Speech Acts and Aesthetic Communities

Term referring most generally to African-American vernacular verbal play, a form closely linked to the insult or to the diss. "Signifyin(g)" is written as such to distinguish it from the Standard English homonym "signifying"; it indicates the way in which African-American speech pronounces the word: "signifyin'".

Signifyin(g) is figurative, implicative speech. It makes use of vernacular tropings such as "marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one's name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens (a ritualized word game that consists of exchanging insults usually about the members of the opponent's family)" (Gates 1988, 52) among other rhetorical devices. It is a way of saying one thing and meaning another; it is a reinterpretation, a metaphor for the revision of previous texts and figures; it is tropological thought, the purposeful obscuring of meaning, and most importantly: repetition (with difference) and revision.

Signifyin(g) in Rhythm & Blues

The best way to understand the sound and meaning of vernacular Signifyin(g) is to simply listen for it. Rhythm & Blues -- a loose term meaning music specifically produced (usually, by and) for African-Americans, steeped in the traditions of black music and Black English vernacular -- contains some easily located, poignant examples.

Okeh Records blues singer Big Maybelle (1924-1972) recorded a cut called "Gabbin' Blues" (1953, R&B#3) with her sister Rosie Marie McCoy (please see footnote). Big Maybelle is engaged in a verbal dispute with a female acquaintance. The form of the song is a 12-bar blues consisting of two African-American voices: a singing voice (Big Maybelle) and a spoken voice (Rose Marie McCoy), both of whom composed the arrangement and lyrics. The spoken voice, a younger sounding woman, enacts Signifyin(g) by addressing the singer as she is arriving within the conversational space (“Here comes ole evil chick, tellin’ everybody she come from Chicago – got Mississippi written all over.”)

Let us first take a look at how the singer produces meaning from the text. Using a powerful, deeply-felt alto voice, Big Maybelle addresses the signifier in a bitter, world-weary tone, confident in her agency over the signifier and in her violent potential. As the singer, her voice is deeply imprinted into the texture of the rhythm section (featuring a foreboding, lyrical piano obbligato), giving the impression that the singer’s is an older text, while the speaker’s Signifyin(g) text is superimposed on top of the song-text.

In “Gabbin’ Blues,” the singer has grown weary of the presence and interference of the signifier (“You better stop tryin’ to run my business”). Her speech act presents an ultimatum of violent action (“I’ll have to do what I hate to do”) in retribution for the signifier’s continued interference. (“If you don’t keep cool, it’ll be so hot you can’t go on”). She coolly displays her mastery of rhetorical strategy by denying the speaker entry into the primary text.

The speaker seeks to usurp the singer’s control of discourse. She does this by critiquing the admonitions issued by the singer. Because she is denied access to the space of the singer, the speaker – as Signifier, troublemaker, and trickster – addresses the listener, or some non-present person, to critique the singer. The speaker Signifies on the singer’s warnings by dismissing them as impotent (“go ahead and do it, ain't nobody scared'a you”, “’keep cool’ – that’s a threat?”); by reversing the direction of threat (“I better not let the cat out the bag on you, chile, or you'll be ruined!”); and through the suggestion that she is preventing the singer’s loss of reputation. She posits these signifiers, however, without stamina or force, much less the full-bodied resource of a blues vocal and is, in her lack, rendered ineffective as signifier.

In evaluating this Signifyin(g) ritual, the listener experiences the signifier thwarted in her attempts to supplant the discursive power of the singer. While the speaker Signifies with dexterity and skillful inversion of text, she is blocked, even cut-off (line 26: “you don't know nothin, too ol—“) from the singer’s text. In her inability to infiltrate the song-text, the speaker is forced to critique the singer line by line, rather than on the level of meta-commentary.

A key strategy that the singer uses in defeating the signifier is her repetition of the first lyrical stanza during the coda. This confirmational self-Signifyin(g) is marked as such by its "repetition with a difference", a key aspect of Gates theory of Signifyin(g). In the first line of the coda, the singer repeats the line (“you better stop tryin’”) with reduplication on the word “tryin’” The effect of this repetition, with additional emphasis and intensity on that word, is to Signify on the speaker’s futile insistence at approaching the singer.

In “Gabbin’ Blues,” we have a remarkable recording of a Signifyin(g) act as it unfolds. The singer denies the speaker, who attempts to gain rhetorical power, access to the level at which meaning is produced. The singer denies her the benefit of critique, of being incorporated into her text, and in doing so, the speaker cannot build upon the signifiers she has attempted to plant in the song-text. We see here how the fixed text is much less crucial than the performance and event of that text.

Signifyin(g) in Hip Hop

The act of Signifyin(g) has always been a crucial aspect of African and African-American expression. The proliferation of hip-hop -- here, a term which will encompass rap and other closely related vernacular music styles -- into international pop culture has made available countless examples of this verbal strategy.

