containing, carrying, transmitting and communicating the varied products of the experience and knowledge of the people of the community. That is, the spoken word of course used in social contexts functions as the medium of folklore that not only encompasses the cognitive, cultural and social effects of the society/community but also profiles the trends of the society/community (Dundes 1965).
Social scientists have always considered language as an inevitable factor in social life since culture is only transmissible through coding, classifying and concentrating experience through some form of language. Hoijer (1964) maintains that there exists a functional interrelationship between socially patterned habits of speaking and thinking and other socially patterned habits. According to Worsley (1970), a developed language is a unique and distinctive human trait, and human society is a higher level of organization of behaviour than merely instinctive or animal behaviour. Sapir (1970: 68) also acknowledges language as a valuable guide to the scientific study of a particular culture, because 'the network of cultural patterns of a civilization is indexed in the language which expresses that civilization'. It is therefore obvious that the speech of a particular community embodies and transmits its folklore, and folklore is naturally an authentic manifestation of the speech.
Moreover, Malinowski (1923) observes that an utterance in a primitive language is totally incomprehensible unless it is placed into its cultural setting and related to the circumstances in which it occurs. He argues -
Language is essentially rooted in the reality of the culture, the tribal life and customs of the people, and ... it cannot be explained without constant reference to these broader contexts of verbal utterance. (op. cit.: 306)
This postulate makes it clear that speech is intelligible when it is explained with reference to its context. And folklore can provide us with the context we need to interpret the language or speech of a community that no more exists in its primitive or previous form but is manifested in its customs and traditions.

Language and sociolinguistics
We do not use a language in a vacuum. We use it in some context to communicate with one another in our day-to-day life situations. That is why, a language has to be studied with reference to the context of a particular setting in which it is spoken. This exhibits the importance of the culture of the setting as language is an index to or reflection of the culture. Malinowski (1923: 305) rightly holds -
The study of any language spoken by a people who live under conditions different from our and possess a different culture must be carried out in conjunction with a study of their culture and of their environment.
He supports the ethnographer's approach to language as real and fundamental, and finds the uses of language in a primitive community being fourfold - the speech of action, narrative, phatic communion and the ritual use of words. And it is claimed that Malinowski's recognition of these four pragmatic functions of language use and the relationship between language use, context of situation, and culture anticipate present-day sociolinguistic thought (Stern 1983). That is, the study of language in its social context starts from the assumption that speech varies in varied social circumstances and that there exist speech varieties within a speech community.
It is conspicuous that culture is an adaptive device by which people survive in their various environments and so is language, the most obvious purpose of which is the conveying of information, including information about the situation and the speakers. This is a function that it serves in all societies. But other functions are also served as well, such as to mark social identities and social statuses, establish and maintain social relationships, and to serve the expressive needs of individuals. A function performed by language in one society may be performed by a different social institution in another society. Not all societies use language or focus on it to the same extent, value it equally, or use it for the same purposes. Likewise, some societies have only one language, and some have more than one. One language might, thus, be assigned a number of different functions in one society, which are divided among more than one language in some other society. Not all languages or language varieties are capable to the same extent on fulfilling any given function.
Language, especially speech being the natural means of communication in real life situations is manifested in diverse forms, such as dialogues and folklore, and appears to have a variety of possible relationships with society or the community (Wardhaugh 1992). Firstly, social structure may either affect or determine linguistic structure and/or behaviour. Secondly, directly opposed to the first one, linguistic structure and/or behaviour may either influence or determine social structure. Thirdly, language and society may influence each other. Fourthly, there exists no relationship at all between linguistic structure and social structure, and each is independent of the other. But, the fourth relationship appears to be entirely baseless. We can reasonably assume that the most basic function of a language is to exercise some sort of control over the behaviour of the people of the community, and vice versa. It might be hypothesized on the societal level that the chief function of a language includes social cooperation and control - promoting conformity to a society's norms. A language performs the role of a tool, a vehicle of the social order. The principal effect of a language is found to be the creation of a system that makes integration, social coordination and cooperation as well as cultural cumulation and transmission.
Consequently, we have had 'sociolinguistics' defined as 'the study of language in relation to society' (Hudson 1996:1). That is, this branch of linguistics is concerned with investigating, disclosing and ascertaining the relations of language to varied aspects of society, such as social class, ethnic origin, life style, education, age, sex, attitudes, emotions, and so forth. Stern (1983: 218) contends - 'in sociolinguistics converge all the earlier efforts in anthropology, sociology, social psychology, and linguistics to relate language systematically to society and culture'. And a major direction of sociolinguistics is the study of the individual's communicative activity in its social setting, referred to as 'ethnography of speaking', or more widely as 'ethnography of communication' (Sherzer 1977). To elaborate on the ethnography of speaking, we could consider what Labov (1970: 30) postulates -
There is a great deal to be done in describing and analyzing the patterns of use of languages and dialects within a specific culture: the forms of speech events, the rules for appropriate selection of speakers; the interrelations of speakers, addressee, audience, topic, channel and setting; and the ways in which the speakers draw upon the resources of their language to perform certain functions.
This approach to sociolinguistics extends the area of linguistics beyond the study of formal properties of utterances to the study of the social contexts and of the participants in acts of communication. It is then important to investigate everything from considering who speaks what language to whom and when and to what end (Fishman 1972), that is, the distribution of linguistic items, to considering how a given linguistic variable might relate to the formulation of a specific grammatical rule in a given language or dialect, and even to the processes through which languages change.
However, a worthwhile sociolinguistics is more than a simple mixing of linguistics and sociology which takes concepts and findings from the two disciplines and attempts to relate them through correlational techniques or any other simple way. A mechanical amalgamation of standard linguistics and standard sociology is not likely to suffice in that adding a speechless sociology to a sociology-free linguistics may miss entirely what is significant in the relationship between language and society (Hymes 1974). Sociolinguistics has to discover specific points of connection between language and society, and formulate theories that throw light on how linguistic and social structures interact. This leads to the investigation into the relevance of the study of the language of folklore to sociolinguistics.

