LINGUIST List 32.1439

Fri Apr 23 2021

Review: General Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Watts, Morrissey (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 05-Oct-2020
From: Andrew Jocuns <>
Subject: Language, the Singer and the Song
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Richard J. Watts
AUTHOR: Franz Andres Morrissey
TITLE: Language, the Singer and the Song
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Andrew Jocuns, Assumption University


Richard J. Watts and Franz Andres Morrisseys’ “Language the Singer and the Song” provides an intriguing take on folk song music performance that is quite broad, but thorough in scope, including recent concepts from sociolinguistic and anthropological linguistics, such as performance, variation, language change, style, and enregisterment. The book offers a template for the analysis of folk music performance, but could be applied to other objects of inquiry.

The introduction describes the layout of the book and introduces two performances one by Maddy Prior at Cecil Sharp House in Long, and another at a pub, the snug at the Eel’s Foot pub in Eastbridge, Suffolk, UK. The authors also discuss a definition of folk music, rejecting the idea that folk music is a genre in itself. Rather they prefer to use terms such as “musicking” which focuses upon the activity of performing music. In addition, they problematize the notion of “folk” in effect arguing that who the folk are referring to in folk music is an attempt to construct a group of people who are bonded together in a particular time and place through song. Note this could refer to music that transcends a common referent of “folk music”.

Chapter 1, “Language and Music” offers a succinct discussion of relationships between language and music centered primarily in Mithen’s (2007) engaging “The Singing Neanderthals” which discusses the evidence for and theories centered around the evolution of language and music in human evolution. They introduce the notion of “languaging” as how language emerges as a social practice in real-time. In terms of language and music the argument made by Mithen (2007) is that music came before language in terms of both its social use and biological mechanism. Music Watts and Morrissey note has often been said to have no real meaning noting Pinker’s (2007) comment that music is “cheesecake” as far as language is concerned, which has not value. Mithen’s conceptualization of how music which preceded language is known as “hmmm” (holistic, manipulative, multimodal, musical) which holds that language as a system was formed on the basis of what hmmm emerged as. In short, language did not replace hmmm but emerged from its structure. The authors then discuss song1 which is prelinguistic song and song2 which emerged with language. The argument they make has to do with ritual that music later emerged through ritual and that ritual performance is how we can describe musical performance, what the authors refer to as the “symbolic container of ritual” (p. 35).

Chapter 2 “‘Breaking through’ into Performance”, Watts and Morrissey offer a discussion of performance noting the differences between breaking into a performance and the performance mode itself. Drawing on notions of performance in sociolinguistics, anthropology, and linguistic anthropology the authors discuss Hymes notion of break through into performance (Hymes, 1981) noting his difficulty in getting his ethnographic subjects to perform for him. The issue that Hymes had was that he was not perceived to be the ideal audience for a Wishram Chinook performance. It is from Hymes’ discussion that the authors develop two important concepts which emerge throughout the monograph: keying-in and keying-out. Keying-in refers to the interactional moves, linguistic and action based, that a performer uses to take the floor in order to perform folk music. Keying-out is how the performer returns to the interactive space from which they keyed-in to close out their performance. In short performance in this interactional sense involves the process of a performer keying-in and keying-out. The authors then discuss a number of important works from anthropology on both ritual and performance, most notably Bauman and Briggs (1990) and the work of Victor Turner (Turner, 1970, 1988). The authors then discuss two key notions that also emerge throughout the analysis, relational and representational performance. The former refers to performances which are impromptu (a bar, a party, or in social interaction) the latter are performances which are staged at specific venues.

Chapter 3, “The Communality of Folk Song: Co-performance and Co-production” focuses upon comparing relational performances across time and space: two performances at the Eel’s Foot Pub in 1939 and 1947, performances at the University of Leicester Folk Song Club in the winter of 1962/1963, and performances at Monkseaton Arms at Monkseaton, Tyne and Wear in 2014. After discussing these performances, the authors discuss a number of notions of community in sociolinguistics focusing upon how an audience and the performers are a part of a communal practice. These senses of community range from communities of practice (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Eckert & Wenger, 2005; Wenger, 1999) to discourse communities (Swales, 1990). The authors then discuss a variety of songs which create community from rowing songs to marching songs and others.

