Uncle Peter’s Eloquence

Rather than get into a long essay on erroneous use of terms for language (the temptation is great, but I will resist), I will simply state an observation: it’s never a good idea to try to convey variation in spoken language in terms of spelling. The best (and maybe the only) way to make this clear is by example. Take a look at this exchange from Gone with the Wind. In this scene, there is an elderly black man named Peter, a slave, and he’s upset with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

You’ll note that the author attempts to portray Peter’s speech by playing with spelling. The idea being, I suppose, that he doesn’t speak English as it is written (something nobody does, by the way, unless you happen to be having a conversation with the ghost of somebody who lived in the 15th century). The author feels it is important to make the distinction between Peter’s speech and Scarlett’s…. why? Because he’s a slave, and she’s a free white woman of means? Because he is uneducated and she is … a little more educated? Let’s approach this differently, by rewriting the passage:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

I haven’t changed the dialog one bit — I’ve only changed the spelling. In Peter’s case all the grammatical points of his speech are maintained, such as the invariant use of third person singular verb forms (‘he say’). The distinctive lexical items remain, too (hoppergrass) and the syntax (”I ain’t never been call’). If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical and syntactic variations without resorting to spelling. Uncle Peter’s eloquence is still there.

I’ve done to Scarlett’s dialog what the author did to Peter’s — I changed the spelling to approximate how she would have pronounced the words. The result? It’s amusing and condescending — the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy.

Mitchell uses spelling this way repeatedly. Some examples:

“Me, I am dead to shame,” grinned Rene. “Who would be respectable? All of my days I was respectable until ze war set me free lak ze darkies. Nevaire again must I be deegneefied and full of ennui. Free lak ze bird! I lak my pie wagon. I lak my mule. I lak ze dear Yankees who so kindly buy ze pie of Madame Belle Mere. No, my Scarlett, I must be ze King of ze Pies. Eet ees my destiny! Lak Napoleon, I follow my star.” He flourished his whip dramatically.

“Look, Ash,” said Will slowly. “I ain’t aimin’ to have nobody say nothin’ against Suellen, no matter what they think. You leave it to me. When you’ve finished with the readin’ and the prayin’ and you say: ‘If anyone would like to say a few words,’ you look right at me, so I can speak first.”

The lesson here is simple: don’t play with spelling unless you have a really good reason. Playing with spelling will almost always work as a trivialization of the character, and that’s never something you want. If it’s important to portray dialect, do that in other ways.

To be clear, this is not the only thing wrong with the novel. Oh no. I’ve considered the novel in more detail elsewhere, and brought down the anger of the masses on my head, so right now I’ll just point you to this post by Justine Larbalestier.  which covers the basic issues, both about the movie, and about reactions to the movie.

Examples of well done dialect representation

Annie Proulx. The Shipping News

“Ah,” said Yark. “I ‘as a one or two to finish up, y’know,” pointing to wooden skeletons and half-planked sides. “Says I might ‘elp Nige Fearn wid ‘is long-liner this winter. But if I gets out in the woods, you know, and finds the timber, it’ll go along. Something by spring, see, by the time the ice goes. If I goes in the woods and finds the right sticks you know, spruce, var. See, you must find good uns, your stem, you wants to bring it down with a bit of a ‘ollow to it, sternpost and your knee, and deadwoods a course, and breast’ook. You has to get the right ones. Your timbers, you know. There’s some around ‘ere steams ’em. I wouldn’t set down in a steam timber boat. Weak.”

Tone Cade Bambara. “My Man Bovanne”

“Yeh, well never mind,” says Joe Lee. “The point is Mama well, it’s pride. You embarrass yourself and us too dancin like that.”

“I wasn’t shame.” Then nobody say nuthin. Them standin there in they pretty clothes with drinks in they hands and gangin up on me, and me in the third-degree chair and nary a olive to my name. Felt just like the police got hold to me.

