The Language of the American South
That Cleanth Brooks, after a long and distinguished career as a literary critic, should now produce a book about language may surprise some readers. But it must be remembered that language was one of his strong early interests: among his first publications were The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain (1935) and “The English Language of the South” (1937, often reprinted). Besides, he is concerned here not with language for its own sake, but with its larger significances and particularly its relation to literature.
An innocent reader might easily take this short book for a pleasant but unimportant academic exercise. Yet, though never contentious, it takes firm positions on many controversial issues, and its affirmations, though tentatively and mildly made, are profound and wide reaching. The choice of subject itself might in some circles be regarded almost as a manifesto. For Mr. Brooks demonstrates that the study of language is highly relevant to the interpretation of literature, and although he says nothing whatever about matters of academic organization, this demonstration would seem to call into question the powerful trend in universities now to segregate language studies in separate departments of linguistics and semiotics, where the approach tends to be more “scientific” than humane.
Mr. Brooks begins by asserting, in opposition to the increasingly common view that such differences are superficial and trivial, the fundamental importance of the difference between northern and southern English. Citing the stubborn way the Welsh, the French Canadians, and the divided Belgians, for example, have held on to their native language “because they regarded it as a badge of their identity and because they felt that only through it could they express their inner beings, their attitudes and emotions, and even their own concepts of reality,” he affirms that “the soul of a people is embodied in the language peculiar to them.” He does not argue that southern English is really a separate language, of course, but rather that it is a distinct idiom and dialect. In his first lecture, “Where It Came From,” he describes its origin in terms so convincing that it takes an effort to recall how furiously they have been disputed. His first point is that all American English “obviously derives from the English that was spoken in Great Britain several centuries ago”; therefore “we Americans speak an old-fashioned English.” It is English English that has changed, not American. For example, the broad a in such words as path, last, laugh was a nineteenth-century innovation in England, and the pronunciation of the final g in such words as going, doing, thinking, a still later one: the pronunciation of g was restored perhaps owing to the insistence of “the Victorian schoolmarm and her American counterpart” on pronouncing words as they were spelled. But if Americans in general are old-fashioned in pronunciation, southerners, especially in the coastal regions, are the most old-fashioned of all.
How account, then, for the differences between Southern pronunciation and that of Massachusetts Bay, for example, settled at roughly the same time? By considering place as well as time: that is, the part of England from which the early colonists of each region came. For example, in pronouncing barn the New Englander and southerner (unlike other Americans) agree in dropping the r, but use different vowel sounds, and Mr. Brooks suggests that the explanation is that their ancestors came from, respectively, East Anglia and southern England.
At this point, however, when to go further into the relations of American dialects to their English antecedents would require much definition and explanation, Mr. Brooks provides instead two striking illustrations of the resemblance between Coastal Southern and the dialect of southern England. Taking Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus to illustrate Coastal Southern, he notes that his gwine is also characteristic of Hardy’s Dorsetshire countrymen, and that his pronunciation of pert as peart and muskmelon as mushmillion is also recorded in Dorset. Even more strikingly, he quotes an 1860 rendering of a Sussex countryman speaking The Song of Solomon. It begins:
“De song of songs, dat is Solomon’s…. Cause of de smell of yer good intments, yer naüm is lik intment tipped out; derefore de maidens love ye…. Look not upan me, cause I be black, cause de sun has shoun upan me; my mother’s childun was mad wud me; dey maüd me kipper of de vineyards; but my own vineyard I han’t kipt…. My beloved spoke, an said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an come away…. Jest a liddle while âhter I passed by em, I foun him dat my soul loves….”
How explain the startling resemblance? Since it is inconceivable that the Sussex countrymen could have learned their speech from American blacks, “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.” Mr. Brooks limits himself to a single feature, the pronunciation of the, this, and that as de, dis, and dat. Did southern white men ever use this pronunciation? Mr. Brooks shows that the forms are recorded in Sussex and Kent as early as the sixteenth century and as late as the 1960s, though they are now almost extinct. He then cites evidence that they survive among white southern Americans, though barely. Why did they become characteristic of blacks?
