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Five Traditional Phraseology in the Serbo-Croatian Return Song
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Albert Lord and the Concept of the Formula in Serbo-Croatian Oral Epic

Just as Milman Parry did for Homeric epos, Lord bases his theory of composition of Serbo-Croatian oral epic on the singer's verbal dexterity in manipulating formulas .[1] This phraseological unit, which he defines after Parry as "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea" (1960, 30), is construed as the sine qua non of oral style—in the sense not only that it is typical of that style but also, and crucially, that it is necessary to that style. For Lord, as for Parry,


the primary quality of the formula is its utility to the singer who composes in performance, and throughout his writings he has emphasized the role of usefulness over all other ancillary characteristics.[2]

One telling formulation of the utility argument is Lord's description of formulaic diction as a language, more specifically as a grammar out of which are generated the actual verses in a song.[3] Speaking of the systematic variations as well as the more obvious verbatim repeats, he remarks (pp. 35-36) that "in studying the patterns and systems of oral narrative verse we are in reality observing the 'grammar' of the poetry, a grammar superimposed, as it were, on the grammar of the language concerned." Lines are not simply repeated and memorized, then, but are used by the singer and tradition as patterns, and these patterns give rise to a skein of related phrases.[4] From a functional point of view, the guslar has learned not a set of discrete phrases but a formulaic system that can be pressed into service in a variety of narrative situations, and that will both retain the fundamental design of the system and take on various situation-specific shapes.[5] Thus, Lord's continuing reference to a grammar of oral poetry explains both straight repetitions and formulaic phrases as the performance products of underlying systemic patterns.[6]

The grammar generates phrases—lines and cola—called formulas (defined above) and formulaic systems , the latter term referring to units that "follow the same basic patterns of rhythm and syntax and have at least one word in the same position in the line in common with other lines or half lines" (p. 47). Formulaic systems may be unearthed by collecting from a singer's repertoire phrases that satisfy this definition and displaying them as a substitution system. One of Lord's examples of such a group of phrases (p. 48), shown in abbreviated form in figure 4, involves reflexes of a certain verb "to mount" (zasediti ) and various words for "horse." The essential idea, "to mount a horse," remains the same throughout the series, as do both the syntactic pattern of verb followed by direct object and the metrical pattern of six syllables (3-3, filling the second colon). What changes is the nominal variance in the morphology of the verb[7] and, more importantly because systematically, the specific lexical


Figure 4.
Lord's zasediti Formulaic System

designation for "horse." This formulaic system thus answers all of the criteria for a formula except for the exact repetition of the "group of words." Strictly speaking, repetition of any one of the multiple possibilities given above would constitute evidence of a formula, while the multiformity of the group as a whole furnishes evidence of the underlying formulaic system.

These units of traditional phraseology, under the influence of the vocal and instrumental melodies to which the guslar learns to sing them,[8] comprise a tissue of ideas to be sorted, adapted, and combined in the composition of Serbo-Croatian oral epic. And in keeping with his and Parry's original focus on utility as the functional reason for such a phraseology, Lord (1960, 34) identifies "the most stable formulas" as "those for the most common ideas of the poetry." Those which recur most often, those which show themselves most useful to the singer in performance will, he indicates, undergo little or no change. Thus formulas having to do with (1) common characters, (2) frequent actions, (3) the time when an action occurs, and (4) the place where an action occurs comprise a significant portion of the traditional staple.

In the first case, the names of characters tend to occupy six syllables and to fill the second colon (e.g., Kraljevicu[*] Marko, beg Mustajbeg licki, etc.), using patronymics, grammatically unwarranted vocative inflections, or descriptive complements to eke out the colonic form; once formed and employed with any frequency, these lexical fossils—like their counterparts the Homeric noun-epithet formulas that Parry used to demonstrate the recurrent nature of that diction—are extremely unlikely to show much deviation. Typical actions, such as speaking to an assembly, mounting a horse, shouting in prison, and the like show somewhat more variation but are relatively constant. Likewise, the time and place involved in an action reveal yet more formulaic variation, since many different times and places must be accommodated in the syntactic and metrical patterns; yet these two latter categories also achieve some stability in the poetry.