In Chapter 4 “Answering Back: Rebels with and without a Cause”, the authors provide a more solid discussion of what many people think about when they hear the term folk song, the idea that folk music is progressive to the degree that it is addressing social issues such that they are answering back to social issues of the day. One trend the authors note is how there was a demographic shift in terms of listenership of folk music that involved social class where after the 1940s to the present the shift was from working class people to middle class people. The difference the authors argue has to do with how the notion of voice (Blommaert, 2005) was appropriated between using the voice of the people versus appropriating voice to create a folk. The authors discuss how folk song emerged as a form of answering back against injustice through the appropriation of voice discussing some strategies through which this is accomplished as well as some history of how this was done in the English-speaking world.

Chapter 5 “‘The Times They Are a-Changin’: Language Change and Song Change” begins a discussion of sociolinguistic variation in folk song over the next three chapters. Three ways of examining the traces of history in folk songs are proposed. First, the principle of increasing variability notes that with more variations it is less likely that one would find the original version of the song. Second, the principle of extent and type of variability suggests that within song schema versions may differ to the extent that they are perceived as different songs. Third, the principle of currency reflects the popularity of a song such that if it can be traced it was likely popular. The notion of song schema is discussed noting that it is a map of a song at three levels: musical, linguistic and narrative. It is through schemas that songs are open to adaptation.

Chapter 6 “Ideologies, Authenticities and Traditions” covers a few topics of increasing interest in sociolinguistics: ideology and authenticity. Convincingly, Watt and Morrissey argue that imposing restrictions on folk song based on authenticity removes folk song from its original context which involved both flexibility and hybridity. That is to say authenticity was not traditionally a strict dogma in folk song. The authors introduce the term discourse archive as an ideological construct that can refer to what we can say and what is true of our worlds (p. 154). Authenticity is thus an ideological value in that someone places upon certain folk songs. The argument that Watts and Morrissey make in this chapter is that authenticity is more a matter of performance and should be the focus of folk song.

Chapter 7 “‘Insects Caught in Amber’: Preserving Songs in Print, Transcript and Recording” focuses upon the notion of preserving folk songs either in print or through recording. Using a metaphor from the insect caught in amber in Jurassic Park the authors suggest that a performance of folk song may be captured in print or recording that might not be typical of how the song was usually performed. Because traditionally folk songs were transmitted and learned through performance how they are preserved can affect their preservation. They note three ways this has occurred with folk song: through print, transcription of song and lyrics, as well as recordings of audio or video. In effect songs are processes, as opposed to products, and the authors argue that part of the change involved in songs, like language change, is how they have been adopted and/or adapted by different performers.

Chapter 8 “Voices in the Folk Song” offers a discussion of voice in folk song performance. Building on the work of a number of sociolinguists on the topic, Watts and Morrissey define voicing “as an instance of language adapted to a particular interactional context and the self as a continually changing indefinite number of distinct voices internalized by an individual” (p. 203). They further note that during performance a performer’s voice may change in terms of: fictionality, representation, ritualization, and uni-directionality (p. 203). The authors then discuss voice and narrative in folk song performance primarily focusing upon Labov and Waletzky's (1967) typology of narrative analysis. One of the points of this chapter is that through identifying voices in folk song we are able to observe not only characters and social class, well known objects of analysis in sociolinguistics, but also how voice and narrative enable performers to key-in and key-out during folk song performance.

Chapter 9 “The Song: Text and Entextualization in Performance” is on another object of inquiry in sociolinguistics, processes of entextualization (Bauman & Briggs, 1990) specifically as they relate to folk song performance. They use the term entextualization to note how a text can be removed from a context and reified and decontextualized and brought into being in through a folk song performance. Part of this entextualization process involves the folk song schema, the music, the lyrics, language and other performance elements. The process of drawing together all of these elements and (re)assembling them in a performance is, the authors argue, an act of re-entextualization. The chapter details the variety of ways that performances in folk song are re-entextualized.

Chapter 10 “Going Out There and Doing Your Thing” draws attention to representational performance focusing upon the performance of Norman Blake’s “Billy Grey”. What the authors do in this chapter is quite intricate sociolinguistically as they examine the variety of choices that folk song performers have in adapting a song for performance. Decisions that different performers take to re-entextualize a song sociolinguistically for example choosing which phonological features of which dialect to use during the performance. For example, the performance of “Billy Grey” by Planxty’s Christy Moore, does not use an American pronunciation but rather a Scottish one. Towards the end of the chapter the authors offer a discussion of how standardized features may emerge in some performer’s adaptations followed by a discussion of style. In effect through style, re-entextualization practices, the manipulation of phonological features and other semiotic tools, representational performers make well-known versions of songs their own.