While nearly any hip-hop cut with a competitive edge contains some Signifyin(g), consider one of hip-hop's most beloved examples: De La Soul - "Bitties In The BK Lounge" (1990). A heated rivalry between a man and woman, "Bitties" is Signifyin(g) competition in which the two seek to resolve sexual tension by way of making public the private: reduction of social status; the "yo mama" trope; and the outing of bodily dysfunction.

The victor in a Signifyin(g) session of this nature is the most effective trickster, the one who most masterfully revises and repeats (with a difference) the text of the other speaker. The defeated is the speaker who finds him or herself in a rhetorical vertigo, who is incompetent in returning the insult, or upping the ante with yet more potent or clever speech acts.

Signifyin(g) is a public demonstration of cultural and verbal mastery--it is almost always done in the spirit of celebration, almost never vindication or humiliation.

Signifyin(g) in Literature

Geneva Smitherman conducted a pioneering study of Signifyin(g) in the African-American vernacular tradition. In her 1977 account of the speech act Talkin' and Testifyin', Signifyin(g) exhibits the following characteristics:

  1. indirection (language marked by lack of straightforwardness), circumlocution (evasion in speech)
  2. metaphorical-imagistic (images rooted in the everyday, real world) language
  3. humor, irony
  4. rhythmic fluency and sound
  5. teaching without preaching
  6. direction towards someone in the situational context
  7. punning and play on words
  8. introduction of the semantically or logically unexpected

Like hip-hop, the African-American literary tradition is rife with examples of vernacular Signifyin(g). The novel Lawd Today by Richard Wright exhibits Smitherman's techniques (1-4, 6-7) in the following example:

"You're one down, redoubled!" boomed Slim, marking down the score.
"Easy's taking candy from a baby!" laughed Al.
"Smoother'n velvet!" laughed Slim rearing back in his seat and blowing smoke to the ceiling.
"Like rolling off a log!" sang Al, shuffling the cards.
"Like sliding down a greasy pole!"
"Like snapping your fingers!"
"Like spitting!"
"Like falling in love with a high yellow."

Signifyin(g) as Critical Theory

So far, Signifyin(g) has been explained as a speech ritual, a playful competition between speakers of a common vernacular in which verbal strategies - such as playing the dozens, toasts, rapping, loud-talking and so on - are used to better the status of a particular speaker.

The scope of Signifyin(g) is much broader and more complex than a single system of competitive speech acts, however. African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates elaborated Signifyin(g) as a critical approach in his groundbreaking study The Signifying Monkey (1989, Oxford University Press). In the Black aesthetic community -- a term which will refer here to creative agents of music, literature, storytelling, poetry, film, and other forms -- producers from that community Signify on other producers by engaging with texts, by referencing those texts in their work.

In the following discussion the idea of text includes any form of aesthetic production, be it recordings, paintings, poetry, dance, and so on, that can be 'read', studied, revised, and repeated in some way. Musical recordings are 'texts' in that they can be heard nearly as they sounded when they were recorded, with a reasonably acceptable amount of quality loss.

Performances - dance, music, theater - are texts in that they can be shared through memory and through written texts that comment on the content and meaning of that performance (criticism). There is a greater amount of quality loss in criticism because the performance act is not repeated but communicated subjectively; that is, a camera may record a dance performance, but it does so through the eye of the cinematographer; a review of a concert gives an interpretation of that performance, but you do not 'read' the experience of having been there.

Aesthetic communities consist of producers who, aside from creating their own work, Signify on the work of others. Aesthetic Signifyin(g) - like its vernacular cousin - is enacted when a producer reads, interprets, plays with, and expands the work of his or her peers. Signifyin(g) becomes a creative bond between people, ideas, and texts; it reproduces and reinforces a community by way of reference, repetition, and revision.


After this lengthy treatment, the reader might still inquire: "So, why is Signifyin(g) important to think about; is it not over-analysis?" As a communication strategy and as an aesthetic technique, Signifyin(g) is important because it underlies so much of the African-American cultural tradition. Signifyin(g) is an acknowledgement and reinforcement of sources and influences. More importantly, Signifyin(g) builds community by interconnecting both the material and personal vision of creative individuals.

Note: "Gabbin' Blues" has been given an extended lyrical treatment; undoubtedly it would do well as a self-contained (lyric explication) node. However, I am still doing research to find personnel information and other recording meta-data. I will extract this analysis, expand, and thoroughly soft and hard link to it once my research on "GB" is complete.

Floyd, Samuel. The Power Of Black Music. New York: Oxford, 1995.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford, 1989.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin' and Testifyin': The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

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