Folklore and sociolinguistics
It is evident that linguists are mainly interested in those aspects of speech which help them solve problems of formal grammar. They only attend to social and expressive aspects of speech so as to explicate grammatical issues. In the choice between 'langue' and 'parole' (Saussure 1916) or 'competence' and 'performance' (Chomsky 1965), only langue or competence being the exclusive domain of structure is chosen for the proper subject of linguistics. A general investigation into the principles governing the interaction between the participants in a speech event has not yet been carried out. However, sociolinguistics makes the opposite choice and picks up the variability of parole or performance that constitutes the substance of linguistics.
Contrariwise, anthropologists and other social scientists leave the linguistic characteristics of speech aside and usually take account of only its form in order to extract its content. They simply discuss the importance of a verbal genre, such as myth or gossip, and overlook or are unaware of what one needs to know to recognize an instance of a verbal genre or to perform it as well as of the ways in which what is said is a function of how it is said. Thus, anthropologists postulate ethnographies of speech (Hymes 1974) and appear to be blind to the communicative aspects of speech, that is, to the crucial question 'What is the actual functioning of speech?'. In this connection, Hymes (1974: 126) contends -
It might seem that little of importance is at stake; a certain kind of information slips away between the two approaches - that of grammar and that of ethnography - but nothing consequential. In my view, quite the opposite is the case. We shall not be able to have a theory that accounts for the meaning of language in different lives and cultures, that can deal with the many linguistic problems of the contemporary world, until we examine this "slippage" and reconstruct the study of language from its vantage point - that of the actual functioning of language.
Speech, the true nexus between language and social life and/or the medium of folklore, has hardly been paid adequate and proper attention. As sociolinguistics is oriented towards both data and theory: that is, any conclusions we come to must be solidly based on evidence, folklore that travels through speech can certainly provide the sociolinguists with plenty of data to be exploited to find out varied interesting aspects, such as linguistic state, social conditions, cultural traits, and the like. This is also consistent with Laguna (1927: 19-20) who clearly advocates the pragmatic functions of language, that is, to direct, control and correlate human activity manifested in folklore and studied in sociolinguistics -
Men do not speak simply to relieve their feelings or to air their views but to awaken a response in their fellows and to influence their attitudes and acts. It is further the means by which men are brought into a new and momentous relationship with the external world, the very relationship which makes for them an objective order.
In other words, as both language and folklore are directly related to a speech community and considered as an index to culture, sociolinguistics should find the language of folklore relevant to its study.

