August 11, 2010

The Language of the American South

Category: Language,Literature :: Permalink

I was glad to discover recently that the local library has a copy of Cleanth Brooks’s The Language of the American South, a slim volume containing Brooks’s three Lamar Memorial Lectures given at Mercer University in October 1984.

The primary thesis of the lectures, to which Brooks devotes the second and especially the third lectures, is that “the strength of even the more formal Southern writers stems from their knowledge of and rapport with the language spoken by the unlettered.  Most of our writers have in fact recognized the colloquial and even dialectical aspects for what they are: dialects of great vitality and power, dialects capable of eloquence and even of a kind of folk poetry” (17).  The examples Brooks provides to support this claim were interesting enough to make me want to read the writers he’s citing.

But what particularly caught my interest was his claim in the first lecture that the language and idiom of the American South, which often seems quaint to outsiders, is not “a corruption of proper English” or a “discoloring of the clear waters issuing from the well of English pure and undefiled” (4), but is instead an old-fashioned form of English.  “As far as pronunciation is concerned, we Americans speak an old-fashioned English.  Contrary to what the layman assumes, in pronunciation it is the mother language that usually changes, not the daughter language” (5).

That sounds right to me.  A friend of mine, who grew up in a Dutch-speaking home in Canada, went to visit the Netherlands.  He knew Dutch well enough, he thought, and so he spoke it when he was there.  The response?  “Why don’t you speak English?  When you speak Dutch, you sound like my grandmother.”  And no wonder.  My friend’s parents (or perhaps grandparents) had immigrated from Holland back in the late ’40s or early ’50s, and they continued to speak the sort of Dutch that was spoken at that time, while in the Netherlands the language continued to develop, certain words became archaic, other words were dropped almost completely, and so on.  Similarly, a friend here in Louisiana recently had some visitors from France.  When my friend spoke Cajun French, they told him that it sounded very much like the sort of French that you’d find spoken in France by old people who lived way out in the country.  The mother country undergoes a change in the language, while immigrants tend to maintain the language as it was on the day they immigrated.

But if that’s so, then doesn’t that imply that older forms of American English, such as the ones preserved in the American South, actually maintain the English language as it was when America was first settled, while the language continued to change and develop in England?  Yes, and that’s precisely what Brooks argues in this lecture.

The broad a which we associate with the English pronunciation of words like bath (“bawth”) and laugh (“lawf”), he points out, was probably not adopted into Standard English until the nineteenth century, so that the shorter a sound we associate with the American pronunciation of these words was probably closer to the original.  In particular, Brooks argues, “The language of the South almost certainly came from the south of England” (13), where we find similar pronunciation.

Some more examples:

* Brooks points out that the dropping of the final -g in words such as going, doing, and thinking is not a corruption of the way English was once spoken.  On the contrary, it is the way English was once spoken.  There are many rhymes in poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats that work only if that -g is dropped (4-5).

* “Would you expect to learn that when Uncle Remus has Brer Rabbit remark that he is ‘gwine’ to town, he is using a word that Thomas Hardy, at about the same time, was putting in the mouths of the Dorsetshire countrymen who figure in his famous Wessex novels?” (7).

* What about pronouncing mercy as massy (“Law’s-a-massy”)?  That was still heard in the southern counties of England in the twentieth century (7).

* Joel Chandler Harris has Uncle Remus pronounce muskmellon as mushmillion.  A mistake?  Brooks checked the Oxford English Dictionary and found that mushmillion is indeed an old English form of muskmellon, found in a letter dated 1592 and written by a man from Dorsetshire.

* When Brooks grew up in west Tennessee, he could hear someone say that a chiggerbite’s itch terrified him.  Did he mean that it frightened him?  No.  An examination of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals “that in the standard language terrify once had as one of its meanings ‘to irritate or torment,’” and even John Milton used it in that sense (14).  Brooks comments: “Though this meaning is now obsolete in Standard English, it is still to be found in the country dialects all over England, just as it is still to be found in our Southern states” (14).

