Friday, February 13, 2009

Jumpy beat of American English

“I prefer American English,” Stuart Evers writes in the Guardian’s book blog, trying to explain why three-quarters of the titles he owns are by Americans: “I like the way it sounds; its rhythms and its cadences. Give me a diner over a café, a sidewalk over a pavement, a bar over a pub and definitely a gas station over a petrol forecourt.”

Philip Roth said something remarkably similar in The Counterlife, trying to explain why he wished neither to make aliyah nor to become a more traditionally Jewish writer: “My sacred text wasn’t the Bible but novels translated from Russian, German, and French into the language in which I was beginning to write and publish my own fiction—not the semantic range of classical Hebrew but the jumpy beat of American English was what excited me.”

I don’t quote Roth to diminish Evers in any way. Since the death of Sir Malcolm Bradbury, rare is the British writer who has celebrated the writing from these shores over that of his own island. Evers does not say exactly why he prefers sound of American English. He does go on to praise the “sibilance” of the phrase gas station, saying that you can hear the sound of tires inflating. Well, maybe.

And Roth’s “jumpiness,” while a more thoroughgoing explanation, is also not sufficient. Much American English has a jumpy beat, but not all. Not the South’s English. The urban mongrelized English, the trollop among languages that will sleep with any language on earth and introduce new bastards into the vocabulary (nada, blitz, kosher, macaroni), the linguistic encounter that makes rapid code-switching necessary and acceptable, is what Roth describes. But he is a city boy. And a second-generation American Jew. The jumpy English of the Newark streets is what he grew up speaking.

The South’s English is more oratorical, or as Richard M. Weaver would put it, more sermonic. And ironically, it owes more to the semantic range of classical Hebrew than to the language of the streets. But this is not to say that it does not have a beat and flourish all its own. The ignorant visitor says that the Southerner drawls. He does not. He draws out his point. Slowly. At length. Taking the time to enjoy it. As a Yankee teaching in the South, I have long enjoyed the linguistic clash that occurs when I talk with my students. The Southern tradition of deference is strained to the breaking point by my Jewish intellectuals’ habit of constantly interrupting them. Their English is obliged, if only for a time, to become more jumpy; mine, more periodic.

Yesterday of course was the second centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. In honor of the day I reread the Second Inaugural Address. The son of a border state who was raised in the “West” belonged nevertheless to the tradition of Southern oratory. Lincoln was fully conscious of the debt that he owed to that Bible-haunted style of American speech. He refers directly to the Bible and quotes Matt 18.7. More than that, he enters into the language of the Authorized Version, and makes it his own. Consider: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” God tells man after he has eaten the fruit (Gen 3.19). In Lincoln this is turned and adapted, but to a slightly jumpier beat: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” he says after affirming that North and South read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Lincoln suggests that slavery is an offense that continued “through His appointed time,“ but that “He now wills to remove. . . .” Replying angrily to Eliphaz the Temanite, who had argued that suffering is punishment for sin, Job says:

Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? As a servant earnestly desireth the shadow, and as an hireling looketh for the reward of his work: So am I made to possess months of vanity, and wearisome nights are appointed to me. (7.1)Not only does Lincoln allude to these words, in which Job compares man’s “appointed time” to the length of a slave’s servitude, but he also loops the argument through a periodic sentence of seventy-eight words and ten clauses. But immediately then he draws up short, hotly interrupting himself: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” This is a rhythm more naturally associated with postwar American novelists like Bellow and Ellison, but it has been a part of American literature for nearly two centuries. It is what, I think, Evers and Roth mean by the sibilance and jumpy beat of American English. It is somewhat better described as a language that denies itself no available resource and that ranges from phrases appropriate for God to the rapidfire back-and-forth of the combative pavements.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I REALLY enjoyed that code-switching article!

I recently read The Picture of Dorian Gray (loved it!) and just finished On the Road (meh...) - and the language couldn't be more disparate. It's easy to fall in love with Wilde's prose though - being an urbanized American... It's so lyrical and romantic. Art for the sake of art.

Found your blog via the 'guide to the 100 best blogs' - and I'm liking it a lot so far. You've been bookmarked.