Other parameters also assist in shaping and preserving formulaic diction. Besides the little-studied relationship between melody and the poetic line mentioned above, Lord describes the features of word-boundary pattern, syntactic balance, and a variety of acoustic phenomena, among them leonine or end-colon rhyme, colon-initial rhyme, alliteration, and assonance.[9] Although he accords to none of these features (illustrated below) the status of prosodic or formulaic determinant, he shows how they function on an ad hoc basis in the composition process.

Word-boundary pattern[10]

Most frequent syllabic patterns in colon 1: 2-2, 1-3, 4

Most frequent syllabic patterns in colon 2: 2-4, 4-2, 3-3

Syntactic parallelism

Kad tatarin pod Kajnidju dodje,

Pa eto ga uz caršiju prodje ,

When the messenger came down to Kajnidja ,

Then he passed along the main street ,

Leonine or End-colon rhyme

U becara[*] nema hizmecara[*] .

For a bachelor there is no servant .

Colon-initial rhyme

Zveknu halka a jeknu kapija.

The knocker rang and the gate resounded .


Na V isoko v iše Sarajeva,

At Visoko above Sarajevo,


Još do zore dva puna sa ha ta ,

Even two full hours before dawn,

Once more, these morphological, syntactic, and phonological characteristics are active and relatively frequent aids to the guslar as he makes his song, and


in that way they have a generic identity in the singing tradition. But they are finally only accoutrements of formulaic diction—means by which that diction can achieve and perhaps maintain a certain stability[11] —and are not as regular or as fundamental to traditional phraseology as is its prosody or its formulaic structure. Lord describes the characteristics exemplified above as providing a pathway of sound and structure for the guslar as he composes.

Taking account of sound patterns and the like leads Lord to a treatment of the major substructures of the line, the two cola or hemistichs. Understanding the length of the formula as either a whole line or a single colon,[12] he notes that the more spacious six-syllable second colon typically contains most of the noun-epithet combinations, while the initial four-syllable colon very often contains a verb and begins with a conjunction. As for the relationship between the two segments of the line, he remarks (1960, 42) that "the second half of the line is dependent not only syntactically on the first, but is also to some extent suggested by the sound patterns with which the line opens." In this and other ways, the two cola, metrically unequal in both extent and inner structure as we have seen in Chapter 3, tend to parcel out syntactic duties differentially.

Relying on the ideas of a grammar of oral verse-making and of the primary role of utility as the bases of his concept of traditional phraseology, Lord, again following Parry, performs a formulaic analysis of fifteen lines from one version of The Song of Bagdad by Salih Ugljanin (SCHS 2, no. 1, lines 789-803). The referent for his investigation consists of eleven different songs by Ugljanin, or a total of twelve thousand lines; three of the songs were recorded on phonograph disks, four were recited (not sung) for the records, and four were taken from dictation.[13] Lord's figures indicate that approximately one-quarter of the (whole) lines and one-half of the cola in the passage are repeated verbatim in the referent; these, then, are the formulas. Yet according to the criteria prescribed, there is absolutely nothing that cannot be shown to be formulaic; every one of the lines and cola can be traced to a formulaic system by reference to the twelve thousand lines used for comparison. Furthermore, he argues (1960, 47) that had he increased the size of the referent and included within it the songs of other singers, it would have become apparent that


"almost all, if not all, the lines in the sample passage were formulas and that they consisted of half lines which were also formulas."