The blacks, who were at first denied education and later on got only a rather poor and limited “book learning,” held on to what their ancestors had learned by ear and which had been passed on to them through oral tradition. In short, they rather faithfully preserved what they had heard, were little influenced by spelling, and in general actually served as a conservative force.
Mr. Brooks notes that the blacks have influenced the language “through their intonation, through their own rhythms, through the development of striking metaphors, new word coinages, and fresh idioms.” But he is at pains to deny that they perverted or corrupted it. Thus he rejects the common explanation that blacks in the nineteenth century and earlier were unable to pronounce th: “Uncle Remus apparently has no trouble with the voiceless th: he can say thin, think, and thank perfectly well. It is the voiced th that he regularly converts to a d, and this is exactly the distinction that the yeomen of Sussex and Kent were making back in the seventeenth century and continued to make for two centuries later.” Summing up his “hypothesis,” Mr. Brooks says that the “language of the South almost certainly came from the south of England.” In addition to Kent and Sussex, Essex and London were, he says, probably important as sources of the early settlers’ dialects.
Except for details (like initial voiced th- becoming d- in both Sussex and early Coastal Southern) and examples, Mr. Brooks’s argument here is not new; it is basically the same one that he expounded in 1935, and generally in line with the views of dialect geographers such as Hans Kurath, Raven McDavid, and Frederic Cassidy (editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), of which the first volume appeared this year). Though Mr. Brooks has never professed to be more than an amateur in these matters, his early work was enough to establish him in a curious role as archetypal dialect geographer—a kind of culture villain or bête noir to creolists and sociolinguists who hold fundamentally different views. (Dialect geographers believe geographical origin and distribution are the most important factors in the study of dialects; sociolinguists give primacy to sociological factors; and creolists to contact languages.) There is an intriguing parallel here to Mr. Brooks’s equally curious role as archetypal New Critic, or bête noir to opponents of that equally mythical conspiracy. Why should a man who is personally so mild and inoffensive and who writes with such courtesy and moderation arouse such hostility? I don’t understand it; I can only conjecture that the exceptional clarity and definiteness with which he states his positions make him an easy target.
J.L. Dillard, whose books Black English and All-American English I reviewed in these pages some years ago,* will serve as an example of the linguistic Young Turks. In his allegorical or mythical landscape, embattled creolists and sociolinguists are besieging the bastions of the Establishment, which are defended by dialect geographers. As a creolist, Mr. Dillard stresses the role of contact languages, pidgins, some of which became creoles. In the case of Black English, his thesis is that from Gullah (the Afro-English of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, which everyone agrees was a genuine creole) developed a plantation creole which spread over the whole continent and eventually became black English.
Black English, or Black English Vernacular (BEV), as described by Mr. Dillard and his cohorts, is monolithic, the same in Detroit, New York, and Shreveport; it is a distinct and ethnic dialect, and where its peculiarities agree with those of white speech, it is because the whites were influenced by it. There are said to be structural differences between white and black English as well as differences in vocabulary, though Mr. Dillard has lately moderated his earlier views: in Toward a Social History of American English (1985), he says,
Somewhere between the extremes of the one viewpoint that Black English differs only in “use” (discourse strategies, affective devices) from Standard English and the other that large numbers of Bantu or other African language words have survived must lie the truth about Black slang.
The most striking of these structural differentia are BEV invariant be, zero copula (she a big woman), and—Mr. Dillard’s latest candidate for a unique characteristic—nonpassive preverbal been as anterior time marker, e.g., I been had it a long time. (He cites this form repeatedly both in his revision of Albert Marckwardt’s American English, 1980, and his own 1985 book.)
Mr. Brooks says nothing of these controversies. He has always maintained (as have many professional linguists of all colors) that the blacks originally learned their English from the whites (and therefore learned the same regional English dialects), and that the only important difference is statistical: that is, because the blacks were more isolated and less educated, their language changed more slowly, and therefore more archaic or old-fashioned forms persisted. But in the present work he makes a point of acknowledging, as we have seen, that the blacks have influenced the language in important and valuable ways, not only through intonation and rhythm but through creating words and fresh and imaginative metaphors and idioms.
