in which I repeat myself and bore you: on dialect and dialog

The Smart Bitches have a post up about language anachronisms in historical romance. I admit to some irritation about the fact that by the time I caught the post there were 41 comments. Explaining my irritation is a little trickier.

First: The Smart Bitches are usually right on target when they talk about this stuff, okay? This is not me dissing them. I love the Smart Bitches with all my bitchy little heart. This is about the comments, and I’ve already admitted I didn’t read them so really, I should just shut up but no, I’m not going to. Because this will gnaw at me otherwise.

Any MDs out there? If you’re at a party and people start talking about gallbladders or Uncle Mikey’s valve replacement or something else similarly technical, do you get irritated because (1) you don’t want to look like a wise ass know-it-all (2) it’s really hard not to speak up anyway when you hear somebody claim that his brother’s best friend’s second cousin is an expert and he says… (3) if you walk away and join the crowd talking about baseball, the medical talk crowd will conclude that you are a snob.

Which maybe you are. Or at least impatient.

That’s how I get about language discussions. Once before class started I heard one student tell another that in Switzerland they speak a language which is half French and half German. As this was a linguistics class I felt obligated, so I said (very gently) I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, but what you were hearing is Swiss German which is… and I saw her mouth set in a prim little line. I know that line, it means: don’t tell me about language, I speak language myself!

And in her evaluation at the end of the course she wrote: this professor may know a lot about linguistics but it’s not nice to tell people they didn’t hear what they really did hear.

PLEASE NOTE: everybody is free to talk about language and linguistics as much as they like, whenever they like. I am not, and do not want to be linguistics hall monitor of the universe. Right this moment hundreds, maybe tens of thousands of conversations are going on that have to do with language across the nation. Joe tells Sally that she sounds stupid when she uses the word ain’t; Mr. Wilson tells his grandson about the etymology of the word asparagus, his own personal version made out of whole cloth; somewhere in Chicago at this very minute somebody is trying to do an English accent and failing miserably.

All fine and good. Chatter on. The problem is when I’m within hearing range. Then I get all itchy, and I have to just walk away.

So now that I’ve ranted a little (okay, a lot), and for my own peace of mind, I’m going to direct you  to my posts about language/linguistics/dialect/dialog in  fiction both contemporary and historical. You are free to ignore every word, to disagree with every thought; to curse me for a condescending know-it-all… if that’s what it takes to make us both comfortable, so be it. You’ll get all those posts by clicking on “dialog” in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

once more, with feeling: accent, dialect, language

Over at Smart Bitches there’s a long and winding conversation about various points in linguistics, particularly historical linguistics, accent, and the portrayal of such things in the written language. I put in my two cents, of course. But as the conversation gets more into details, I am having to resist trampling in there to set up my lecture podium.

So I’ll do it here.

Actually, all I’m doing is this: here’s chapter two (“The Myth of Non-Accent”) of English with an Accent: Language Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. You’ll need the ole standard Adobe Reader to open it.

It was written for an introductory course, so it’s pretty accessible — although the ground work set up in the first chapter is (of course) missing. English with an Accent is still used as the standard text in universities courses on the sociolinguistic nature of language variation in the U.S. Just to establish some credentials and/or perspective.

This chapter specifically addresses the definition and use of the word ‘accent’ from two directions. The first is L1 (First Language) — the way you speak your native tongue(s), and L2 (Second Language) — the way native language marks any language you’ll learn after (approximately) puberty.

For any linguists dropping by here, this is not meant to open up a discussion on the Black Box or the critical period (both of which I subscribe to, but don’t want to debate just here and now).

So if you’re interested, please have a look and post your thoughts.

anachronistic heroes

Following the discussion at LanguageHat on anachronisms in historical fiction, particularly in terms of language, this interesting comment was posted by aldiboronti:

…with people we cheerfully accept, nay demand, that, the heroes and heroines of popular fiction, no matter what period it is set in, are fully equipped with 21st century mindsets. Only the villains are permitted to share the prevailing opinions of their times.

There is certainly some truth to this, although my first reservation has to do with the idea that this sin is committed in popular fiction. It seems to me that the tendency to this kind of anachronism shows up in all kinds of fiction in all genres, including what might be considered more literary (and yes, I am sidestepping the very fraught issue of popular/literary for the moment; I’ve certainly posted enough about it in the past, for example, here and here). The first such example that came to mind is the Victorian poet Ash in Byatt’s novel Possession. I find him not typical of his time or background, but if he had been, the central conflict of the story would have been nullified, and I like to story the way it is. But aldiboronti’s observation is an important one in a more general way because it gets to the heart of the matter when talking about language anachronisms.

