Songs: Language Choice and Verbal Art


While describing language documentation methodology in Africa, Lüpke (2010: 67) notes that documenting the performance of verbal art often requires more than just a speaker and necessitates the documentation of the situational context. Childs et al. (2014: 169) advocate for documentation of the comprehensive language repertoire of a community in it’s sociolinguistic context rather than documenting use of a single speech variety within a multilingual reality. This presentation looks at the performance of poetic form by women in the u̱t‑Maꞌin language community in a variety of settings. Paterson (2019: 8-9) lays out seven related speech varieties—u̱t‑Fer, u̱t‑Kag, u̱t‑MaꞌKu̱u̱r, u̱t‑MaꞌJiir, u̱t‑MaꞌRo̱r, u̱s-Us, and u̱t‑Zuksun—under the cover term u̱t‑Maꞌin. In addition to the u̱t‑Maꞌin varieties, C’Lela and u̱t‑Hun, neighboring languages, and the lingua franca, Hausa, are used in a range of social functions; English is the language of federal government and education; Arabic is used to express a social identity with macro-Islamic culture. However, each u̱t‑Maꞌin speaker’s grasp of these various speech varieties differs. Within recordings made while conducting language documentation fieldwork among u̱t‑Maꞌin speakers, many songs were not sung in u̱t‑Maꞌin. Rather, C’Lela, Hausa, and Arabic were used depending on the social context. In one case, a song within a folk narrative by an u̱t-Fer storyteller (Mama Iliya et al. 2013) was not intelligible to two u̱t-MaꞌRo̱r speakers who were transcribing the story. My consultants clearly expressed that the challenge for translation was because “This is not our language”. This presentation highlights the relationships between u̱t‑Maꞌin and C’Lela cultural contexts in which only some u̱t‑Maꞌin women embrace non-u̱t‑Maꞌin verbal art. Through analysis of recorded songs, discussion around the songs at the time of collection, discussion with other u̱t‑Maꞌin speakers elsewhere, and supplemental video conference interviews, I present hypotheses about the sociolinguistic dynamics that drive the use of particular languages in songs that may prove applicable to other multilingual environments.

4 Mar, 2021 — 7 Mar, 2021
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa


Childs, Good & Alice (2014)
, & (). Beyond the Ancestral Code: Towards a Model for Sociolinguistic Language Documentation. Language Documentation & Conservation, 8. 168–191. Retrieved from
Lüpke (2010)
(). Research methods in language documentation. In Austin, P. (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description №7. (pp. 55–104). SOAS. Retrieved from
Mama Iliya & Tume Ushe (2013)
& (). Field of Okra. manuscript.
Paterson (2019)
(). Nominalization and Predication in U̱t-Maꞌin. University of Oregon. Retrieved from
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Rebecca Paterson
Rebecca Paterson
Postdoctoral Researcher

My research interests include field linguistics, grammatical description, and translation.