Chapter 11 “Enregisterment through Song: The Performer’s Credibility” is the final analysis chapter of the book, and Watts and Morrissey draw our attention to how the register of folk song has become enregistered. Enregisterment is the process by which distinct ways of speaking from phonological variation to characterological representations of speakers come to be associated with groups or types of people (Agha, 2005, 2007). The authors also discuss what they term de-enregisterment where a register which was once held positively has become “moribund” (p. 279) and re-enregisterment where a register “begins to generate new and possibly very different social stereotypes” (p.279). Using an example from Leadbelly’s recording of “The Hammer Song” recorded by Alan Lomax, they show how a folk song can indicate features of enregisterment over time through other performers’ adaptations in which the singer chose to adopt or erase features of Leadbelly’s African American Vernacular English from the original recording. Through some other examples, the authors make a strong argument for a register they refer to as “folk talk” (p. 286). This discussion also includes the various functions of keying-in and keying-out in folk song performance, detailed in table 11.1 on page 291. The discussion in the chapter closes with how the Geordie dialect has emerged in folk song and has become enregistered to the extent that the accent is associated with the “depressed north” and functions socially to answer back to the south.

Chapter 12 “Whither Folk Song, whither Sociolinguistics?” The conclusion provides not just a summary of the findings and analysis in the previous eleven chapters, but also offers some poignant discussion of where this kind of analysis can go. The latter includes adding multimodal analysis to the mix (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001; Machin & van Leeuwen, 2007), addressing issues of standardization as well as recent discussions of mobility both in human cultural geography (Cresswell, 2006) and sociolinguistics (Britain, 2016). Watts and Morrissey discuss how the study of folk song performance and sociolinguistics are inextricably linked, for example in how they both argue against and reveal hegemonic discourses. The following quote does more justice to their handling of this than any paraphrasing of mine could do:

“…both inherently need to concern themselves with hegemonic discourses. Sociolinguistics engages those discourses by revealing that there is essentially no social interaction without asymmetries in the distribution of power. Folk song practice engages those discourses by addressing a variety of social frictions and creating communities of practice through anti-hegemonic discourse. Both address the status quo; both ‘answer back’.” Page 327.


Graduate students, undergraduates and sociolinguists who are conducting research or who are interested in relations between language and music will find this work appealing and unique in how it approaches both modes. I plan to use at least one of the concepts presented here in a paper I am currently working on that shows how rap artists ‘answer back’ through song. The chapters could also be adapted to a variety of graduate or undergraduate courses in sociolinguistics.

One criticism of this work is more of a frustration as opposed to an argumentative flaw. The authors throughout the book make many references to audio and video files of performances that were uploaded to a website hosted by the publisher: it took me quite awhile to navigate access to the site. The link given redirects to another site hosted by Cambridge and to access the files one has to click on “resources” to navigate to the content. Of note is that it took some time for me to determine how to navigate the site to find the files which also have a .doc file that has YouTube links in it. For all the work I put in to finding the files, the authors should have just put those YouTube links throughout the book.

Despite this minor frustration I found this book very timely in how Watts and Morrissey utilize concepts from third wave approaches to sociolinguistic variation (Eckert, 2012) to handle folk song performance. The year 2020 has given us a lot to think about and this work offers us a means through which we can all “answer back.”


Agha, A. (2005). Voice, footing, enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 15(1), 38–59.

Agha, A. (2007). Language and social relations (1 edition). Cambridge University Press.

Bauman, R., & Briggs, C. L. (1990). Poetics and performance as critical perspectives on language and social life. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 59–88.

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Andrew Jocuns is a sociolinguist (PhD Georgetown 2005) currently working as a lecturer in the PhD program in ELT at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand. His research has focused upon Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Thailand), informal learning, multimodal discourse analysis, nexus analysis, linguistic landscapes and mediated discourse theory. His present research includes: a nexus analysis of Thai English that explores learning in both informal and incidental contexts, narrativizing linguistic and geosemiotic landscapes, and family language policy in Thailand. His research has appeared in Semiotica, Mind Culture Activity, Journal of Multicultural Discourse, Multimodal Communication and Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research.

Page Updated: 23-Apr-2021