The reason I might hesitate to put an eighteenth century term for African slaves into the mouth of a hero is, of course, because I don’t want him to be prejudiced, and neither do my readers. If he’s going to be an admirable character, he can’t believe (as most of his contemporaries did) that African natives and their descendents were cowardly, sullen, dishonest, “remorseless of tyrants to men and animals when invested with authority. Promiscuous, licentious and dissolute, incapable of love or affection.” I apologize right now for not being able to provide the citation for this quote, which comes from the late eighteenth century. As soon as I track it down in my notes, I’ll post a follow up. Unless somebody beats me to it here.

Is it possible to write a character who lives in London in (say) 1790, who believes these things about Africans, and who is acceptable to readers as a protagonist? Probably only if, over the course of the novel, he or she changes and comes to be more open minded. Most readers will not tolerate anything else, maybe because most writers are not capable of writing such a character in a way that transcends the shock value of having that character really be typical of the times.

Having said that, I’d like to point out that there were prominent examples of men who not only rejected the negative evaluation of Africans, but who wrote about it eloquently and who worked against slavery. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was one such person, active in the abolitionist movement in England. He wrote of Phyllis Wheatly and Ignatius Sancho that such accomplished individuals would be nothing unusual “if the minds of the Africans were unbroken by slavery; if they had the same expectations in life as other people, and the same opportunities of improvement, they would be equal, in all the various branches of science ….inferiority of their capacities is wholly malevolent and false.”

So the writer of historical fiction has only a few choices. Sidestep the problem by never having the protagonist (a) encounter anyone of another race or (b) talk about the news of the times (the morally ambiguous don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach); cast the progatonist not such much as an anachronism but as one of the rare individuals of his or her time and place, ala Clarkson; find a way to write a protagonist who confronts current sensibilities but in such a way that the modern reader is willing to accept it.

Let me point out, just to be clear, that this difficulty extends far beyond the matter of slavery. For most of known history men in general and many women have not been supportive of women’s rights; religious freedom was considered a bad idea; labor practices were atrocious; and the list goes on.

race, characterization, and historical fiction

Today LanguageHat pointed the many readers who visit that weblog to my posts about language anachronisms in historical fiction; as a result, a slew of people have stopped by with interesting things to say. As I’m not sure you’ll find those comments, hidden away as they are, I’m making a point of pulling them into the light. But first LanguageHat’s take on the anachronism quandry (I’m going to keep on eye on this post, as it seems that it might be the start of an interesting discussion):

Personally, I would be willing to write off readers who couldn’t handle “the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa”; if their sensibilities are that tender, they shouldn’t be reading about the past (and shouldn’t go visit most of the world). But I recognize that that’s an extremist position, and as a straight white male American I’m doubtless less susceptible to the power of disparaging language than most.

Prentiss Riddle points to Bill Poser’s excellent post about the anachronistic use of Latin in Gibson’s The Passion at Language Log. Language Log is a group blog that some ten linguists (a couple of whom I knew in my former life as an academic) post to, on topics that interest them. I don’t read that blog often enough, I find, because I just noticed Geoffrey Pullum’s post about The DaVinci Code and Brown’s prose style. Something I mentioned in my review, but Pullum does a much better job of really taking Brown apart. She said gleefully.

Also on the topic of language in film, Ray at The Apothecary’s Drawer points out that by the time of Shakespeare in Love, people were speaking early modern English (this in response to a discussion on that post).

In a different matter, Aaron has pointed to some resources for people who read this blog and have trouble adjusting the font size:

Hi, I’m new to this blog — thanks to LanguageHat — but wanted to suggest a couple of links that I find helpful when trying to read smaller fonts:

1) Internet Explorer’s Text Size change doesn’t always work for Movable Type blogs so maybe give Mozilla Firefox a try. Firefox gives you the ability to increase font sizes by simply pressing “CTRL” plus “+”.

2) Thanks to the WSJ’s Walter Mossberg I just learned of Web Eyes. There’s a free trial and then it’s only $20 — his review is free and over here. It’s a toolbar you can add to Internet Explorer and it gives you the ability to read most pages like a book, and it means no more scrolling. (However, I use Firefox for websites that take forever to connect to advertisements off-site.)