Sociolinguistics studies speech so as to unfold the relations between speech and the speech community/society. And speech is the medium of folklore that incorporates all the aspects including traditions, customs and culture of the speech community. Hence, folklore can certainly contribute to sociolinguistics via speech.
The content and context of folklore, and the manner in which folklore activity is organized are obviously closely correlated with the institutions of the society in which it is situated. This emerges from the consideration of function and contexts, for these relate to specific social groupings in any society, and to its social occasions and activities. It is clear too that the organization of folklore activity plays a wider role in society, over and above the particular groups and occasions on which it is practised, and without the participants necessarily including this among their conscious intentions. Folklore and its performance can also be seen as a way in which a heritage of artistic performance and of social values and ideas is passed on from one generation to another - with changes and development, no doubt, but providing a basic continuity of artistic form and outlook between generations. Therefore, the language that carries folklore can be studied in sociolinguistics in order to discover its relations to the particular society.
According to Hymes (1974), folklore is relevant and contributes to sociolinguistics with respect to the concepts of performance and of genre. To support his view, he reviewed Lomax (1968: 155 - 61) who refers to 'the performance orientation of the research', treats performance situation, rules of performance, and particularly five levels of performance style in song - "interlocked', 'simple social unison', 'overlap', 'simple alteration', and 'solo and explicit', and implicitly defines the relation of performer to audience. Hymes (1974) then considers Ben-Amos (1971: 5) who maintains that 'the performance situation, in the final analysis, is the crucial for the available text'. Hymes (1974) also studies Abrahams (1968) who propounds that what is necessary is a method that would emphasize all aspects of the esthetic performance. Moreover, Hymes (1974) reviews Arewa and Dundes (1964) who demonstrate ways to study folklore as communication in terms of rules of use. Hymes (1974) thus comes to the conclusion -'the essential element common to all these approaches is the movement from a focus on the text to a focus on the communicative event'.
That is to say, folklore, especially its language can be studied in sociolinguistics so as to reveal the relation between folkloristic materials and other aspects of social life in situ, as it were, where that relation actually obtains, the communicative events in which folklore is used.

The foregoing analysis, examination and discussion have made it clear that folklore reveals the traditions, customs and culture of a speech community and transmits them through speech in spontaneous and natural functioning, whereas sociolinguistics studies speech so as to uncover its relations to the speech community. Hence, the language of folklore is evidently a subject matter of sociolinguistics as the language can create an opportunity of investigating how it was/is related to a particular society, such as Homer's society, the society reflected in the language of Beowulf, in the language of the story of Beder Meye, and so forth. And the relevance of the study of the language of folklore to sociolinguistics may provide a special opportunity for the development of folklore itself (Hymes 1974).

Abrahams, R. D. 'Introductory remarks to a rhetorical theory of folklore'. Journal of American Folklore, 81, 1968: 143 - 158.
Arewa, E. O. and A. Dundes. 'Proverbs and the ethnography of speaking folklore'. In J. J. Gumperz and D. Hymes (eds.). The Ethnography of Communication. Washington, D. C.: American Anthropological Association, 1964.
Ben-Amos, D. 'Towards a definition of folklore in context'. Journal of American Folklore, 84, 1971: 3 - 15.
Chomsky, A. N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1965.
De Laguna, G. A. Speech,Its Function and Development. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1927.
Dundes, A. (ed.). The Study of Folklore. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1965.
Fishman, J. A. 'The sociology of language'. In P. P. Giglioli (ed.). Language and Social Context: Selected Readings. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1972.
Hoijer, H. 'Cultural implications of some Navaho linguistic categories'. In Del Hymes (ed.). Language in Culture and society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. New York: harper and Row, 1964.
Hudson, R. A. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Hymes, D. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
Labov, W. 'The study of language in its social context'. Studium Generale, 23, 1970: 30 - 87.
Lomax, A. Folk Song Style and Culture. Washington, D. C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1968.
Malinowski, B. 'The problem of meaning in primitive languages'. In C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (ed.). The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. London:Trubner and Co., 1923.
Sapir, E. Culture, Language and Personality: Selected essays. Edited by D. G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1970.
Saussure, F. de.coors de Linguistique generale. C. Bally, A. Sechehaye and A. Riedlinger (eds.). Paris: Payot, 1916.
Sherzer, J. 'The ethnography of speaking: a critical appraisal'. In Saville-Troike, M. (ed.). Linguistics and Anthropology. Washington, D. C.: Georgetown University Press, 1977.
Stern, H. H. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Wardhaugh, R. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Worsley, P. et al. Introducing Sociology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.


» More on Languages