Writing in American Speech in 1955, John Lyman provided literary evidence to support the idea that the term chanty [ʃænti], in reference to a type of song, originated in the American South. At that time, such history-based challenges to current romantic images of sailors and their “sea shanties” were overshadowed by a dominant discourse reinforced through several decades of popular media. Today, a much larger body of historical evidence establishes a case for this song genre as a regional American development that eventually found its way aboard international vessels. The term chanty, however, was only later applied to the genre and was not long in use before the genre itself was disappearing from the decks of ships. Nonetheless, the term captured the imagination of authors who, in subsequent selective and prescriptive writings about its speculative origin, orthography, and pronunciation, effectively shaped popular visions of the genre. In reviewing the development of the usage of chanty, we see not only the hidden history of an area of American speech, but also an example of how seemingly mundane matters of terminology can affect understanding of a subject.
“The Execrable Term”:A Contentious History of chanty
gibb schreffler is assistant professor of music at Pomona College. A scholar engaged in both contemporary ethnographic and historical study of music and culture, his areas of research include the vernacular music and dance of South Asia’s Punjab region and the songs of nineteenth-century American maritime laborers. His work has appeared in Asian Music, South Asian History and Culture, Popular Music and Society, and The Nautilus, among others. He is coauthor of the textbook An Introduction to Punjabi (Punjabi University, 2011) and author of the forthcoming Boxing the Compass: A Century and a Half of Discourse About Sailors’ Chanties (Loomis House). E-mail: email@example.com.
Gibb Schreffler; “The Execrable Term”:A Contentious History of chanty. American Speech 1 November 2017; 92 (4): 429–458. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-4395157
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