* What about de, dis, and dat?  Brooks spends a fair bit of time on these pronunciations, showing that they were common in east Sussex and Kent in the 1600s: “Thus, any of the common folk of east Sussex and the neighboring county of Kent who set out for Virginia or the Carolinas might have brought with them such a pronunciation” (10).  Nor was that just an old pronunciation in England.  Brooks cites a number of authorities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who attest to these pronuniations in these counties.  And even as late as the 1960s, the d forms of these words could still be found, though rarely, in Kent and Sussex (11).

Brooks cites Mark Antony Lower’s translation of The Song of Solomon into Sussex English, which begins this way:

De song of songs, dat is Solomon’s,

Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth; for yer love is better dan wine.

Cause of de smell of yer good intments, yer naüm is lik intment tipped out; derefore de maidens love ye.

If you look up Lower’s translation online, you’ll find his guide to the pronunciation of the Sussex dialect, in which he points out that th often becomes d (as in dis, dat, dere), that the letter r is frequently suppressed (so that horse becomes hoss, children becomes childun, and I suspect barn becomes bahn and never might become nevah), that there are some different past tense forms (e.g., heared and brung), that the vowel a is often “very broadly sounded” so that it becomes ay-uh (so that taste becomes tay-ust or, as in the example above, name becomes naüm, pronounced nay-um), that ea is pronounced almost like the ai in pail (so that beans and peas sounds almost like bains and pays), that the d is dropped at the end of some words (e.g., hel’, han’, and stan’), that the g at the end of an active participle is rarely sounded (so that going becomes goin’), that oi is pronounced like a long i (so that spoil becomes spile), and that ask becomes ax.  And I bet you thought those were all characteristics of southern American English.

Brooks writes:

Now this pamphlet was not printed until 1860, and I can assure you that the villagers and the countrymen of this essentially rural county had probably never seen a black man, let alone heard one speak, in their entire lives.  If the resemblances between the Sussex dialect of 1860 and the Negro dialects of the Southern states just before the Civil War do amount to something more than pure happenstance, then what is the nature of the relation?  Clearly the men of Sussex did not derive their dialect from the American blacks.  Did the black people of our Southern states then derive their dialect from the dialects of such English counties as Sussex?  If so, what was the link?

The only link I can conceive of is this: the Englishmen who emigrated to the Southern states and from whom the black man necessarily had to learn his English — from whom else could he have learned it? — must have come predominantly from the counties of southern England (9).

What that would imply, then, is that those who view the Southern dialects — and particularly the Southern black dialects — as corruptions of pure, standard English, perhaps springing from poor education or some other defect, have things backwards.  If Brooks is correct, and his case seems pretty strong to me, it is precisely the Southern dialects that have preserved the older “standard English” from which the newer “standard English” has now deviated.

But what that also implies is that certain approaches to education can destroy this older dialect, along with its wealth of once understood but now almost obsolete words and idioms.  Brooks writes:

I am confident … that I can identify its most dangerous enemy.  It is not education properly understood, but miseducation: foolishly incorrect theories of what constitutes good English, an insistence on spelling pronunciations, and the propagation of bureaucratese, sociologese, and psychologese, which American business, politics, and academies seem to exude as a matter of course.  The grave faults are not the occasional use of ain’t but the bastard concotions from a Latinized vocabulary produced by people who never studied Latin.  Gobbledygook is a waste of everybody’s time (53).

Posted by John Barach @ 3:08 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “The Language of the American South

  1. Kata Iwannhn » Books I Enjoyed Most in 2010 Says:

    [...] * Cleanth Brookes, The Language of the American South. Interesting lectures. The first argues strongly that southern coastal English is not a corruption but rather a preservation of the way English was spoken in the southern counties of England from which the southern American settlers came. I blogged about it here. [...]

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