“First of all,” Task say, holdin up his hand and tickin off the offenses, “the dress. Now that dress is too short, Mama, and too low-cut for a woman your age. And Tamu’s going to make a speech tonight to kick off the campaign and will be introducin you and expecting you to organize the council of elders—”

“Me? Didn nobody ask me nuthin. You mean Nisi? She change her name?”

“Well, Norton was supposed to tell you about it. Nisi wants to introduce you and then encourage the older folks to form a Council of the Elders to act as an advisory—”

“And you going to be standing there with your boobs out and that wig on your head and that hem up to your ass. And people’ll say, ‘Ain’t that the homy bitch that was grindin with the blind dude?”

Laurence Yep. Dragonwings.

 Father noticed the almost empty plate at the same time. “Look at this boy,” he said in exasperation. “He eat enough for four pigs.” He started to apologize to the demoness, but she only smiled prettily again.

“There’s only one real compliment for a cook, and that’s for her guests to eat everything up. You must take the rest of the cookies with you.”  She smoothed her apron over her lap and winked at me secretly.

“You too kind.”  Father spread his hands. “You make us ashame.” He kicked me gently under the table.

“Yes, ashame,” I piped up.

book trailers

Early last month I saw Marta Acosta’s blog post about a book trailer contest. I didn’t give it much thought. Or at least, I tried to put it out of my head. But eventually I sat down and played with this idea I had. And the result (eventually) was a two minute book trailer. In a fit of courage I uploaded it, and then took it down again. Now the deadline’s coming up, and I decided to go ahead. I don’t expect to win anything, but I did have fun doing this. I just uploaded it to YouTube tonight.

The idea, if you didn’t go over and read about it on Marta’s weblog, is simple. You pick a classic novel (Marta’s definition is pretty flexible) and put together a two minute book trailer that convinces people to read the book. Or you can go in the opposite direction, because there are prizes for the best bad book trailer.

People who have been reading this weblog for a while won’t be surprised that I did a book trailer for Gone with the Wind. It will be very clear that I’m just a hobbyist. But an earnest one.

avoiding language anachronisms

This topic has come up now and again, in posts about Gone with the Wind and more recently, Deadwood. It’s a technical and creative issue at the same time, and quite a tricky one, especially for people writing historical fiction or telling stories from the past on the screen.

The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level. There are extremes. On one end you might say that accuracy is everything, and damn the reader’s comfort; at the other, you might toss concerns about language accuracy out the window, and operate much in the way of Star Trek, where everybody understands everybody else, regardless of species or background, and nobody ever bothers to explain how that might be. Putting science fiction aside for a moment (although I keep meaning to write about language issues in Farscape, and will sometime) everybody has examples to share from novels and films that really stumble on language accuracy. Even really good writers mess up this way now and then; it’s almost impossible not to. Shakespeare had bells tolling in ancient Rome; Dorothy Dunnett once had her character Lymond proclaimed neurotic (in 17th century Scotland long before Freud was ever born). I read a novel (the title of which I’m blocking out) set in 15th century England where the main character tries to calm down a woman in distress by assuring her that the battle ahead of him is a piece of cake. In a comment to one of my posts about Deadwood, somebody pointed out that they used the word trenchmouth, which was coined in WWI.

The problem with lexical anachronisms is that they potentially destroy the fictive trance you work so hard to establish for your reader. It’s like ice water on the back of your neck on a hot day; you can’t not notice.

So how to avoid this mistake? One thing you can do is check idiomatic words and phrases for their place and time of origin. The Oxford English Dictionary is the usual place to do this, although it has some limitations. First, it’s too expensive for most people to own and even if you did invest, the hard-copy version is always out of date; second, it’s too expensive for most people to access on-line ($29.95 a month or $295 annually) unless you have library priviledges at a college or university that subscribes; third, (and most important) it’s limited to written language usage.

