Documenting language and discerning listenership: Fluent speakers’ evaluations of Dakota’s oldest legacy texts


  • Josh Wayt


This paper follows ethnopoetic tradition by combining close linguistic analysis with ethnographic scrutiny in order to shed light on the social production of the oldest legacy data on the Dakota language, a set of biblical translations published in 1839. Semantic calques from the French-language source text are ubiquitous in the translations, which subsequently became enregistered as “theological speech” through their use in Dakota religious services for nearly two centuries. Despite the morpho-syntactic aberrance of this legacy material and the interpretive problems it poses, contemporary Dakota speakers express very high praise for the text. I account for this surprising evaluation by describing Dakota ideas related to skilled speaking, discerning listenership, and the autonomy of persons. In particular, I show that the semantically and grammatically unorthodox biblical translations satisfy Dakota expectations about skilled speakers’ habit of producing oblique discourse that allows autonomous listeners to practice careful discernment. Within the Hymesian tradition of textual analysis, uncovering the poetic patterns latent within legacy data culminated in a more meaningful text by displaying the individual voice of a skilled narrator. This paper instead highlights the collective listenership of the descendant community and the cultural values that animate their appraisals of legacy material.


Dakotalinguistic analysisethnographic scrutinyFrench languagecultural valuesethnopoetic
  • Year: 2021
  • Volume: 21
  • Page/Article: 140-165
  • DOI: 10.25894/ldd20
  • Published on 31 Dec 2021