In his second and third lectures, Mr. Brooks engages in a kind of criticism that is so noncontroversial that, in other hands, it has a dreadful tendency toward banality. But Mr. Brooks makes it fascinating, partly because of his well-known perceptiveness and his brilliance in interpreting literature, and partly because of the skill with which he marshals the argument and makes clear its continuity with that of the first lecture in the book. The second lecture is called “The Language of the Gentry and the Folk,” and its point is not merely that the two are different, but that the close relation and interplay between them is the secret of southern writing, insofar as it has a secret. As Mr. Brooks puts it, “The strength of even the more formal Southern writers stems from their knowledge of and rapport with the language spoken by the unlettered…. Our best writers have never held in contempt the speech of the folk or used it only for comic effects.”
He begins with a quotation from Allen Tate’s The Fathers (1938) in which the narrator describes his father’s speech (in the antebellum South) as operating on four levels, ranging from Johnsonian formal to three kinds of conversational: first, with family and friends; second, with “plain people,” abounding in many archaisms; and third, with Negroes, whose speech was “merely late seventeenth-or early eighteenth-century English ossified.” “He would not have understood our conception of ‘correct English.’ Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste.” Mr. Brooks remarks that this account “represents a giant’s step beyond the received opinion of 1938…and, I make bold to say, beyond even that commonly held today.” After an example from Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, Mr. Brooks returns to Uncle Remus to consider another way in which the language of the folk can be used for literary effect. “Harris employs the dialect as it issues from the lips of Uncle Remus without ironic intent. He clearly admires its power to express the old man’s wit and wisdom.” There is no condescension toward either the medium or the character; to tell the stories without the dialect would deprive them of most of their charm. Mr. Brooks analyzes one of the stories to show its literary quality; its “comedy is firmly grounded in reality,” and abounds in “sound insights into the human situation.”
For examples of the language of the gentry in the antebellum South, Mr. Brooks quotes from another part of Tate’s The Fathers and the Cass Mastern section of-Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men that follows:
So the Mantuan said, when Venus appeared and the true goddess was revealed by her gait. She came into the room and was the true goddess as revealed in her movement, and was, but for Divine Grace (if such be granted to a parcel of corruption such as I), my true damnation. She gave me her hand and spoke with a tingling huskiness which made me think of rubbing my hand upon a soft deep-piled cloth, like velvet, or upon a fur. It would not have been called a musical voice such as is generally admired. I know that, but I can only set down what effect it worked upon my own organs of hearing.
The latter quotation leads naturally to a contrasting quotation of one of Willie Stark’s speeches from the same work:
“Folks, there’s going to be a leetle mite of trouble back in town. Between me and that Legislatureful of hyena-headed, feist-faced, bellydragging sons of slack-gutted shewolves. If you know what I mean. Well, I been looking at them and their kind so long, I just figured I’d take me a little trip and see what human folks looked like in the face before I clean forgot. Well, you all look human. More or less. And sensible. In spite of what they’re saying back in that Legislature and getting paid five dollars a day of your tax money for saying it.”
From an earlier novel of Warren’s, At Heaven’s Gate, there is an example of Hill Southern dialect:
[Marie] “would be done work and I would be waitin. Ax or layin to a crosscut all day, and I would see her comin out of that there kitchen and me waitin in the dark and the weariness was not nuthin. It was lak I was wakin up fresh and a sunbeam done smote you on the eyeball and roused you….
I never taken to likker lak I use to, and likker is a sin. But a man cannot be good out of plain humankindness. He cannot be good for it ain’t in a pore man. He cannot be good unlest it is good in the light of Gods eye. Gods eye ain’t on him and he just swaps one sin for another one, and it was worse maybe. I laid off likker but I swapped for another sin. I laid off likker for Marie but it was because of pore human love and not for Gods love.”
Mr. Brooks then proceeds to another master of the various aspects of southern speech, Faulkner, whose “range extends across the whole spectrum of Coastal or Lowland Southern, literate and illiterate.” He chooses as example one of my own favorites, “Pantaloon in Black,” and notes that the dialect in which the young black man, Rider, speaks makes an important contribution to the effectiveness of the story: “Prettify it or formalize it, and the magical reality is lost.” When Rider comes back to his cabin after the burial of his young wife Mannie, he finds her “‘standing in the kitchen door, looking at him.”’
