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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.