This demonstration and the accompanying extrapolation from the observed figures to the conclusion quoted above comprise the locus classicus on which scholars from many disciplines have based the often-emulated analysis of formulaic density as a test for orality.[14] Lord's quantitative investigation of a known oral epic poetry culminated in the proof that this oral epic tradition could be entirely explained in terms of the units Parry had called the "formula" and the "formulaic system." And if one proceeds according to his definitions, there is nothing to gainsay his conclusions for Serbo-Croatian epic: one discovers no exceptions to the rules, no nagging percentage of lines that must be considered "original."[15] It is then a natural step from analyzing colonic and whole-line formulas to interpreting couplets and even runs of lines as traditional multiform units. If, the reasoning goes, unambiguously oral epic is 100 percent formulaic and 25 to 50 percent (and potentially entirely) straight formula, and if the formula is really the essential "word" used by the singer to make his song, then an epic of unknown provenance that reveals a similar formulaic diction should also be oral. This is the basic credo of formulaic theory, as first postulated by Parry in reference to the Homeric texts and as tested by Lord in the living laboratory of Serbo-Croatian oral epic tradition. Thus it is that Lord can say (1960, 65) that "the grammar of oral epic is and must be based on the formula. It is a grammar of parataxis and of frequently used and useful phrases."

Another aspect of traditional parataxis crucial to the shaping and maintenance of formulaic phraseology is that general area encompassing the phenomena of pleonasm (more properly, "terracing"),[16] thrift, and enjambement. All three phenomena are involved in the functional redundancy that operates at all levels of oral poetics, and each will bear brief discussion in relation to the formula. Terracing, to be illustrated at greater length in the third section below, "The Spectrum of Formulaic Diction," consists of the repetition in the following line of a word or words employed in an initial line. For example,

Kudgodj ide  knjiga šarovita,
Kudgodj ide , do Karlova sidje.
Wherever  the multicolored letter  went ,
Wherever it went , it came down to Karlovo.

Lord notes that such terracing or pleonasm is related to the "thrift" of formu-


Enjambement Figures (in Percent, by Singer)


Salih Ugljanin

Mujo Kukuruzovic[*]

Halil Bajgoric[*]

No enjambement




Unnecessary enjambement









Necessary enjambement




laic style (after M. Parry 1928a, in 1971, 83ff.), the principle which demands that a traditional diction harbor few if any metrically equivalent phrases for the same essential idea. His discussion of thrift is complex and I shall not attempt to rehearse it here; it will be sufficient to mark that Lord (1960, 53) recommends interpretation of a given phrase selection by considering "not only its meaning, length, and rhythmic content, but also its sounds, and the sound patterns formed by what precedes and follows it."

As for the implications of enjambement, Lord follows Parry in understanding the bound, integral linear unit as the natural expression of the traditional idea[17] and therefore finds "necessary enjambement," in which the syntactic structure and thought arc incomplete in one line, to be the antithesis of the oral style. Complementarily, total lack of enjambement and unnecessary enjambement, the latter of which describes the case wherein syntax and thought are complete at line-end but are optionally continued in the following line, are understood as the hallmarks of oral traditional composition. He finds proof of this connection in a 2,400-line sample (Salih Ugljanin, in table 19); my own figures, based on one thousand lines of Serbo-Croatian oral epic from two Parry-Lord guslari from Stolac (Mujo Kukuruzovic[*] : and Halil Bajgoric[*] : in the same table),[18] generally agree with his findings and support his conclusions. Although the three singers vary in their relative percentages of unnecessary versus no enjambement,[19] the totals of these two typical features of oral style in Serbo-Croatian epic are quite close. The primacy of the line as a self-contained unit is secure, at least in Yugoslav and ancient Greek epic.[20]

The final section of Lord's chapter on the formula is devoted to a description


of how the traditional phrase evolved out of ritual into a metrical convenience and compositional device. He views the formula's roots as ultimately religious (1960, 67): "its symbols, its sounds, its patterns were born for magic productivity, not for aesthetic satisfaction." In suggesting this ritualistic origin and in stressing throughout the chapter the compositional utility of the phrase as we encounter it in a guslar 's repertoire, Lord echoes Parry's proscriptive emphasis on function and his admonition against interpreting Homer (and by extension his Yugoslav confrères ) as one would a literary artist fully able to construe his narrative in any style he sees fit to invent for the situation.[21] How tenable such a position is depends, of course, on the fidelity of the description of formulaic phraseology on which it is founded. To assess the fidelity of Lord's description is the burden of the rest of this chapter.

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