“Mannie,” he said. “Hit’s awright. Ah aint afraid.” Then he took a step toward her, slow, not even raising his hand yet, and stopped. Then he took another step. But this time as soon as he moved she began to fade. He stopped at once, not breathing again, motionless, willing his eyes to see that she had stopped too. But she had not stopped. She was fading, going. “Wait,” he said, talking as sweet as he had ever heard his voice speak to a woman: “Den lemme go wid you, honey.” But she was going.
He deals briefly with two examples from The Hamlet, one showing the poetic speech of poor whites:
They walked in a close clump, tramping their shadows into the road’s mild dust, blotting the shadows of the burgeoning trees which soared, trunk branch and twig against the pale sky, delicate and finely thinned. They passed the dark store. Then the pear tree came in sight. It rose in mazed and silver immobility like exploding snow; the mockingbird still sang in it. “Look at that tree,” Varner said. “It ought to make this year, sho.”
“Corn’ll make this year too,” one said.
“A moon like this is good for every growing thing outen earth,” Varner said. “I mind when we and Mrs. Varner was expecting Eula. Already had a mess of children and maybe we ought to quit them. But I wanted some more gals. Others had done married and moved away, and a passel of boys, soon as they get big enough to be worth anything, they aint got time to work. Got to set around store and talk. But a gal will stay home and work until she does get married. So there was a old woman told my mammy once that if a woman showed her belly to the full moon after she had done caught, it would be a gal. So Mrs. Varner taken and laid every night with the moon on her nekid belly, until it fulled and after. I could lay my ear to her belly and hear Eula kicking and scrouging like all get-out, feeling the moon.”
The other renders satirically the speech of a Texas auctioneer:
“Them ponies is gentle as a dove, boys. The man that buys them will get the best piece of horseflesh he ever forked or druv for the money. Naturally they got spirit; I aint selling crowbait. Besides, who’d want Texas crowbait anyway, with Mississippi full of it?” His stare was still absent and unwinking; there was no mirth or humor in his voice and there was neither mirth nor humor in the single guffaw which came from the rear of the group. Two wagons were now drawing out of the road at the same time, up to the fence. The men got down from them and tied them to the fence and approached. “Come up, boys,” the Texan said. “You’re just in time to buy a good gentle horse cheap.”
The final lecture in the book is called “The Language in the Present Day.” Mr. Brooks here returns to the importance of rapport with the language of the folk in even the most formal southern writing, and convincingly illustrates this point by quoting passages from poems. In Warren’s “Dragon Country” the narrator’s
use of words like spectators and averted marks him as a man of some education, with a knowledge of the great world outside. But we sense almost immediately that he grew up in the country, is thoroughly familiar with the local idiom, and can give an authentic report on the impact that this horror made on his neighbors. Thus he is doubly articulate and a convincing reporter on what occurred. He even uses the speech rhythms of the plain people.
But that was long back, in my youth, just the first of case after case.
The great hunts fizzled. You fol- lowed the track of disrepair,
Ruined fence, blood-smear, brush broken, but came in the end to a place
With weed unbent and leaf calm—and nothing, nothing, was there.
So what, in God’s name, could men think when they couldn’t bring to bay
That belly-dragging, earth-evil, but found that it took to air?
Thirty-thirty or buckshot might fail, but at least you could say
You had faced it—assuming, of course, that you had survived the affair.
John Crowe Ransom’s lines are similarly local:
Autumn days in our section
Are the most used-up thing on earth
(Or in the waters under the earth)
Having no more color nor predilection
Than cornstalks too wet for the fire.
The colloquial element is strong even in Tate:
Man, dull critter of enormous head,
What would he look at in the coiling sky?
But for more obvious and extensive examples “of the literary artist’s dependence upon the spoken language,” he turns to prose fiction and discusses Eudora Welty’s “The Petrified Man” and The Ponder Heart. Peter Taylor’s “Miss Leonora When Last Seen” and “Guests” provide further examples of specifically southern kinds of speech and manners, and so does Flannery O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill”—again, one of my own particular favorites, a story at once devastatingly grim and increasingly hilarious. (Mr. Brooks quotes Robert Kiely’s comparison of Joyce Carol Oates to Flannery O’Connor, ending, “If you take away the dialect, the laughter, and the redemption, that’s right. She’s just like Flannery O’Connor.”) Finally, he discusses several passages from Walker Percy’s novels. Every reader will want to add further examples—I think immediately of J.K. Toole, Padgett Powell, Ellen Gilchrist—but obviously there is no end to such additions.