A word exists in the OED’s version of language history only once it has been written down. It should be clear that for most of the history of the English language, usage was not recorded anywhere at all, and so it’s hard to know when or where particular coins were actually used. On the other hand, the versatility and utterly amazing scope of the OED’s on-line search engine makes it useful in so many other ways, its limitations seem less important. You can, for example, search for whole phrases and idiomatic expressions. The next time I’ve got access to the on-line version, I’m going to see if they have the earliest citation recorded for ‘bald as an egg’ and while I’m at it, I’ll look up ‘piece of cake’ to see when it was first used, in writing, to mean ‘without problem or difficulty’ (I’m guessing it evolved from ‘easy as pie’ used in the same way). What I know for sure is, none of my characters, who inhabit the early 19th century, would have any idea what it means to say such a thing, and keep those words out of their mouths.

Of course, the more recent the setting of your story, the harder it becomes to check for origin and usage. I’ve got a steel sieve of a mind when it comes to remembering when certain phrases were in use. I know ‘cool’ was used when I was in high school, went out of vogue for a very long time, and then came back in, but I’d be afraid to put it in the mouth of a character in the year 1989 without checking, first. Slang associated with particular social groups has a very short shelf life, and can trip you up badly. There are dictionaries, of course, but they are out of date even before they are published, for the most part, and the OED can’t keep up with the incredible flexibility and creative power of spoken language.

There’s another, far stickier matter having to do with language anachronisms that I’ll look at (briefly) tomorrow.

dialect, revisited

I made Johnn mad. Here’s the comment he posted in response to my post on the misuse and misrepresentation of dialect, most particularly in Gone with the Wind.

Before you make comments on how to write dialect, you might first want to make sure you have written a book that’s sold a tenth as well as the one you’re detracting. Writing dialect is tricky, but you picked an example that works, at least according to world wide sales of the book. In future, choose an example that helps novice writers, not one that simply identifes your own likes and dislikes.
Posted by: Johnn Gualt at March 20, 2004 12:15 PM

I’m being accused here of criticizing the representation of dialect in GwtW, to which I can only plead guilty.

Actually I’m surprised it took this long for somebody to jump up and cry foul — you don’t have to look very far to find some very acrimonious discussions about Gone with the Wind on the web, courtesy of the two major camps in this controversy: Those who dislike the book (and the movie) because of the way it glorifies racism and slavery, and those who have decided that GwtW is perfection and must not be criticized for any reason. I belong to the first camp; Johnn, to the second.

There’s a lot of material on the web about GwtW, including an interesting essay by Ruth Nestvold which deftly summarizes the novel’s primary flaw:

there is one point of criticism that remains no matter how you look at it: even if this popular classic is perhaps informed by a feminist impulse, even if it is not as apologetic as it is made out to be, it is unremittingly and unforgivably racist. With the exception of Mammy, the personification of the earth mother, and Uncle Peter, the exemplary father figure, “darkies” are almost always children in need of a guiding hand or children gone wrong. Gone With the Wind may not simplistically recreate the moonlight and magnolia myth, but it does argue that Southern society, complete with slavery, would have been a fine institution if uncultured, ignorant Yankees hadn’t come along and ruined it all.

One of the ways that GwtW encapsulates racism is by its differentiated use of dialect, as I discussed in that earlier post. John thinks that because GwtW has sold so many copies, I should not say such a thing. But in my view, it’s important to discuss racism in GwtW precisely because it has sold so many copies, and has influenced so many people’s views and understanding of the south. And not, I would claim, in a good way.

I am very interested in the way language is represented in dialog, because it’s an integral part of characterization. I will continue to write about it now and then. As to presenting my opinions here in the process of trying to be helpful to novice writers: of course. This is my blog. I would argue that my opinions are informed, given my academic specialization and publications, but of course people who stop by here are free to take what they need, and leave the rest.

Finally, if you’d like to look at some of the Unconditional Love arguments about GwtW, have a look at Mr. Cranky’s movie review, which sparked a sharp debate by means of this statement:

this film probably single-handedly set back Civil Rights a full ten years.