Thursday, May 28, 2009

English as a First Language

vernacular--the local or native language of a time and place as opposed to the formal, academic, and literary usage of speech and text; a slang or patois of an area or group of individuals; a stylistic rendition of an ethnic, geographic, or social milieu.

To impart a note of romanticism to vernacular, think of it as the voice of a particular people. To politicize, think of vernacular as the voice of a particular people under contentious circumstances. To dramatize, think of vernacular as the expression of one or more characters in a tense, confrontational setting.

Examples of vernacular speech:

1. Tom Joad, toward the end of The Grapes of Wrath. "I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'-where - wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad - I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."

2. Huckleberry Finn, narrating the entirety of the eponymous novel, starting with the memorable: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

3. Doyle Redmond, narrator of Daniel Woodrell's Give Us a Kiss, on the drift from a failed marriage and a floundering life, driving a stolen Volvo: "I had a family errand to run, that's all, but I decided to take a pistol. It was just a little black thirty-two ladystinger and I tucked it into the blue pillowcase that held my traveling clothes. The pillowcase sat on the driver's seat, because you never know when you'll need to slide a hand in there, all of a sudden, somewhere along the road."

There is an infinitude of additional vernacular examples available, not the least of whom include Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich, and Elmore Leonard, bringing to the page an evocation of carpentry so tight and exacting that it requires neither nail nor glue. relying instead on a particular cadence of language as it is thought and spoken and, indeed, a seemingly digitally recorded core sampling of a conversation. Thus do Tim Gautreaux's characters abide with the Cajun drawl of New Orleans while Luis Alberto Urrea's Mexican characters reach for American words and concepts as though they were the last taco on the plate.

It is not enough to believe vernacular is rendered by removing terminal g's from gerunds or having a character observe how him and me, we went to the movies. It is more in the order of looking at contemporary records for long-since abandoned word usage, checking carefully the dates and notes in the (the venerable OED), and listening if possible to live sources of individuals speaking the language you are trying to suggest on paper. It is, as novelist Monte Schulz discovered, a need to do close hand research to find out whether the likes of peachy, as in That was peachy with me,was favored before swell, as in She was sure a swell lady. Or was girl used in context with swell as in She was sure a swell girl.

There is little doubt that Dennis Lehane has captured the vernacular of a particular social strata in his novels to the point where readers can virtually hear his characters thinking in the working class Irish and Italian cadences of the greater Boston area, where khakis is not pants but rather what you need to start an automobile, and where key ow is the bovine who produces the milk for our latte. But what of the well-received Boston attorney, George V. Higgins, (especially The Friends of Eddie Coyle)who produced his own vernacular, which was so effective and convincing that Gringo readers (readers outside Boston) believed this was the way Boston working class persons spoke?

There are any number of reasons why a writer will try to adhere to Received Standard English (let's think the newscasters and commentators on NPR for the American standard), including having come forth from an MFA program in Creative Writing. The English writer, Ian McEwan, in comparison with all the writers mentioned above, appears to write in the Received Standard English of the BBC. Fair being fair, writers to the immediate north of McEwan, which is to say Scotland, writers such as Ian Rankin or Denise Mina, have evolved a plausible vernacular. Nevertheless, a writer needs to develop voice as well as other dramatic and structural tools, and one way of becoming aware of the vernacular voice is to read writers who speak in them.

"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning." Jay McInerney begins his heavily 1980s vernacular novel, Bright Lights, Big City. "How did you get here? It was your friend Tad Allagash. Your brain is rushing with Brazilian marching powder. You are talking to a girl with a shaved head. You want to meet the kind of girl who isn't going to be here. You want to read the kind of fiction this isn't. You give the girl some powder. She still doesn't want you. Things were fine once. Then you got married.

"Monday arrives on schedule. You are late for work. You buy the Post and read the Coma Baby story. Are you the Coma Baby? Of course you are. It's just a fucking metaphor. You reach the lobby of the famous New York magazine for which you work, take the elevator to the Department of Factual Verification and say hi to Megan. You hope your boss Ms Clara Tillinghast aka the Clinger doesn't want the French piece as they'll find out you lied about your fluency in your resume. You want to be a writer, not a fact-checker."


Hint: As the trope of an actor preparing for a role must increasingly conflate with a writer looking for voice in which to cast, then present a story, so must the writer consider how the work will sound over all. One way to find out is to read the work aloud until there are no moments of stumble.

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