At the end of the second lecture, Mr. Brooks raises the question whether it is the language that gives the southern writers their distinction or the material itself. Without going into this ultimate question of aesthetics, he suggests that it is not possible to make a sharp distinction between content and form: “When we try to describe one person to another…, what do we say? Not usually how or what that person ate, rarely what he wore, only occasionally how he managed his job—no, what we tell is what he said and, if we are good mimics, how he said it. We apparently consider a person’s spoken words the true essence of his being.”
The affirmation in this book is, it seems to me, essentially the same one that is implicit or explicit in all Cleanth Brooks’s more narrowly literary criticism. His vision is one of unity (and, though the phrase has grown unfashionable, one must add “organic,” for the quality of aliveness is as important to Mr. Brooks as it was to Coleridge), of unity in diversity, of a fruitful tension between opposite and discordant qualities. Mr. Brooks has always maintained that attention to language is of fundamental importance in literary interpretation (or simply good reading), because we cannot separate the thing said from the words in which it is said, form from content, ideas or “messages” from metaphor, rhythm, and connotation, character from situation and narrative, and so on.
The work of art, as he sees it, exists in the interplay among all these elements, in the vision of the whole; to stress one element at the expense of the others is to distort it. In the present book he applies the same principle specifically to language, affirming its importance in literature and in life, and the value of diversity, of retaining the separate identities of Southern speech, as of other dialects and idioms, within the larger unity. As we have seen, he suggests that the close relation and interplay between folk and gentry, formal and colloquial, white and black, is the secret of the vitality of Southern language. He might be described as being against separatism: against segregating white from black English as, by implication, he is against separating the study of language from that of literature, and as he is certainly against taking any one element or aspect of the literary work for the whole. On the other hand, he is certainly opposed to the kind of total assimilation that would abolish or ignore all individual differences.
Mr. Brooks’s writing, unobtrusive but highly effective in its patient logic and occasional eloquence, is very different from that of most people who deal with similar subjects. The older “establishment” linguists tend toward a dignified dullness (excepting some good and often entertaining writers such as James Sledd and the late Raven McDavid), while the “scientific” or hyphenated socio-and psycholinguists tend to ignore style and sometimes grammar, as if to demonstrate that they are not fussy about language. His conclusion is, however, one that I should think a linguist of any school would agree with enthusiastically. The most dangerous enemy of the Southern language, he says, is 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.”
In many of his other books, Mr. Brooks has written eloquently about the relation between the debasement and corruption of our language by ruthless and manipulative people and our prevalent failure in commitment to any beliefs and in self-knowledge. To debauch the language is to debauch the minds of those who use it. He closes the present book with a comparison to Yeats’s Ireland, which, like the South, had a vigorous oral literature and a brilliant written literature, mainly modern. Yeats’s fear was that the mass of people would lose the virtues of the oral tradition without ever having achieved mastery of the written tradition; and Mr. Brooks fears that modern Southerners will have “lost the ability to tell a good yarn or appreciate it when told, and yet not be able to read with understanding and delight the great literature of the past and present. Such loss is not made up for by sitting bemused, watching a situation comedy or even the best programs of our public television networks for four or five hours a day.” Genuine literature, he writes, “is not a luxury commodity but neither is it an assembly-line product. It cannot be mass produced. It has to be hand made, fashioned by a genuine craftsman out of honest human emotions and experiences, in the making of which the indispensable material is our common language, in all its variety, complexity, and richness.”
See "You Makin' Sense," The New York Review (November 16, 1972); "American, Black, Creole, Pidgin, and Spanish English," The New York Review (July 17, 1975).↩
See “You Makin’ Sense,” The New York Review (November 16, 1972); “American, Black, Creole, Pidgin, and Spanish English,” The New York Review (July 17, 1975).↩